Shane C Kurup
In spite of the well-documented decline of British apparel manufacture, the cordwaining capital of Northampton remains a leading light in shoemaking, being home to the workshops of some of the most revered names in the trade. Take, for instance, Edward Green, a firm that has resisted the shift to purely mechanised manufacturing in times of radical change, sticking to the time-honoured craft methods that have made its shoes go the distance since 1890.
Its commitment to craft isn’t a coincidence – it was a vision that the firm’s late owner and head designer John Hlustik instilled in the workforce when he bought the then-ailing business in 1982 for £1 from an American leather entrepreneur in the arrivals hall of New York’s JFK airport, with a resolve to restore the brand’s fortunes.
John himself was born in 1939 in Zlín, in what was then Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. He lived under the shadow of the Nazi regime in WWII before fleeing to England with his family to start a new life. The journey there was one fraught with anxiety and danger. His father – a target of political persecution – managed to escape to England first, with his mother selling her gold fillings to help pay for her and young John’s survival and eventual passage.
After finishing his studies in England, John enrolled at Milan’s prestigious shoemaking college, the Arsutoria School. It was here that he learned the distinctive design language and techniques of Italian footwear design. ‘There’s a real respect for detail in Italy and John observed that well-dressed Milanese men didn’t wear black shoes, but dark brown. This was at odds with the classic London look, which was all about black,’ explains Euan Denholm, head of brand and business development at Edward Green. ‘This later sowed the seed for the brand’s revival – to focus on characterful, richly burnished browns and tans, which really differentiated us from the swathes of Northampton black shoes,’ he adds. John is often credited with bringing the Italian look to Britain’s city streets at a time when “no brown in town” was still taken as gospel. For Edward Green, it was a recipe for success that has made it a key player in the premium footwear game from London to Tokyo.
In honour of John’s achievements, Edward Green has just released a new shoe based on one of his favourite archive shoes, originally launched in 1988. Breaking with the tradition of naming its shoes after British locales, the Zlin takes its title from John’s hometown. The rugged lace-up is a Norwegian apron derby – so-called because some style historians believe they were de rigueur for Nordic fishermen, who needed a shoe construction with minimal seams at the welt for added waterproofing.
Owing to its distinctive shape, like that of the iconic Dover style, the Zlin is stitched with boar bristles – a traditional technique seldom seen now that allows cordwainers to accurately stitch curves, ensuring a precise finish. The result is a shoe that strikes that sweet spot between refined and relaxed, making it a great all-rounder in any situation. ‘It’s a shoe to be lived in – it’s not a dress shoe, but one with a more casual appeal,’ says Denholm.
It is offered in three iterations – the “classic” in a rosewood pebble-grain calf leather, aubergine and, of course, dark brown, in a French calf leather. ‘The rosewood is the most country-oriented and would work well with selvedge denim and a waxed jacket, while an unstructured, soft sports jacket and all-navy look would be ideal with the dark brown and aubergine styles,’ advises Denholm.
In recognition of the sacrifices made by John Hlustik and others caught in tumultuous times today, 15 per cent of the proceeds from the sale of the Zlin will go to support the Disasters Emergency Committee’s fund for Ukrainian refugees. There’s never been a better time to put your best foot forward.