by Guy Sangster Adams
How it all began...
Born and bred in Northampton, the historical centre of the British shoemaking and leather industries, childhood friends Mark Jeffery and Guy West were surrounded by tradition and history from the word go, even more so for Mark as his father ran the family owned shoe factory in the town. Perhaps not a surprise therefore that they would go on to build an international footwear brand, but the fact that they began their first business as sixteen year olds - selling shoes on various markets - shows remarkable prescience and motivation. At first, as Guy explains, “Mark and I would buy rejects and ends of lines from factories around Northampton, including his dad's, and offer them as they were or customise them to sell them on.”
They quickly moved on to having their own designs made up, but as Guy says, “because we were so young nobody would take us seriously.” They had to approach a friend who worked as leather buyer in a local shoe factory to source and purchase the leather for them. In a shed at the hotel which West’s parents ran, the duo installed a clicking bench and “paid a chap who would finish the work at a shoe factory” says West, “and then he would come over to us in the evening and he’d hand cut all the patterns and do all the clicking on our shoes.” They would then take the patterns to a closing room in Northampton - 'closing' as West explains - “is when you stitch all the uppers together” - before taking the uppers to a factory to be made up into finished shoes, which they would then take back to West’s parent’s hotel to pack into boxes and cartons.
Already set far for a career in footwear, the sudden death of Mark's father and subsequent loss of the factory, sadly ruled out Mark being able to take over the family firm, which motivated the two friends to take their fledgling business to another level in 1987 with the founding of Jeffery~West. Their close and early involvement in every stage of the manufacturing process during the last four years - an apprenticeship by default - stood them in very good stead. Their industriousness continued as they created a twelve-piece Jeffery~West sample range and approached prospective retailers before approaching a potential bank manager who, as West says, “sympathetically said that he would give us a try." He explains further that because he and Mark were only in their early twenties, it was for the bank “quite a gamble because at the time there was absolutely nobody in the industry as young as us.”
Why are we different?
From the outset their intention was that Jeffery~West shoes would be imbued with all the craftsmanship, quality, and pedigree available in having shoes manufactured by Northampton factories with hundreds of years of experience. Their designs saw welt cutting edge styles, overt elegance, fulsome flamboyance, and innovative new lasts. They utilised an array of leathers and colours - imagination all too often lacking in men’s shoes, and particularly in shoes that are so well made (they do not go to pieces if you look at them twice!) There are those that have criticised Jeffery~West for seeming to play fast and loose with tradition, as West says, “You do get people who turn their nose up at us a bit because we’re making shoes in Northampton but they’re not the traditional toe-cap Oxford, or classic Brogue, but why on earth would we want to try to be Barkers, Trickers, or Church’s, they’re already doing it; if you want a classic English shoe, I wouldn’t hesitate to say go and buy one from one of them, whereas if you come to us you’re buying that manufacturing history but it’s with our handwriting, our twist, our slant on it.”
Regency dandies, fin de siècle decadence, twentieth century subculture, pop culture, literary and filmic references and a whole swath of swashbucklers, wits, and hell raisers both influence and inspire the Jeffery~West designs and give their names to styles and lasts including Keith Richards, Steve Marriot, Terence Stamp, Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole, Brian Jones, Jarvis Cocker, Bryan Ferry, Roger Moore, Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Bram Stoker, Aleister Crowley, Flashman from George Macdonald Fraser’s books, Beau Brummell, and Francis Dashwood (later the 5th Baron le Despenser; founder of the most infamous of clubs The Hellfire Club in the eighteenth century). Of the latter West says, “he was an aristocrat, a man of influence, but also the rogue of his day.” Jeffery~West have many heroes of past and present that influence their unusual and rebellious designs.
To show the cloven hoof is, as the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable states, is 'to show a knavish intention.' Since the first collection all Jeffery~West shoes and boots bear the signature style of a cleft heel; their wearers continue to tread a line between respectability and rascality. Similarly, the red of the leather linings, that have also always been a feature of Jeffery~West footwear, evokes pomp and circumstance but equally revolution, decadence and darker ritual and ceremony. West explains that the inspiration came from “an old pair of 1963 officer’s riding boots, dress Wellingtons, which just had the top band done in red - that’s why we first started to put red in our shoes and boots, and then of course there is the whole extra connotation of the cleft heel.”
The idiosyncratic Jeffery~West design handwriting extends to the smallest detail; the punching is always diamond shaped, inspired both by Gothic and Victorian Gothic Revival architecture, which also directly informs the arrowhead wingtips. “That’s always been a big influence on the design,” says West, “whether it’s wrought iron gates or St. Pancras' Station, I’ve also always loved going into old churches, even though I’m not religious, right from when I was 13.” The diamond motif also extends to the shape of the studs on the rubber sole of the first of only two off-pavement styles that Jeffery~West currently offer, the Hannibal [Lecter] Derby boot. The second off-pavement style is a motorcycle boot which was part of the Jeffery~West limited edition Fallen Angels range made in collaboration with artist and furniture designer Mark Brazier-Jones. The boot is based on a pair of military dispatch rider’s boots worn by West’s father during his national service, and feature an angel wing buckle designed by Brazier-Jones, alluding both to biker subculture and to the statuary of Victorian mausolea. Fallen Angels continues a lineage of Jeffery~West working in conjunction with artists, which also includes Paul Insect, Sailor Jerry, Aasen 'Deathouse' Stephenson and cult pop artist Vince Ray.
Jeffery~West also collaborates with other brands such as the iconic Norton motorcycle company with whom they produced a collection of cult biker ankle boots.
The rich, dark, and dramatic colours of Gothic Revival interiors, purple, black, gold, green are not only played out in the Jeffery~West shoes but also in their shop interiors. All of which offer a heightened mix of a gentlemen’s club, bordello, and oubliette, an enticing theatre of retail, stepping over the threshold which begins a journey to the furthest reaches of one’s imagination. The shops are intriguing and exciting, though as West admits, “they do scare some people” but he continues by saying that “going into shopping centres gives me the creeps, whereas I love going into a second-hand bookshop, or a record shop, or an antique shop; that’s the feel I prefer about our shops: I want them to be quite small, I want them to be, not cluttered as such, but that when you go in there’s lots to see, you’ve got to look and discover a little bit, like ‘Oh, I didn’t know they did that!’ or ‘Those are good cufflinks’.”
November 2012 marked a quarter of a century for Jeffery-West; celebrated by a four month exhibition at the National Footwear Musuem in Northampton. The show featured designs spanning the 25 year period presentign many shoes from the musuems own collection alongside Jeffery-West archive.
About our shops
The six Jeffery~West shops share an interior style, but other than the red velvet curtains common to each, West will chose individual and interesting pieces of furniture for each shop, and the wall space is given to artists to exhibit their work, which West says, is more often than not, of a “challenging or sensual” nature. The elegance, stylistic references, and drama of the shops are aided and abetted by their evocative frontages and locations. Three are in Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades; the 1909 Piccadilly Arcade in London, designed by G. Thrale Jell; the grade II* listed Barton Arcade in Manchester built in 1871, and The County Arcade in Leeds built between 1898 and 1900 and designed by Frank Matcham who, appropriately, had been better known for his theatre interiors. Their second London shop on Cullum Street is part of the Leadenhall Market designed by Sir Horace Jones in 1881. The New York store opened in 2013 at 19 Christopher Street, Manhattan. The shop continues the individual theme but with the added laid back atmosphere of West Grenwich Village.
Just like their re-workings of traditional footwear styles, Jeffery~West offers a range of traditional gentlemen’s accessories, all also handmade in England, but equally all re-imagined to compliment the themes and styles of the footwear. Thus English pewter cufflinks adopt the forms of spiders, elegantly wasted hands, St. John’s Crosses, Sabre Tooth tigers, Mutant Kudus, barbed wire, and vampyrs. The range of leather gloves are red silk lined, a briefcase is fashioned in black snakeskin and lined in red suede, belts might be fastened with devil or serpent pewter buckles, or come in extraordinary coloured leathers (burnt/burnished plum, apricot, gooseberry, metallic bronze, aubergine, or pewter!). Whilst their black walking canes, are topped with silver cobra heads, or ball and claw.
The canes further highlight Jeffery~West’s continued passion for what they do and the desire to offer the best they can to their customers. Because, as West explains, “really there’s no money in it, but we do it because we like it and also because it’s the sort of thing where you’ll get a guy who’s got a do that night and he’ll either think later - "shit I wish I bought that cane that would look absolutely great!" - or he’ll buy it and know that that will be the best thing he’ll buy all year, because it’s that one time when he really wants to make a entrance, it just completes the outfit and you have that swagger. If you’ve just got that particular cane, or the right cufflinks, or silver topped umbrella, whatever it is, those little things I love doing even though you’ll only sell one every now and again.”
In refusing to ride roughshod over either individualism or traditional qualities of craftsmanship and service, Jeffery~West continue to cut an elegantly shoed and booted swath through the footwear mediocrity that is almost exclusively offered to men, and in so doing they, and the shoes and boots they create, should be cherished, just as they in turn cherish every customer, be he gentleman, or rogue, or both, that steps over their threshold into a world only limited by the bounds of one's imagination.
Plectrum/Guy Sangster Adams 2014 www.theculturalpick.com