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Tim Little: “I never want Grenson to be a museum”

Tim Little: “I never want Grenson to be a museum”

Tim Little fell in love with footwear as a child in the Co-op in Long Eaton. When his mum took him to buy new school shoes, he’d make the assistant fetch almost every pair in the shop so he could try them on, unwilling to make a choice until he’d found the perfect style. “Not too pointy, not too round,” he says. A few decades later, that passion and perfectionism finds an outlet in his role as owner and creative director of Grenson, the 152-year-old British shoemaker.

His route there was circuitous. He started as an ad man, including five years running advertising for adidas, which only sharpened his passion for shoes. After a decade, he quit to launch his own, eponymous brand, which he still runs from a small shop in Chelsea that’s home to his office and Grenson’s showroom.

In the early 00s, after working with what was then a family-owned business facing imminent closure, he was offered the chance to buy Grenson. He took it and, over the next few years, worked to marry the brand’s expertise to newer, younger designs. Many of its shoes are still made in the brand’s Northampton factory, which has operated from the same site, and used the same techniques, since 1895. Each pair takes around three weeks to craft, much of it by hand, with more than 200 different operations. The most important is still Goodyear-welting, which makes for resilient shoes that can last for decades.

With Little at the helm, Grenson has grown and morphed, debuting sneaker collections alongside its traditional shoes. He’s also been responsible for innovations like the Triple Welt, a chunkier, hardier shoe that can tackle any weather. We sat down with Tim at HQ to talk authenticity, innovation and his inspirations.

Grenson's founder, William Green, keeps an eye on the shoes in the brand's showroom

One of the best things about Grenson is the balance of tradition and modernity. How do you strike that?

I never want us to be like a museum of shoes. We see ourselves as a shoe company and we see our heritage and our soul in the factory. We take the threads of what we think our heritage is – quality shoemaking, fit, all those kind of things – then we say, "Let’s do a really good sneaker and bring our principles into sneakers." The same leather that we use in a beautiful, hand-polished city shoe, but put it on a sneaker sole. Our best-selling sneaker, for example, is the Sneaker One that’s brown, handpainted, and the upper is exactly the same as a Goodyear-welted upper. So it’s really important to us to stay relevant.

Customers who bought a pair of brogues from you trust in the brand enough that they’ll try something unexpected, like a pair of sneakers. Do you feel a sense of responsibility?

Absolutely. You don’t want to let them down. I don’t want somebody to buy a pair of shoes and think, "They’re a bit wacky, but it’s Grenson." Then they go down the pub and everybody laughs at them. I want their mates to go: "Wow, they look amazing." They should know that they can buy things from us and can trust them to be right. As well as trust in quality, that they’ll last, that if anything were to go wrong we’d look after them.

Was there any pushback from the factory when you wanted to look at the casual side of things?

When I first came to Grenson, I was walking through the factory and it was really on its knees. One of the workers, who’d been there for 40 years, he stopped me and he said, “All the shoes we’re making, we don’t see people wearing them in the street. So we can see what’s wrong. We walk down the high street and everybody is wearing something different. They’re not all wearing a black toecap Oxford.” So they get it and they enjoy the creativity of it.

A huge music fan, Tim's office walls are decorated with Terry Cryer's photographs of seminal jazz and blues musicians

What shoes were the most important to you growing up?

My favourite sneakers were always adidas Gazelles. Then when I was a teenager I was a big football fan in Derby and totally got into Doc Martens. I remember those being really important, much more important than clothes. Then my first pair of black work shoes, I spent a lot more money than my friends would do on a pair of English-made shoes. I liked the idea that you could buy them and still have them in five years time. The thing I love about shoes – it’s the same with denim – the more you wear them the better they get. With a really decent pair of shoes you feel like you’ve put your money in and it’s not gone anywhere. You can polish them and make them better. With a cheap suede sneaker, you can’t make it better. Once they get knackered, they’re knackered.

With shoes you can tell it’s improving, you can see on someone’s feet that this is something they’ve cared for.

A suit will get worse. However good it is, it will still get worse over time. If you buy a shoe and somebody else buys a pair on the same day, they’ll look the same. If you look at them after two years, yours will look different because you might have used a darker polish, you might have used no polish, you might have scuffed them a bit on the toe, you might have crushed the back, your foot might have stretched them. So they become more and more personal and after a few years, that shoe is completely unique.


Tim holds an original, 1940s Grenson which he tracked down on eBay. His designs are authentic to the brand's history, even as they chart its future

And they can help define your style.

Absolutely. All the streetwear looks over the year have always had a shoe attached to them. The mods, the skinheads, they always had a shoe that was their kind of shoe. It definitely anchors the aesthetic.

Now that trainers are so ubiquitous, do you think we'll suddenly see everyone switch in black Oxfords?

The one thing that’s absolutely guaranteed is that wherever there’s a big trend, it’s always going to come back. But the thing about the pendulum, it doesn’t come back as far as it had done. Most men under 50 don’t have two wardrobes anymore – one for work, one for the weekend. I think that will never go back. So I think sneakers are totally here to stay. The comfort factor’s really important. But the pendulum will come back, and I think there’ll start to be a real hybrid. All the benefits of a sneaker – the comfort, the lightness – but then smartness and sharpness. You see that a little bit what some of the leather sneakers, even our Sneaker One, but that might go even further. So you bring some of the comfort of a sneaker and the casual feel of it, but it’s still smart and looks high quality.

Photography: Angus Williams