Carréducker Bespoke Shoemakers

Bespoke shoemakers James Ducker and Deborah Carré, who make up the duo known as Carréducker, create custom shoes for men, traditionally made and designed with a contemporary aesthetic to suit each client’s individual style.

Their ambitions as bespoke shoemakers also extends to training future generations. Ducker and Carré completed traditional English hand-sewn shoemaking apprenticeships and they now teach the hand-sewn craft to enthusiasts from around the world in London and New York. They also lecture on the art and craft of luxury shoe making as well as provide an online resource through their blog for beginners and master craftsmen to complete ‘how to’ tutorials in the comfort of their own workshop or home.

We met James at their workshop where he was busy making a pair of shoes for a client. They have two workshops – the one we visited at Cockpit Arts and a workshop in Gieves & Hawkes, where you would find them most of the time.

How did you start?

I started shoemaking in 1992 when I was living in Spain. I did some evening classes and learnt in my spare time as well. When I came back to England a few years later I got a full time apprenticeship with John Lobb on St James Street. It is also where I met Deborah, who was also doing an apprenticeship.

Deborah was self-funded. She received a scholarship from the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust and she met a guy called Paul Wilson who was a maker for Lobb. He trained both of us. After I finished my apprenticeship I became self-employed and I worked principally for John Lobb as an outworker. In 2004 Deborah and I set up Carréducker and we’ve been working together ever since.

How did you gain funding?

We financed it ourselves. We grew organically. We have never had any investment. We put money in ourselves at the beginning but initially we both had other forms of income. So over time we gradually increased the amount of work for Carréducker, and decreased other sources of income until we were full-time with this.

Was it a slow process?

Yes it was, it was over a number of years. We always knew it would be like that because we both have mortgages and families, so we couldn’t just launch straight into it and not earn anything for a while. That was the best way for us to do it.

How did you find your studio?

We just sort of heard about it, we met other craftsman and Cockpit Arts had the best reputation and it is very central. Initially this was the only place we had, but in 2010 we got the workshop at Gieves & Hawkes, so we rarely see customers here now, we see them in the workshop on Saddle Road.

Is everything made between the two studios?

Yes, everything is made in London. We have outworkers, we have closers who are the people who make the patterns and the uppers. They are based all over the country in Wales, Essex and Northampton. Everything is made in Britain.

We only do one-offs. Every pair we make is different for the individual customer. It is 100% bespoke. The biggest order we’ll get is two or three pairs at a time from the same person. Once the first pair has been created, it is pretty easy because we know everything fits, so we have the go-ahead. The first pair takes a while because we need to do fittings and make adjustments. The first pair needs quite a lot of time investment by the customer, but after that it is very straight forward. We do not even need to see them. We can communicate by email whereby we can send them swatches and sketches and communicate that way.

Where do you get your leather from?

Our upper leather is from a leather merchant in Northampton because unlike the others in the industry we only ever buy skins, so most leather suppliers and tanneries don’t want to deal with such a low order on that level because it is not worth their while. Larger companies will order thousands of square feet – whereas in this place in Northampton we can buy one skin, which is extremely beneficial. So they service the bespoke industry in the UK.

Related reading: What a Manufacturer of Leather Goods Wants you to Know?

The leather for the insoles. The soles and the heels are tanned in England – in Devon by a company called Bakers, who are the last pit tanning tannery in the UK. This traditional tanning method have pits in the ground and they lay the hides in the pits and they fill it with a solution of oak bark and leave it in the ground for 9 to 18 months. It is extremely high quality leather. It used to be the way lots of leather was tanned but not anymore. It is famous around the world – highly sought after. It is expensive, but it is extremely good quality. Which is why our shoes last as long as they do.

How long do your shoes last, on average?

Ten, 15, 20 years – or more if you look after them. I mean it depends on how hard you are on your feet and how often you wear them. I’ve seen shoes that are 30 years old and still wearable.

How long does it take you to make a pair of shoes?

About 50 hours. From seeing the customer initially to measuring their feet to delivering the shoe. There are three different trades involved, so it is a lot of work, which is why they are substantially more than what factory-made shoes would cost. The benefit of creating your own shoe is that they fit you properly, they are to your specification and they will last you. You think about a pair of shoes lasting you for 15 years – then year on year it is actually fantastic value for money. I mean – one thing we always stress to customers is that ill-fitting shoes can really damage your feet. When companies make shoes in a factory they are made to averages, and if you’re lucky to fit that average then fine – but there are a lot of people who are in between sizes, or they have narrow heels and wide joints or the other way round. There are lots of variation in feet, especially as you get older. Biomechanically, if you’ve got something wrong with your feet it can affect your ankles, your knees and your hips, your shoulders, your back, your neck; it can cause all sorts of problems.

What is the most challenging shoe you’ve had to make?

The biggest challenge we have is with people who have problematic feet. There is a kind of grey area between difficult feet and orthopaedic work and if we have a customer who is in that grey area then it can take a lot of time. Our service is that if it takes one fitting or ten fittings, it is the same price and that is part of getting it right. It is really important to us to get it right, we make every effort to make sure they fit.

We do not do orthopaedic work – that is a specialist area and you have to have knowledge and to work alongside orthopaedic doctors and podiatrists. It is not our area of expertise. If it is beyond our knowledge we refer customers to orthopaedic shoemakers to make sure they get the best service. The problem with orthopaedic shoes is that they concentrate almost entirely on the fit and not on how they look, so people come to us because they want a decent looking pair of shoes that will also fit them. Our customers want something timeless and classic. Our competition in London is from companies like Lobb, who have been established for hundreds of years, who are very traditional and they make lovely shoes. So if you want a pair of classic English shoes, the most likely thing is you’re going to go to one of them. What we have tried to do is introduce more of a design-led looking shoe. People come to us if they want something a little bit more unusual, or if they like our style or different leather combinations – something a bit different, that is our niche.

Do you get customers of all different ages?

We do, however our core age group is people in their 40s and 50s. It is not an insignificant amount of money to spend on shoes and younger people tend to not have that spare cash to spend. So it takes time to get to a point you can have that spare income.

If you could go back to when you first started and could give yourself advice what would it be?

I would say to be a bit braver about business decisions. Deborah and I didn’t take brave decisions when we could have done, which probably would have paid off. I think another thing I would suggest is to be a little bit more focused on our core business. We had a tendency to have a load of ideas and then pursue them and then not finish the project properly because we didn’t have enough time. We should have concentrated on what we do best, which is making bespoke shoes. You learn about business as you go along. It is like with anything you start – something you don’t necessarily know about it so you either have to learn from experience or get some advice. We have had both.

What advice would you give to a start-up craftsman?

Try and become as much of an expert in your craft as you can. Produce the best quality product you can and if you want to start your own business get as much advice as you can. The third thing I had no idea about was networking. Get to meet as many people as you can because it really works like that.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced along the way?

Understanding that if you are going to run your own business it is always going to feel like a struggle. It is always going to feel difficult and it is always going to be a challenge. I think you have to do it not because you want to achieve a certain result but because you enjoy the process and what you do. You can never get to a stage where you can sit back and let it happen. It is hard work and it will always be like that.

What are your future plans?

Well interestingly enough, we have been trying over the past couple of years to get an apprentice and we’ve been looking into funding for it. Last week a guy we have been mentoring and supporting got a scholarship from Quest and is going to be starting with us in May for a year-long apprenticeship. He will be learning on the job, which is the best way to learn and you only learn by doing it. To become a Master Craftsman you have to do the hours – there is no other way around it. Some pick it up quicker than others. You have to repeat the process until your hands know what they are doing as much as your head.

We have been training people for a long time. I used to teach at Cordwainers in Hackney which then became London College of Fashion, I used to teach a hand-sewn shoe course but they stopped doing it, so Deborah and myself decided to continue doing it ourselves. We started off with one intensive course a year. We had a maximum of seven students and they would make a pair of shoes over the course of two weeks. Over time the course has become extremely popular and we now do it five times a year – four times in London and once in New York. We have also set up a pattern cutting course in London and New York. Our long term plan is to have series of courses, which in time will teach all aspects of shoemaking.

To coincide with that, we really believe in giving away our knowledge, to anyone that is interested, in the hope that it will encourage people to take up the craft. We do a weekly blog which we started in 2008 without really knowing what direction it will take. But it essentially is a photo essay about the different aspects of shoemaking and technical photographs. It is a ‘how to’ blog and it has proved to be incredibly popular. We have followers from all around the world and get about 15,000 page views per month. It is a go-to resource. We have a lot of people contacting us from all over saying that they follow us and that they make shoes on their own in their garage as a result, which is fantastic. The interest for this craft is incredible and I believe the internet has a lot to do with it.

We have also been doing some consultancy work – helping people create samples and prototypes for manufacture. A lot of people come to us with designs but with no manufacturing experience and so, even it is us making prototypes of their designs that they can then take on to manufacture – that in itself can help and is extremely rewarding.

Nowadays we are getting more and more people who want to be shoemakers. They are serious about it. People are more concerned where things are made and who has made them and where the materials are from. Making in the UK is important to us. Having a pair of shoes made here in the UK by us allows our customers to meet us, so they feel invested in it. It is not an anonymous thing. The shoes have more meaning to them because they were involved in the decisions on how they look and how they feel. It is not that often that you get that opportunity. It is as much of the process for some people as it is the product. You are buying an experience as well as a pair of shoes. For some people that is not important but equally, there are a lot of people who enjoy it.

You can connect with Carréducker on their Utelier Profile, or their website.

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