Q&A with William Church

The co-owner of Joseph Cheaney & Sons on following in his family’s well-shod footsteps, and why the sneaker no longer reigns supreme. 

Interview: Lauren Bravo


From one family business to another… you’re a fifth generation member of the Church’s footwear dynasty – so how did you come to own Joseph Cheaney & Sons? 

Joseph Cheaney was a typical Victorian gentleman, an entrepreneur who set up his own shoemaking workshop in 1886 and was joined soon after by his two sons. The business was independently owned right up to the 1960s, when Joseph’s grandson made it his mission to secure the company’s future. He sold the business to Church’s, who ran it as its own brand until 1999, when Prada came along and took over the whole Church’s group. Then after a few years Prada decided to put Cheaney up for sale. My cousin and I had worked for a decade under Prada, and we thought: there’s a big opportunity here, to buy a heritage brand with a factory and – the real asset – 120 skilled craftspeople. So we left and in essence bought a factory in Northamptonshire that wasn’t making any money! It was scary for all of us, but we have been able to grow the brand bit by bit, and now we have 10 stores across the UK. 


Is Northamptonshire really the capital of fine shoemaking, or is that just a load of cobblers? 

It really is a centre of excellence for the best footwear the world has to offer. There are only eight or nine Northamptonshire manufacturers left in the county, all founded in the 1800s, and most of us still carry out the whole process from start to finish, all within our factories. We have photos that were taken in our factory in the year 1900. We’re really lucky to have such a rich shoemaking heritage behind us, because you can’t fabricate that – it comes with the business! And by the way, cobbling means repairing shoes; shoemaking is crafting them from scratch! 


Noted! Did footwear always hold a fascination for you, growing up? 

The family career advice was always: footwear is an option, but not an obligation. I actually trained as a chartered surveyor, and did that for a few years before the time felt right to move out of London. I thought, okay, there’s a job going in Northamptonshire for good behaviour… and I’ll be honest with you, for a year, it was the mother of all culture shocks. But then shoemaking gets under your skin and you’re in, you’re hooked. 


So do you know your way around a piece of leather and a needle? 

I certainly couldn’t make a pair from start to finish! But part of the whole Cheaney induction process involves walking around with your own pair, doing what you can – in my case, not particularly well – and then a professional machinist will take over and stitch the welt in with a big, heavy sewing machine. They make it look easy, but my god, it’s not. People have no idea what it’s like to make a pair of shoes. It takes around eight weeks and 200 different handtooled operations to make a pair of Cheaneys. When you take someone around the factory, there’s a wow factor and suddenly cost isn’t an issue for them anymore – they start to think: all that, for that price? It’s amazing value. But the challenge for us is that we can’t have every single shopper come and tour the factory, so we have to find other ways to tell that story, to convey that feeling of craft. The shoes are not cheap, but they cost what they cost for a reason. 


Why is the ‘Goodyear welt’ such a magic ingredient? 

What it means is that the sole is stitched to the bottom of the shoe – unlike 99.9 per cent of all footwear made in the world, where they just glue the sole on, and you can’t repair it later. But with Goodyear welted shoes, when you eventually wear through the sole, we can cut through the stitching, put the shoe back on the original wooden ‘last’ [mould] and rebuild it to the original specification. So if you invest in a decent pair of shoes, they will last you a long, long time. 


You offer a refurbishment service, and complimentary polishing instore. In the age of fast fashion, have we all got lazy when it comes to making sure our shoes go the distance? 

There are different types of customers. Some cherish their shoes and will polish them more than they need to, because it’s all about looking after their treasure. Then you have a few who have heard ‘these shoes last forever’, so they go out and batter them to death every day, through hell and high water, and after six months they come back to the store and say: “I’m not happy with these shoes.” There’s a balance to be struck! They are robust, but you’ve got to treat them with respect. It’s a bit like washing the car, I suppose. Some people will never do it, others are out there with a sponge every Sunday. 


Let’s talk style. Is there any shoe more enduring than a classic brogue? 

A brogue is a very typically British thing. Originally, so the legend goes, the signature holes in the broguing were open to the foot, so when you were clomping along the Scottish peat moors and your feet got wet, the water seeped in and drained out again. Now it’s just purely decoration, and you can do fun things with the design. A few years ago, we did something called the Buckshot Brogue, which looked as though a shotgun had been randomly shot at the leather. That fired the imagination. But there are infinite designs of shoe, and they all come and go in the cycles of fashion. When the big fashion houses turn their catwalks to classic, it disseminates through the whole fashion chain and there’s a pendulum swing back to formal. Actually, the top-selling style among all the Northampton shoe manufacturers is a plain capped Oxford; that’s the shoe we all make the most of. It’s pretty classic stuff. 


The pandemic made comfort king. Are you still fighting the legacy of sweatpants and Birkenstocks, or are we seeing a renaissance for formal footwear? 

I think what’s actually happening now is that you’re seeing older and older people wearing sneakers with a suit, and it doesn’t quite look right. They probably think ‘I’m cool’, but their 18-year-old child is saying: “God, if my dad’s wearing that, I am not.” So, then they’ll go formal, and the cycle keeps rolling. Sometimes fashion goes in our favour and we’ll ride that wave, but even during the other times, the sneaker times, we’ve still got this amazingly stable foundation to our customer base. If you’re selling something that’s really well made, which stands for quality, there will always be a market for it. 


What steps are you taking to tread a little more lightly on the planet? 

We source our raw materials from as near to home as possible. We predominantly use calf leather, and unfortunately there’s nobody left in the UK tanning calf leather, so it comes from France, Italy, Germany and Spain, and we have to be sure that we’re buying from responsible sources. Thankfully the EU has very stringent regulations for tanning leather, in particular the effluence created in the process – you can’t just dump it in a river. Meanwhile in our Eco-Aware collections, the leather is sourced from Charles F Stead in Leeds, a tannery at the very forefront of sustainable leathers. The box is made from recycled cardboard and even the shoe bag is made from sustainable cotton in a natural finish. It’s all those little considerations, plus we’re making something that will last a long time. It’s all about buying less and buying better.


What about vegan alternatives? Would we ever see a pair of Cheaneys made from pineapple leather or mycelium fibre? 

We’ve tried it! But we’re used to working with top-grade fine calf leather, which gives the perfect finish and has the perfect qualities; it’s soft, it’s durable. At the moment, our observation – and I’m sure this will change as they evolve – is that when you use some of these other materials, the finish doesn’t look as premium. Then there are people out there making vegan footwear that’s just plastic, and now suddenly people are realising the implication. They’re substituting a natural material which in the end rots down to nothing quite quickly, for a synthetic that actually doesn’t degrade for maybe thousands of years. 


What makes Marylebone a perfect fit for a Joseph Cheaney & Sons store? 

It’s a proper village within London. We can get to know the locals, they get to know us, we love building that relationship. Personally, I think our neighbourhood around Marylebone Lane has a really nice feel to it. The curation of the tenants has been really well thought through and you have a great mix of businesses who all complement each other. I often meet people for lunch up the road at The Marylebone Hotel – it’s so nice to sit outside and watch the world go by. 


And when you’re watching the world go by, are you looking at people’s shoes? 

Always! You might find you’ve got someone who looks a bit scruffy but they’re wearing a really nice pair of shoes, and the shoes dress up the whole look – and sometimes you see people wearing the most amazing tailoring with a not-so-nice pair of shoes, and you think: come on, there’s a bit missing here! They always say, people judge you from the ground up. Your shoes are the opening point of the story.