Admittedly the British shoemaking industry is not quite the far reaching force it once was but in a beautiful way it has come full circle. With the backlash against the over saturation of the high street in recents years and with only a handful of English shoe factories now remaining (there were 1,871 shoemakers in Northampton alone in 1841), the old pre-industrial way of lasting and burnishing a pair of shoes by hand is re-emerging and becoming ever more relevant to the client who demands individuality. Bespoke shoemaking is perhaps one of the most intriguing and ultimate forms of collaboration, an intimate partnership between artisan and customer. Nicholas Cooper's Stamp Shoes is one of the few remaining bastions of this handcrafted world. Thankfully, earlier this week the craftsmen introduced himself and his brand over email. We instantly fell head over well crafted heel and couldn't resist learning more.
Cooper is among the last of a generation of shoemakers who trained at the old footwear college in Wellingborough before they finally closed their doors in 2008. Learning from the hands of master craftsmen, he has since continued to perfect his skills within the heart of the historic and world renowned shoe industry of Northamptonshire. Last year, Stamp Shoes was launched offering a bespoke shoemaking experience inspired by Nicholas' collection of unique designs. While remaining true to the elegance of traditional Northampton styles, what is so special about Stamp is the combination of exquisite locally sourced leather and the use of a variety of vibrant and colourful surface techniques. The result is a collection that is an exploration within the bespoke market, a marriage of personalised service, comfort and luxury, all with an injection of personality. In addition to being made in Northampton, the collection is dedicated to its shoe making district with each of Cooper’s designs being named after a street within the old shoe quarter of Northampton, from Alcolmbe to Thenford. Here, we talk to the craftsman about his trade and the the beauty of bespoke shoes whilst offering a serving of studio porn thanks to images supplied by the man himself (I'm eager to visit him at his workshop though!)...
SS: What attracted you to the wonderful world of shoe making? Was there a catalyst for drawing you in to this world?
Nicholas Cooper: There was certainly a catalyst, I looked at what I rightly or wrongly saw as 'the job market' and I just couldn't make sense of it, how to progress within it, or even how to enter it. I wanted to do my own thing and find something that I thought would be absolutely thrilling. I've always been creative and it was pretty much a logical process of elimination – indoors verses outdoors and so on. Crucially I didn't know how good I would be at selling, but shoes just have that aura and desirability about them, much of the sales pitch is already done if you come up with a nice design ...And yes I like shoes, I love their elegance and the way in which they can speak so loudly about the person wearing them.
SS: How did you learn your craft? Could you talk us through your experiences at Wellingborough?
Nicholas Cooper: I didn't know whether I wanted to be a designer or a maker or both so I was very single minded about doing a course in making because I didn't like the idea of designing shoes without understanding the technical limitations. Literally we would go in, the five of us, draw a doodle of a shoe, and I really do mean a doodle, make the pattern by hand, and construct the shoe. I learned both modern and traditional techniques and eventually combined the two in my own way. Some days I would pause and think to myself, “this is fantastic”. College was one of those few moments in life where I experienced that perfect sense of time.
SS: What drove you to launch Stamp? What does Stamp mean to you?
Nicholas Cooper: Naturally, once I became addicted I had to keep making shoes and I wanted to create something that epitomised the journey that I had undertaken, that is, one of individuality and freedom. Foremost in my mind the name Stamp alludes to 'putting your foot down', being assertive and refusing to conform. From the beginning I wanted to create a collection and a brand that was unique and different to what people are used to seeing. But the idea was not just to create a brand that stood out in the market place but to make shoes that would become the centre piece of a man's outfit. Fundamentally I change my outfit by changing my shoes and I didn't think that was a bad concept commercially.
SS: Could you talk us through the collection, the inspiration behind it and a few of the processes that combine to make it?
Nicholas Cooper: I really liked the classic designs that have been made locally for so many years but I also wanted to bring them in to the future if that doesn't sound like a cliché. More than anything I wanted to get some colour onto men's shoes. If I'd launched earlier it might have been a bit more of a revolution because loads of people are now waking up to the idea of making men's shoes in brighter colours. I have experimented with everything from digital printing to a range of colouring techniques using chemicals and dyes. There is still a long way to go and so much more to try, and I have many more ideas in waiting. The local street names of the boot and shoe quarter were used in homage to the beautiful world in which I inherited my skills. I really felt that the footwear heritage was so undervalued in Northampton and I was really keen to keep it alive and to promote it. There are little quirks behind each name, for example I called my caramel coloured Oxford shoe “Alcombe” because when you say the word it sounds most like you are eating and that shoe is by far the most edible looking. For the printed shoes I chose names that sounded more geometric or idiosyncratic like Ecton and Austin ...You get the picture (or maybe you don't?)
SS: There are a few surviving shoe companies in Northampton that are still hand making shoes of the best quality but how has the industry changed before your eyes?
Nicholas Cooper: I know of at least five famous name companies still manufacturing within their own premises in Northampton and nearly twenty different companies in total throughout the county. Most people that live here, in my experience, can only name a few local footwear brands, some times only one, followed by “are they still going?” Some companies don't really change all that much and that works for them, some change a lot. Tricker's have really impressed me. They seem to adapt quickly turning out brighter colours, wackier soles, and doing no end of collaborations. The don't seem afraid to go with the flow and mix things up a bit. I've witnessed two factory closures since I've been in Northampton but I think that most companies are able to adapt where they need to. They are all legends in their own right and I will be surprised if any more of them close. Increasingly people are demanding very personalised hand-crafted products and I think that more bespoke shoemakers are emerging like myself which is how the trade once was before industrialisation – a cottage industry.
SS: What excites you about the future of shoemaking?
Nicholas Cooper: The arrival of new techniques and ideas that haven't even been thought of yet.
SS: What is the most satisfying aspect of making shoes?
Nicholas Cooper: When I'm actually doing the making and I'm at the lasting phase, in my workshop, with some great tunes on the radio. It can be very meditative at times and deeply soothing, it makes me feel alive.
SS: Finally, how would you like to see Stamp evolve over the coming years?
Nicholas Cooper: As a reflection of my personality the Stamp brand is deliberately very
dynamic as opposed to simply operating as an independent shoemaker under my own name “Nicholas Cooper”. To some extent I make it up as I go along despite some people, who don't understand that people are different, insisting that this doesn't work as a strategy. Most probably I will be working on developing a factory hand-crafted or bench-made ready-to-wear collection at some point while also building up my bespoke portfolio a lot more.
My feet are left stamping for bespoke. If you too have been drawn in to Cooper's well crafted world, please do visit Stamp Shoes' full shoe gallery which showcases some of the unique designs that have come to characterise the brand.