In the grown-up, inky-blue space reserved for customer fittings in Joseph Cheaney & Sons’ new flagship store in London, hang the portraits of the founders. It’s no mere space filler. The canvasses are here for a reason. Perhaps to keep watch, or maybe just serve reminder; a clear sign of the shoemakers’ desire to give heritage a leading role as it bids to write new chapters in a history spanning over a hundred and twenty years.
A spot on London’s Jermyn Street is in every sense an arrival for a brand that has traditionally cut a more muted figure. Cheaney & Sons may now keep company with some of Britain’s most reputed tailors and craftsmen, but amongst all the great Northamptonshire-based shoemakers, it has historically maintained a low profile. For much of the twentieth century, the family name took a backseat in the business, reduced to a supporting role as the company produced shoes for more famous paymasters - a process formalized in the 1960’s when it was sold to Church & Company.
Back in Northamptonshire, though, little seemed to change. At the original factory in Desborough, unmoved from the site first adopted in 1896, business as usual. Proud advocates of the Made in England message, Cheaney’s expert craftsmen and women continued to make shoes the old-fashioned way - the entire process from first cut to final polish all achieved within a single building. Just one difference: the shoes would emerge from the premises wearing the more illustrious labels of Church’s and Prada.
An old photo of the Desborough factory
Then, in 2009, the family name would have its moment once more. Two cousins, Jonathan and William Church, themselves fifth-generation members of a different shoemaking dynasty, saw the potential of a standalone business. They bought out the Cheaney name and have since made good on their independence. They’ve taken the brand into new markets including China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan. Closer to home, meanwhile, they’ve set up a series of standalone shops in London.
The Jermyn Street flagship is the fifth in the capital. The design conceived by Checkland Kindleysides alludes heavily to the original factory setting. Towards the front, the white-painted brickwork, paneled ceiling, and metal-framed screens all take their cues from similar features at the Desborough site. At the center stands a 1:100 scale model of the factory itself and an exploded and layed display of the shoemaking process. At the back, under the gaze of those portraits, are traditional tools, leather samples, and glass-case displays, all neatly accompanied by written descriptions weaving all of these elements into a more comprehensive story of Cheaney craft.
Exploded and layered display of the shoe making process
It’s easy to be cynical. This hawking of heritage and pedestalling of the founders has all the trappings of cliché. But the execution of Cheaney & Sons new flagship is sufficiently sure-footed to avoid such pitfalls. Not least because the designers have managed to integrate cues from the past into a contemporary setting that belongs firmly in the here and now. Theirs is a design that nods to the past without keeling over into dusky pastiche.
Original shoe lasts line the back of the back of the store
More tellingly, this is a heritage story with substance. The impressive bloodline of expertise that stands at its center is one that runs deep. To this day, many of the 140 craftsmen and women based at the Northamptonshire factory are third or even fourth-generation shoemakers, themselves with long-held family ties to the founders who first set up shop so many years ago. Which is precisely why we’re so flattered to see our Anglepoise Type75™ chosen to light up the window and interior displays. The shoe fits. What’s not to like about a traditional brand, with a lifelong dedication to making things properly?
Top image: (left) Joseph Cheaney, painted by his daughter the year he founded the company, 1886, (right) Arthur Cheaney, son of Joseph, who joined the company in 1890 as Warehouse Assistant
Words: Tom Tytherleigh