THIS SHOEMAKING FATHER HAS IT ALL WORKED OUT
Lisa Williams meets Kevin Rowley of the Little Shoemaker
Meet the man behind kids' shoe label The Little Shoemaker
For some reason, ‘cottage industry’ doesn’t quite cover it.
Cottage industry implies a product which is quaint. Parochial, even. Perhaps hand-woven baskets to sell to passers-by, or soaps for the counter of the local farm shop.
While Kevin Rowley’s business The Little Shoemaker is by definition a cottage industry: the workshop where he makes his children’s leather shoes doubles up as his front room - and homelife and worklife are very much intertwined – but the product is anything but. His kids’ shoes are leather brogues, sandals and moccasins in punchy neons, metallics and classic shades. Some wouldn’t look out of place on the pages of ID, others are fit for Prince George.
In fact, one of his first major orders was for Fortnum & Mason, and his designs have caught the eye of Smallish, the Early Hour and Elle. It helps that his two daughters, Cocono (4), and Momoko (6), are more photogenic than any kidswear brand rep, and that – as both a trained artist and cobbler – he has the creative vision and the means to carry it out.
He invited us to his two-bedroom flat in Brighton to see how he works, to meet his adorable family, and to hear all about how The Little Shoemaker came about…
All photos by Michael Newington Gray
WHAT MADE YOU SET UP THE LITTLE SHOEMAKER?
When my first daughter was born, I spent a large sum of money on a pair of shoes by a French brand for her. They were made in China and, while I have no problem with that - it’s part of the market - I just had a problem with paying £150 for them to have been made on the other side of the world. I thought there was a gap in the market for something made here, by hand. I started messing around making a couple of samples. I bought a pair of old lasts on eBay and I just made them. It surprised me how nicely they turned out, so I decided then to see if it could develop into a business.
HOW DID IT PROGRESS FROM THERE?
A couple of friends asked if I could make them some shoes for their children, then a couple more friends. Some friends approached a few places for me, so we got a few orders at some small places, then we got approached by Fortnum & Masons. It was a rabbit-in-the-headlights scenario: I had to turn 160 pairs around in three months, and it was a logistical conundrum, I didn’t know whether I could make that many by hand or whether I could have to farm out to a factory and lose a bit of integrity, but I managed somehow. I just followed the same routine, a day of pattern cutting, day of sewing, then building the shoe, it just came together. My production is still all by hand.
WHAT DID YOUR FRONT ROOM LOOK LIKE BEFORE YOU STARTED MAKING SHOES?
Before I was a shoemaker I was an artist so it was exactly the same.
YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE LUCKY TO HAVE THEIR OWN IN-HOUSE SHOEMAKER…
One of the terrible things I have to confess is I’m forever behind making shoes for my own children.
WHO IS YOUR CUSTOMER?
I’m selling to idiots like myself who walk down Marylebone High Street spending ridiculous amounts on something which is going to be outgrown in three months because it’s your child and you want him or her to look cool. My shoes are for likeminded people to a certain extent. It always seems to be people from a slightly creative background, or fed up of run-of-the-mill stuff.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU CREATIVELY?
I’m the youngest of five children and, when your mum’s trying to do dinner for five children and dad’s at work, the easiest way to keep the children quiet for a couple of hours is to put them in front of the TV. So I’ve grown up with that cheesy 70s pop culture: music, TV, trashy magazines. It shows itself in my art and in the shoes as well.
HOW DOES YOUR FAMILY HELP?
My partner is in charge of packaging. We can do our own unique packaging on small runs of shoes, so there’s an option for some business customers to match tissue paper and box lids to their colours.
The girls help too. They pass me nails, pick my nails up. When I first started I was a bit worried about having nails all over the floor, but the girls are so good about it. I was worried about leaving scalpels out, but children are smarter than you think, and we’ve had no accidents. Not at all.
DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO DO SOMETHING CREATIVE?
My dad was a coal miner and my mum was a postwoman. I just felt I needed to do something different. The irony is that if the coalmine, or the pit as I should call it, had still been open when I left school, I would have been down it, no question. A strange irony is that Margaret Thatcher helped my situation in one way and broke my heart in another, because she killed communities around South Yorkshire, where I’m from.
When I left school I worked for about five years with a shoemaker who made orthopaedic shoes, and when he died I didn’t know what to do. I always fancied art, but I didn’t know a lot about it. I did a couple of evening classes to see if I felt comfortable, then I quit everything I was doing to do a foundation course, and it developed from there. I then applied to Brighton University to do fine art and printmaking after a couple of years and got in straight away.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
When I finished my degree I moved to London to do an MA. I did some lecturing work at Brighton, then moved here and commuted back to London for my job as a cobbler, doing high-end alterations and working with bespoke shoemakers, customising stuff for people with interesting feet and disabilities. Quitting my job in London I lost £400 a week, which is a lot of money to walk away from, but I was dead.
DOES YOUR BUSINESS ALLOW YOU TO SPEND MORE TIME WITH YOUR FAMILY?
Yes, because when I was in London, I was so busy. I would be on the train at 5am to get to the shop at 7am. I would sometimes leave at 8pm, getting home at 9pm. It’s been nice now, having a few days off in the week, because I see the girls more and, even when I’m working at the cobbler’s and getting home at 6pm, I can have dinner with my family and have a few hours with them every night.
HOW MUCH INVESTMENT DID YOU START WITH?
I probably put in £500 – £1000 to buy the leathers and lasts, but it’s almost like a hobby. I quit smoking, and I very seldom do other things because of the kids. I’ve channelled the money I would have spent on myself on this instead.
WHERE DO YOU SOURCE YOUR LEATHER FROM?
When I first started I was buying it from anywhere, then I realised if I’m buying leather for people’s children I need to be on the ball making sure that leather is traceable. With children you have to be careful of how much chrome is in the leather, because it can be poisonous. A lot of people want vegetable tannin, but vegetable tannin still contains chrome. Luckily I’ve got a couple of sources in Northampton that I can jump between.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE YOU TO MAKE ONE PAIR OF SHOES?
If I were to sit down to make one pair I would make one per day which is not a lot, so I work in a pattern for ten pairs at once, with a day’s stitching and so on. If I’m cutting leather all day my fingers go all sore, if I stitch all day my eyes go wobbly. For a big job I’ll end up with plasters on the end of each finger. I am tempted to raise prices but it’s one of those things, I have to be realistic that I understand the time doesn’t reflect the effort but if I were to charge timewise no one would buy them. I try to make it competitive, I’m not H+M, but if you want handmade shoes, there is a price you’re going to pay.
WHAT IS THE ADVANTAGE OF HANDMADE SHOES?
There’s a memory there of someone who’s thought about every little nail that’s placed, who’s hit it there, who’s stretched it there. Cruikshank could do a history of the shoe to see where it’s been and where it’s come from.
WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP?
I like it developing as it’s developing. Obviously if the big companies come at me, I have to work out the route to achieve making large amounts without over-compromising. I’m still having to work as a cobbler too, but locally, and I have picked up a lot of equestrian clients because there aren’t many people who can repair proper riding boots. So as long as I can maintain a clientele for the shoes, I’m happy. I’m not greedy, and I don’t want to corner a market, as long as I can put a roof over my head and have some intellectual integrity, I’m quite happy. That being said, when my kids leave school I hope they choose accounting and not fine art.