Boot Camp

The Cordwainers college has been teaching the art of shoemaking for almost 130 years – graduates include Patrick Cox, Emma Hope and Jimmy Choo. Since merging with the London College of Fashion, it’s been located in Clerkenwell. Kate O’Donnell meets the students and tutors crafting our footwear future.

Britain is famous for its extraordinarily creative fashion designers. But did you know that some of the world’s top shoe designers – people like Sophia Webster, Nicholas Kirkwood and Charlotte Dellal of Charlotte Olympia fame – learned their craft in Clerkenwell?

Cordwainers college on Golden Lane turns out (perhaps trims, hones and polishes would be better terms) 50 or so students a year who invariably go on to prestigious careers in footwear design, retail and merchandising.

There are other footwear design courses – in Leicester and Northampton, Britain’s other traditional shoemaking heartlands – but there is only one Cordwainers and it has a shoemaking history stretching back more than 740 years. In 1272, a group of artisanal shoemakers formed the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers to promote and protect their skills. It was the livery company that set up the college in 1887 (based in Hackney before it was incorporated into the London College of Fashion and moved to Clerkenwell in 2000).

And today the Worshipful Company runs an annual design competition for Britain’s footwear students (Cordwainers’ students won the top two places this year). The word cordwain comes from cordovan, itself a corruption of Cordoba, the Spanish city that grew rich trading the leather used for luxury footwear.

“I would call shoemaking an art and a craft,” says Sarah Day, acting course leader BA Hons footwear courses and a former student (Emma Hope and Patrick Cox were in the year above her). Although the college has plenty of heavy machinery – sanders, pressers, laser cutters, ‘wrinkle chasers’ – it also has skilled technicians to help students realise their invariably innovative designs.

“You have to have humans to operate the machines,” explains Day. “You have to have someone holding the shoe. Plus on our course there is a massive emphasis on students being able to hand draw. If you can’t draw a shoe how can you proportion it?”

“You have to be strong,” adds newly graduated designer Hester Mortimer, whose hand-beaded and hand-embroidered butterfly-light sandals echo autumn’s embellishment trend but belie the hammering and nailing that was necessary to make them. “Everything in shoemaking involves heating and cooling and manipulating leather,” she explains. “At the end of a day in the workshop your arms are tired.”

It was those techniques that tipped the scales when Kay Whitehouse, who is about to move to Amsterdam to design for Tommy Hilfiger, was choosing where to study. Her designs, mirrored, moss-stitched, perfect for autumn’s graphic architectural trend, are technically demanding and labour intensive.

Mortimer and Whitehouse loved their time at Cordwainers, but the food market at Whitecross Street – particularly its burrito van – runs a close second. If this talk of footwear (and food) makes you envious, take one of Cordwainers’ short courses and learn to make a shoe, boot, or sandal. Day says lawyers and make-up artists have done her short courses.

Rupert Sanderson packed in an advertising career to re-train at Cordwainers. Even if you don’t switch careers, you could end up with a new skill and a new pair of shoes. Bargain.