Q&A: Shoe Designer Tim Little

Tim Little owns Grenson Shoes

Renowned shoe designer Tim Little talks to Chris Sullivan for MAN LONDON.

I bought my first pair of Tim Little shoes from his Kings Road store in 1999 – simple loafers which I wore into the ground and still have.

Cut to 2010 when Little became the owner and creative director of one of the great, classic British cordwaining companies, Grenson. In a short time, I eventually acquired six pairs of perhaps the finest wingtips I have ever worn.

Since then, Tim Little Shoes and Grenson have grown exponentially becoming two of the most highly regarded shoe companies in the world. I caught up with Tim at the launch of his new, quite remarkable, Archives Collection at his Lamb’s Conduit Street store in London.

Out of all the shoes you¹ve ever seen what would be your desert island shoe? One that you could not live without and the one that ticks the most boxes

TL– Assuming you don’t mean literally a desert island in which case a double soled, full grain brogue might not work, I’d have two shoes, one my own, and one someone else’s.

Mine would be a Triple Welt whole cut that I did as a special earlier this year. It’s got the thing I love most about English shoes which is that they get better the more you wear them. You can’t destroy these shoes, the more grief you give them, the better they look.

The other shoe I love is the Adidas Gazelle. It’s simple, has beautiful proportions, and I love the last shape. The shoe is also very comfortable, inexpensive and comes in millions of colourways.

What was the first shoe you ever bought with your own money?

TL – My mum bought me some Dunlop green flash to play tennis in just as Nike was breaking. I went out and bought a pair of Nike Wimbledons and threw the Green Flash away. She was livid.

I loved the Green Flash myself. What¹s the shoe you’ve designed that you are most proud of 

TL – That’s like, which is favourite child. I’ll go for Spike. I took the LL Bean Duck Shoe and said, “If Grenson made this what would it look like?” It’s a bit mad but it has its own following and we might reissue it next year.

Shoe designer Tim Little designed this Grenson Boot from the Archives Collection
A Boot from the Grenson Archives Collection

New “Archive Range”

What about about your new Archive range?

TL – Some of the highlights are Dawson, an American workwear inspired boot on a bulbous toe in oil tanned leathers. Then there is Sebastian, a Longwing Brogue boot in Amber rub off. Next, there is a group of shoes and boots on a new chestnut pull up leather that lightens as you bend it. Lloyd is my version of a Wall Street penny loafer on an almond toed last. Finally, Brady is based on a vintage Swiss Mountain Boot, but I’ve put it on a micro sole to lighten it up.

What’s  you favourite amongst the range?

TL – It’s that question again! I’ll say Grover, a French Chasse style boot in dark brown calf suede.

Why are great shoes important?

TL – There’s an old army saying that goes “always spend good money on your shoes and your bed, because if you aren’t in one you’re in the other”. Shoes just are [important], I don’t know why. They are up there with music and football. Shoes can change your mood. I think men love them because they love things that get better over time. Like good denim for example.

What constitutes a great shoe?

TL – Quality leather and the perfect last get you 95% there. After that it’s personal taste and, as a result, there are lots of possibilities.

Can I get an outline of the Grenson shoe making process?

TL – Leather comes in the door from mainly European and English tanneries, it goes through about 250 processes and comes out a shoe. I can give you lists and pictures of everything but it would take hours to describe it all.  Before that there is about 9 months of development but it’s too tedious to go through.

Shoe designer Tim Little owns Grenson Shoes manufactured in the England.
Brogues from the Grenson Archives Collection

How long should a good shoe last?

TL – Interestingly, a customer sent me a pair of shoes a couple of years saying that he had been given them as demob shoes when he left the army in 1945. He was concerned that a bit of stitching was coming loose at the back. We tidied it up and sent them back to him.

Tim Little Maintenance Tips

How does one look after shoes? Any tips?

TL – No.1 tip: don’t wear them two days running. The moisture from your feet makes the leather wet and when it’s wet it is vulnerable. Let them dry slowly (not by a radiator). Finally, use shoe trees and lots of leather cream; not just polish as cream actually keeps the leather supple.

How did your love affair/fascination with classic cordwaining begin?

TL – My mum took me to the COOP in Long Eaton in 1969 to get my school shoes. The women went up a ladder and brought down the shoes and as she opened the box I could smell the unmistakable smell of new shoes. I was hooked.

Is shoemaking a dying art?

TL – Fortunately, it’s very much alive and kicking. Of course, today British shoemaking is a bit fragile compared to 50 years ago but the companies that are left are good enough to survive. Mind you, finding new craftsmen for the factory is very tough; kids want a faster route to top.

How important was the Grenson acquisition and how did it happen?

TL – It was crucial to me because I felt the brand needed a massive overhaul and it would only be possible if I could make decisions quickly and take risks. If I hadn’t taken it over it would have been a long slow road to mediocrity. Not surprisingly, people don’t like change and many people hated what I was doing, especially traditional retailers. I needed to be in control to say “this is how it’s going to be.”

Why is it so important to preserve classic manufacturing?

TL – It’s in our soul (excuse the pun). We make things and sell them. Ultimately, they sell because they are well made. If we can’t do that, then we give up on the idea that we can create things that people want. Imagine if Made in England didn’t mean anything any more.

Have you any odd clients requests?

TL – We have one bespoke client who has four pairs of white zip boots on a Cuban heel every year. We never see him. Additionally, I do a lot of fun stuff for Ant and Dec whenever they have a big show.

What is the most ridiculous item of male footwear?

TL – The Shandal. That half sandal, half sports shoe.

What’s your opinion of trainers?

TL – I love them. Personally, I love the classics mainly but as a concept they are great. I don’t trust people who only have trainers but I’m equally nervous of people who hate them.

I see you have shops all over the world. Which one is the busiest?

TL– Lambs Conduit Street. We get fashion boys, celebrities, elegant women, Lawyers and Doctors from the Great Ormond Street. They all coexist quite happily, which kind of sums up the brand.

How did all this begin?

TL – William Green started Grenson in 1866. I was born in Nottingham in 1963. Somehow, we came together in 2005 when the previous owner came to my Tim Little shop and said, “I think this is what Grenson should be.” I said “Imagine this with Grenson’s Heritage.”

Shoe Designer Tim Little: The Beginning

When did you design your first shoe and what was it?

TL – I made a black calf whole cut from a single piece of French Calf. After all these years, it’s still the shoe that my customers know me for: The Whole Cut – only one seam at the back, the world’s simplest shoe.

What are your plans for the future?

TL – I’ve literally got nothing planned beyond October. My brain can’t manage planning. As a result, we are opportunistic and we jump on things when they pop up and make the most of them. The more you do the more they keep coming.

Do you have job satisfaction?

TL – 100%. Unfortunately, my band didn’t make it and Derby County [football club] didn’t call me up, so this is the next best thing!

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