Chay Cooper & Paul Sargent of Alfred Sargent
As I mentioned previously, I was fortunate enough to meet Chay Cooper, Alfred Sargent's Product Director, a few weeks ago at the MRket trade show here in New York City. Chay's knowledge and passion for shoes became readily apparent after only a few minutes of conversation. But I found his devotion to the British tradition of excellence in the craft to be just as impressive. Here, then, is the first part of an interview with one of Northampton's finest craftsman.
Let's go back to the beginning - how did you get started in the shoe industry?
I joined Alfred Sargent 22 years ago at the age of 17. To be honest, at the time I had no real interest other than making a few pounds in order to do the things teenagers like to do. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the local (sadly, now defunct) Footwear College for 3 years, one day a week. Here, I began to appreciate all the different areas that are involved in making Goodyear Welted footwear and the tremendous skill involved in each of them.
My renewed interest and growing passion for English-made shoes must have been noted by Paul Sargent, who took the basic education I had gathered from attending the local college and set about teaching me further. It is impossible to meet a man more passionate about making shoes than Paul - his enthusiasm never wavers and he continues to inspire the whole team at Alfred Sargent.
We are extremely fortunate to have quite a few people at Alfred Sargent who have spent their whole lives making shoes - their knowledge is astounding and I try to learn as much as I can from all of them as they each specialize in different areas.
Can you tell us a little bit about the different lines available from Alfred Sargent?
We have the Handgrade, Exclusive, and Country lines. In addition, we are also proud to have the opportunity to work with some fabulous brands - most recently and notably with J. Crew - to develop their private label collections.
AS Handgrade is an indulgence, a chance for the small team that work on these shoes to show what they can do. The line is a real team effort and incorporates methods from the early 1900's, which in some cases have been taught to the shoemakers by their Grandfathers. Without their input, these methods would have been forgotten in time.
Predominantly made to order, this allows individuals to select their own choice of Last shape, leathers, and sole, as well as personalization - such as your initials hand pinned in brass nails on the soles or your name inside the shoes. We hold trunk shoes for this range at such stores as Leffot, NYC and also accept private appointments at the factory - it is a small part of our business but thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding for all involved.
AS Exclusive was launched after the Handgrade line with the remit to become the best ready to wear English made shoes whilst being more affordable than the Handgrade line - some challenge!
From a technical and component perspective they are the best quality shoes available in their price bracket on the market, I have no doubt of that. But of course perception is a very personal and in some instances emotive thing so time will tell if those who choose to purchase them also believe so. Ultimately it is our clients opinion and not ours that matters so all we can try to do is use the very best materials available and hope that the quality speaks on our behalf.
The soles are oak bark tanned from England's only oak bark tanner and the sole waist is shaped a lot narrower than most ready to wear shoes producing an hour glass look. The heels are hand pinned and the shoe linings are cut from the same calf leather as the uppers. We stock a selection of these shoes as well as having some retailers who choose their own MTO colors. We don't offer single-pair MTO on this collection.
AS Country. Nearly all UK makers have a Country collection and certainly Alfred Sargent falls into this category, having gained a very good reputation over the years for producing country styles. Heavier in terms of both substance and styling, they are made to cope with more arduous wear than a dress shoe. And they certainly do - I recently had a gentleman contact me for a replacement pair after 13 years of wear! So they represent very good value which is something we insist upon for all of our collections.
Within the collection there are classic English country styles such as the Howard boot and the Hampstead shoe. I was also keen to introduce some styles that are more casual by design like the Lombard boot with its contrast edge and lacing.
More recently, there seems to have been a complete overhaul in the offerings available at Alfred Sargent. With the Exclusive and Handgrade lines, you seem to be targeting the upper-middle and higher tier of ready to wear - I'm thinking Crockett & Jones or Edward Green or Gaziano & Girling shoes. Is this by design and, if so, what led to the change?
I knew we were capable of making higher grade shoes than we had put our name to previously and I think most people want to show what they are capable of - we, as a company, are no different.
Paul Sargent allowed me to develop new lines and clients, thankfully, seem to like the new designs. We enjoy what we do and I believe that shows in the product.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process whereby a new model might be developed and created? Is there a committee aspect whereby new ideas are proposed regularly? Does the Sargent family still have a significant role in design/product development?
Yes, Paul is still very much involved. It normally starts with an idea I have which can be inspired by many different things. For instance, I read a lot of clothing websites, blogs, and forums - as I have very little dress sense personally! So I look for inspiration and some of these resources are great at putting clothing together. But when I look I often think, "That would look better with a different style of shoe like the Ramsay, our double monk shoe, or something similar . . ." Things like this - or even just a new leather, like in the case of the Radwell chukka boot - often start my thought process, then I discuss with our pattern makers and Paul and they normally come up with suggestions too. Collectively, we make a decision, then a paper pattern is made along with an initial trial. I also often send pictures to a few close friends, whose opinions I value highly, to hear their thoughts before releasing it.
To Be Continued . . .