Stone Church, aptly named as the rock upon which Church’s was founded, was born in 1675 and trained as a cordwainer or master shoemaker. His skills were passed down to his great-grandson Thomas who openened a small factory with his sons and his wife Eliza in Northampton, on 1st May 1873, at 30 Maple Street. Northampton is a town not far from London with a history steeped in shoemaking dating back to Cromwellian times.
In the space of a few years, Church’s was tranformed from a craft workshop into a benchmark firm for high-quality footwear, both locally and for the most demanding shoe shops in London and elsewhere in Europe.
By the early 1880s the business was expanding so rapidly that William Church had to travel the country to keep up with new orders. As his special product, William had the “Adaptable” shoe, which in stark contrast to the “straight” shoes then available - which did not differentiate between left and right feet - was available in 6 widths in every style and material and in half sizes too. This shoe won the Gold Medal at the latest Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1881.
Church’s began to explore potential markets abroad later on the 1890s, beginning by despatching a representative to the Union of South Africa in 1897 and others to Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was not until 1907 that William first found buyers in America and Canada for Church’s shoes but those foundations have been built on most firmly since.
1921 saw the first Church’s shop open, in London. In the same year, the multi-fitting “Archmoulded” shoes for l adies was introduced, in response to a much-changed society in which both women and fashion were becoming prominent.
In 1929 the first shop abroad was opened in New York’s Madison Avenue. That store experienced the rigours of the Depression but survived and flourishes to the present day.
Between the 2 wars Church’s became actively involved in the development of the footwear industry as a whole and so it remains. In 1919 the British Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association was created with Church’s as a founder-member and through this partnership the Northampton Technical College was established in 1925.
During the Second World War, Church’s centred production on footwear for the armed services.
The early, postwar years were difficult economically. The society was undergoing a great evolution and so was Church’s. Inside the Company, a day nursery for employees’ children was provided, an Industrial Welfare Officer appointed and a contributory staff pension scheme made available. A new range of women’s shoes was launched with the decision of withdrawing from youth’s and children’s footwear.
In the early 50s, Church’s decided to enter domestic retail more fully via concessions in Austin Reed and purchasing three other manufacturers and retailers, Jones, Crashaw and James Allan. In 1957 a new factory was inaugurated in Northampton, St. James Road, which is still today the Company worldwide headquarters. Church’s international expansion continued apace with new branches in America, Canada, Italy, Japan and Hong Kong.
The visit of HRH the Queen Elizabeth II in 1965, together with the prestigious Queen’s Award for exports, put the official seal of recognition on Church’s status as a leading international brand.
In 1999, Church’s were taken over by Prada Holding N.V., the Dutch Company at the head of the international Group, one of the world leader in luxury design. The takeover took place with the support of the Church family and with the declared desire to optimise the brand’s business opportunities while fully respecting its English identity. The main strategic guidelines focus on the rationalisation of the industrial production criteria and the introduction of a marketing-oriented approach to planning collections and new products. This has made it possible to further expand the manufacturing capacity and develop collections in which traditional lines are found alongside more modern and seasonal styles.
The policy of brand expansion has involved the retail channel, leading to the opening of new Church’s shops in the most important international capitals. In chronological order, new shops have been opened in Milan (Galleria Vittorio Emanuele) in 2001, in Paris (Rue St. Honoré), Rome (via Condotti) and St. Moritz (Palace Arcade) in 2002, New York (Madison Avenue) in 2003.
Starting from 2008, a new development strategy foresees a strong retail expansion at an international level with new openings such as Venice, Bologna, Turin, London White City and Lady Bond, Leeds, Edinburgh, Gèneve, Madrid, Paris Printemps, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Now as in the past, it takes up to eight weeks to produce a pair of Church’s shoes, each undergoing over 250 detailed manual operations before it leaves the factory.
100% of Church’s men’s welted shoes are manufactured in Northampton. The Goodyear construction, that has given English footwear its worldwide fame, has proved to be both complex and reliable. Instead of being stitched directly together, the sole and upper are first stitched on to a “welt”, a strip of hand-cut leather, which is then in turn stitched on to the bottom of the shoes in the early stages of manufacture. This construction means that the sole can be easily detached from the bottom of the shoe in the case of a repair and be resoled for a second life.
All the production is made inside the factory by specialised artisans and is hand-made.
The production starts with the selection of the leather and with the hand-cuts of it using a pattern into the required shape to make the shoe. At this stage the leather is checked for flaws and matched into pairs.
Following the pattern, perforating is carried out to create the brogued effect (if required for the style) and the upper components are joined together. This process is called Closing: the vamps and other parts are sewn together, a lining is joined to the upper, stiffeners and toe-caps are inserted to give the shape and protection to the toes and the quarters. The insole is attached to the last (usually by means of small tacks, later removed). The completed upper is then placed over the last in a forward and downward movement aided by the lasting machine.
Once lasted the upper has to be lasted on the outside and inside of the shoe. This is created by pulling the leather in and stapling to the prime rib with copper staples. The leather welt is sewn through the edge of the leather upper and the prime rib. Different welt thickness can be used depending on the style of the shoe. A metal shank is then glued to the base of the insole to give the shoe strength and prevent the heel arch from collapsing. A cork filler is then applied to the base of the shoe which will provide the wearer with additional comfort.
The leather sole is cemented (glued) to the bottom of the shoe, attached under great pressure prior to sole stitching. The excess leather around the edge of the sole is then removed. The shoe is stitched together through the sole and welt. The edge of the sole is trimmed for a smooth and clean surface, then coloured, decorated, polished and stamped.
Final stage is called finishing and polishing: the shoe has to be cleaned, dressed (applying cream&polish suitable to each leather), laced, checked by an experienced passer and then packed for sale.