Jeffrey-West boots are made for walking with a swagger. Josh Sims meets one half of the pair.
“Believe it or not,” says Guy West, one half of the men’s footwear design duo Jeffery-West, “at one factory the workers actually refused to make our shoes. I suppose it’s like any industry – when you’ve been doing something the same way for so long, and someone wants to do it differently, there’s resistance. ‘I’m not making that shoe with the weird pointy toe!’”
Thirty years on, however – Jeffery-West was established in 1987, delivering its first collection the following year – attitudes have mostly changed. And yet Jeffery-West – with its signature Victoriana meets Steampunk aesthetic, “with a touch of military in there and a lot of Glam – some Bowie and Roxy Music”, says West – remains on the periphery, not the choice, as West puts it, of men who care much what ‘GQ’ says they should be wearing this month.
“Most men don’t much care for what we do,” says West candidly, “so we’re still very much niche. We’re selling to men who appreciate the humour, irony or difference, who don’t want just another pair of brown brogues.”
The company might not be the best known – compared to the global brand giants that dominate much of men’s fashion now – but it can certainly lay claim to having, in its own quiet way, revolutionised English shoemaking. Many of the industry’s biggest makers have, post Jeffery-West, adopted a more style-driven position to cater for those growing numbers of generations to whom an interest in dressing is second nature. “And even with the factories who initially had reservations about working with us, well let’s just say that in time some of their own styles started to look rather like our best-sellers,” laughs West.
Perhaps some job or other in the shoe business was inevitable. West, the son of motel managers, and Mark Jeffery, whose father once owned a shoe factory, had known each other since they were 10, growing up together in Northampton – the epicentre of men’s Goodyear-welted shoemaking in the UK.
“Northampton’s only association with the fashion I was into as a teenager – the end of punk, the mod revival, the new wave coming through – was in its shoes, so I’d always wanted to work in the industry,” says West. “And with Mark’s background it was probably inevitable he would, though I think he perhaps regrets not going to work in the City or something – he’s very talented with numbers.”
That they would set up a company together when quite so young, however – both were barely into their 20s – was another thing. It was one reason why the factories they approached to make West’s designs at first blanched at the opportunity. But youth perhaps also gave them a readiness to try something new. “I was working for a shoe importer and could see that the Italians were more or less taking an English look and selling it back to us,” explains West. “And you could see that Northampton was pretty stuck in its ways. We still wanted to make use of all of its skills, but make the kind of thing we wanted to wear, something more flamboyant.”
The insistence on quality manufacturing was something of a risk in itself – the benefits of Goodyear-welting are better known today, but three decades ago was little understood or appreciated. “Of course, all the old guys who always wore Goodyear-welted shoes knew that they lasted, that they could be resoled, that they moulded to your feet and so on, but our first customers probably only understood that eventually by wearing them,” says West. “But we benefited from starting out at a point when people were also just getting interested in British-made things, and paying attention to the likes of provenance and authenticity, which is far more commonplace now.”
The initial knock-backs, and the gamble they were taking, didn’t deter West and Jeffery however. “We just wanted to still be in business in three months’ time,” says West of the scale of their early ambition. Growth, thankfully, came slowly but most surely, and was entirely self-funded. One of the footwear businesses West had worked for had gone bust, and so too had Jeffery’s parents’ business – so there was a natural resistance to borrowing.
“We were lucky in that we were young, still living at home, no families, so that helped, but we also had a sense that it was best to keep our heads down,” says West. “We didn’t want to go to the banks, especially at the kind of interest rates that were being offered then. But we’ve always thought that way. We have the shop in New York. But for us to take the business to the next stage would take an awful lot of money and I don’t think we have the appetite for it.”
West and Jeffery have, for example, thought about launching clothing – and the company has been approached many times with that very proposal too. “But we’re a small company. There’s only two of us, so it would mean big changes,” says West. “Clothing is really a very different business. Plenty of clothing brands launch shoes and then find out how hard it is. And I’m sure the opposite is true too. I think we’ll stick with shoes and all the usual leather accessories that go with it.”
In other words, having built a sizeable, reliable business, the duo don’t feel a need to rock the boat. It’s true that times are not easy right now: the company, like many others, is having to adapt to a new retail landscape that incorporates online sales and social media, while also coping with a rapacious rent and rate drive that has, for example, seen
the former double on their Piccadilly store, and the latter rise by 40 percent. “It’s worrying,” says West.
But the thinking is that Jeffery-West has a sufficiently loyal clientele that, as long as these customers come back and buy a pair every three years or so, the business is viable and sustainable. The brand even has its collectors now. “If 30 years ago you’d have told there would be men who collected shoes I’d have laughed,” says West. “It’s good to know that it’s our shoes they’re collecting though.”
Retail has, however, been important to the company’s success, in part in helping weather what at first seemed to be the style consumer’s wholesale switch over to wearing trainers – and with it the unrealistic expectations that all shoes should be as soft and as instantly comfortable as a favourite pair of Nikes – but also in fighting that ongoing resistance to difference. Having their own shops has allowed Jeffery-West to showcase the kind of shoes that West, as designer, has confidence there’s a market for, but which would be a hard sell to some store buyers.
“We did these particularly Victorian looking shoes with Cuban heels, for instance, and no buyer would touch them. But we believed in them and our shops gave them a place to go,” says West. We don’t necessarily fit into whatever fashion’s current line of thought is. Some people might be surprised that we’ve lasted this long.”
Fashion, is indeed, something West has always eschewed in favour of his own brand of dandyism. If Jeffery has typically stayed behind the scenes, West is there in a slimline trouser (which just tends to work best with a Jeffery-West shoe), some vintage tailoring, a dapper cravat or silk scarf.
“I grew up in a time, and a place, such that I didn’t know any of the fashion brand names. There was always a spirit of doing your own thing, of customisation. I remember buying this pair of plastic-soled Ravel shoes, and then painting the soles all different colours. That kind of thing was just what you did. Music and style went hand in hand and it was all dynamic,” he adds. “And I think that shaped our readiness to go into business. I don’t know if we were products of the Thatcherite era too, but we had this ‘can do’ attitude. If you wanted to launch a business, you just got on with it. So we did.”