• Shoes on display at Oliver Sweeney

Style

Q&A: Tim Cooper

Tim Cooper calls himself Oliver Sweeney’s ‘cobbler in chief’. He talks to the Journal about growing up in a family of shoemakers, moving to Marylebone, and finding inspiration in some pretty unlikely places

Interview: Clare Finney

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the word cobbler as “noun: a person whose job is mending shoes”. Tim Cooper, the tall, bearded man sitting across from me in Marylebone’s newest shoe shop, calls himself ‘cobbler in chief’. It seems plausible: his brogues, though pleasantly weathered, are in perfect condition, and the coffee cup he is delicately holding is reduced to a thimble in his large, powerful looking fingers.

Yet while Tim, whose father, grandfather and great grandfather all made and mended shoes for a living, has a long and proud history in the industry, the title of CEO would probably be more appropriate for his role at Oliver Sweeney today.

So why ‘cobbler in chief’? “Well, it sounds cool, doesn’t it?” he grins. “Chief executive officer is a little bit boring.” What about cordswainer, the technical term for shoe maker? “It doesn’t really trip off the tongue...” I admit defeat. It is a snappy title, and it’s fitting that the boss of Oliver Sweeney, a brand which prides itself on classic yet slightly quirky design, should boast something so idiosyncratic on his letterhead.

Established in 1989 by the eponymous founder, the company found its feet when an influential GQ editor stumbled across a pair of Oliver Sweeney chelsea boots, and made his appreciation known. The brand blossomed. “The anatomical last Oliver invented made the shoes incomparably comfortable,” Tim says admiringly. “Oliver came from a bespoke background, and felt the traditional last they made shoes on didn’t quite fit.”

He developed a new one, more snug and foot-friendly, with a gentle twist through its length simulating the natural shape of the limb. They still use Oliver’s last for every shoe they make. They maintain the unique approach to design that resists fashion’s transience, in favour of “style over trend”. “We want a contemporary product, but we also want it to endure,” Tim continues, looking fondly at his feet. “That shoes can last five, eight, even 10 years is the lovely thing about them.” 

Tim Cooper of Oliver Sweeney

Have you always worked with shoes?
Yes, I grew up in Leicester, a traditional shoe making area: my father, grandfather and great grandfather were all shoemakers, and I entered a shoe making business in France after university. At the time it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I fell in love with France—or rather, French girls—and I needed a job. My father knew somebody who worked for a French shoe company, so that was it.

What drew you to Oliver Sweeney?
It has a really strong brand. It has an interesting market position as affordable luxury, and it’s classic with a bit of a twist, which appeals to me. Oliver was such a pioneer: even before he set up on his own, he was always doing different things with traditional shoes.

What did you do with it?
We wanted it to be more contemporary. There is still an Englishness to it, but we have more brogues and casual shoes now as well as formalwear. We opened up a store internationally, and introduced a bigger range of accessories, outerwear and jackets too.

Where do you make everything?
Wherever the best factory for that particular product is based. A lot of accessories are English—the hats, the tweed jackets and so on—because the mills are so good. Most of the shoes are Portuguese or Italian, and most of the belts are Italian too, though the buckle took some finding: the only place we could get a solid reversible brass buckle that didn’t rattle was China. 

How involved are you in the design process?
Really involved. We have a great designer, Alex, but the two of us work together. We are visiting Japan soon to pick up inspiration for the new collection next year. Each season we try and choose a theme: the theme for this season just gone was food, so we went to Paris and had a look around food markets. This season is about furniture, after that it will be Japan.

So how did food and furniture find its way into your footwear?
It’s just to get some influence, it doesn’t mean we’re drawing shoes on chairs or making shoes out of kobi fish skin: it’s not that derivative. It’s to get new ideas flowing about colour and style and how shoes might look.  

How would you describe your personal style?
Really casual: cardigan, jeans and chinos, I’m not a suit guy. I love a good pair of jeans. We’re actually doing a collaboration with a jeans company this year.

Tell us more...
They are jeans makers in South Carolina, called Billium. They are a tiny company—only about eight strong—making vintage style jeans on famous Cone Mills looms, and they are fantastic: they are going to make the first Oliver Sweeney jeans.

What was the most important thing you learnt from watching your grandfather work?
I used to help my granddad in the factory on a Saturday when I was at school, so I learnt lots of finishing techniques. Most importantly, I got used to seeing the whole process, from materials through to the finished product. Now I really pay attention to detail, with a massive focus on quality of components and the way shoes are made.

What do you love most about men’s shoes?
I think it’s the enduring nature of the product. Men love things that age and get more beautiful as they age, I think, and they fall in love with our shoes. Our customers keep their shoes for ages, repairing and repairing them: we send them off to a tiny workshop in Suffolk that do full remakes, and they do a fine job.