International Women’s Day 2022
Our industry is one of people. Each step of the process is overseen by a dedicated workforce equally split between women and men. In honour of this year’s International Women’s Day, I had a chat with some of the incredible ladies that keep Cheaney Shoes going.
When you visit one of our retail stores, the experience and service that you receive are in no small part down to the staff that run them: ‘we are essentially front of house – we represent the brand,’ says Ellie, manager of our newest shop in Marylebone. After studying fashion design, she found herself working for Cheaney and moved up the ranks to management.
‘As a manager, I feel it’s your responsibility to train your staff as much as you possibly can – that way, you will have full confidence in your team.’ It is through this confidence that Ellie and her staff can deliver the incredibly high level of customer service that she expects; when you’re investing in great shoes, the quality of the service has to equal the quality of the product.
Keeping a tidy stockroom is one of many responsibilities that a manager has, which comes with its own challenges, as Ellie explains: ‘carrying huge deliveries of size 12 welted boots is not an easy feat when you’re trying to pull stock up and down the stairs. Trust me, when you’re five-foot-nothing, it’s a pain.’
A large amount of the training in our retail sector is focussed on product knowledge, something that Marta, the manager of our flagship shop on Jermyn Street, holds in the highest regard. ‘Not only theoretical, but practical knowledge of the product’ is often one of the most important facets of any store manager, as being an ambassador of the brand is vital to ensure good relationships with our customers. She tells me ‘the single most rewarding aspect is the interaction with people,’ something that is only achievable through brilliant service
The Cheaney Women’s Collection is relatively new, in the grand scheme of things. ‘I remember launching the first women’s brogues,’ Marta tells me, having been with the company since 2012, ‘there were only two models available at the time – since then, we have launched over 50 different styles and the response has been fantastic.’
The success of the Cheaney Women’s Collection has been galvanising in an industry that, up until fairly recently in its history, has catered largely towards men.
‘There’s something special about buying from an English brand. As a woman, there aren’t many opportunities to purchase something that will last,’ says Lucy, manager of our store in Coal Drops Yard near King’s Cross. With a degree in footwear design and a passion for sustainability, she has loved seeing the development of the women’s styles and hopes that it can change everyone’s attitudes towards making informed decisions, or as she puts it, ‘buying high quality timeless pieces and taking care of them to last.’
Virna, manager of the Bow Lane store, echoes this sentiment: ‘we girls finally have a chance to wear Goodyear Welted shoes, which provide comfort, support and durability.’
Unlike the other stores mentioned in this blog, Virna’s clientele is almost entirely male. ‘I can see things with a different perspective, and advise them from a female point of view,’ she tells me, ‘the only challenge is that I can’t try on men’s shoes!’
‘A career in retail can be tough. It takes patience, diligence and a lot of caffeine.’
As the popularity of the women’s collection continues to grow, it is paramount that the company grows with it. ‘I think it’s extremely important to have diversity across the company,’ Lucy rightly says, ‘we should reflect something that every customer can relate to, including inviting a women’s perspective.’
‘In an ideal world,’ Marta adds, ‘it shouldn’t matter whether there’s a woman or a man representing the brand.’
Retail is ultimately the face of the company. Every one of our managers and their respective teams are there to offer their knowledge and passion for the brand, but they can only do so if they believe in the product. By continuing to develop the ladies’ collection and embrace inclusivity in management, we’re not simply making women’s shoes as good as men’s – we’re making good shoes for everyone.
When you look at a pair of shoes, whether it’s in our shops or online, you are looking at over a hundred different operations by many sets of hands. A good chunk of those operations are done in the ‘closing room’ in our factory in Desborough, a hugely varied and skilled room of machinists. Unlike the retail world, this room is of particular interest today as it is staffed almost entirely by women.
‘This is in no way meant as a discredit to anyone else here, but I’ve been saying for 20 years that the closing room is the most skilled room in the factory.’
Alex Bateman, our production director, hadn’t truly appreciated the sheer complexity of what goes on in the closing room until he tried it himself when he was training. This is the room where, after the leather pieces have been cut, the shoe is sewn together and it starts to take shape. Processes like brogueing, gimping and spaced stitching are created; eyelets are punched; overlapping leather pieces are skived, and the shoe starts to become more than the sum of its parts.
The lady in charge of this incredible place is Deanna Benbow, who has been there for fifteen years. With a team of just under thirty people, Deanna makes sure that the room runs smoothly: ‘There are anywhere between 2,000 to 2,500 pairs in the room at any one time, so I have to make sure we do the right work in the right order.’
She tells me there are dozens of different processes done in the closing room, and every single one is important. The primary reason for this is that everything that they do is on show – there are no hiding places.
What makes this even more impressive is that everything is done by eye. Next time you’re in one of our shops, have a look at a brogue, like the Arthur model. The long, curved lines, the brogue pattern, the stitching that runs alongside – they have been done without guides. The consistent spacing between the stitched lines has been achieved without the use of anything other than a keen eye, a steady hand, and a hell of a lot of practice.
Deanna tells me that it is the closing itself, the stitching together of the separate pieces of leather, is the process that takes the most time to master; considering there are sixteen separate pieces in one pair of brogues and no straight lines, the difficulty becomes apparent. Any mistakes at this point are very difficult to fix, so everything has to be right.
Walking through the closing room, seeing all the women hard at work, always makes me think that if I’d concentrated that much in school I would have been a genius. I find it interesting that it is still such a female-dominant room.
When shoemakers first started cropping up in Northamptonshire in the 1800s, it was a cottage industry staffed by families. Traditionally, the women were proficient seamstresses and were therefore suited to the work involving sewing, whereas the men were tasked with the heavier machinery-based jobs.
Deanna and Alex tell me this is by no means a conscious decision today. Women diversify all areas of the factory, but the closing room is still mostly female.
Post-covid, Deanna’s main challenge now is training people to be skilled in multiple processes in the closing room. With staffing a little lower than before, it is vital to make sure that the operatives are multifaceted – this goes for new starters and veterans alike.
With the factory becoming busier again, Cheaney are delighted to be able to offer new jobs to applicants. With a dedicated training programme and a craft spanning centuries, you are always welcome to get in touch if what we’ve been talking about appeals to you.
From the meticulous attention to detail and skill in the closing room to the faces of the brand in our retail shops, you will find talented women forming the backbone of this company across all areas. Simply put, Joseph Cheaney & Sons would not exist without our incredible female workforce, and they deserve to be celebrated every day of the year.