Essex Road in London’s Islington neighbourhood has been tweaked and gentrified in recent years. There has been the familiar influx of bijou coffee shops and cool bicycle retailers but, as you head northeast down the road, it also strikes you how little has really changed: Steve Hatt, the fishmongers, is as busy as ever (although perhaps fewer whelks and more sea bass are requested these days); the bathroom plumbing store is still there; and, look, there’s that taxidermy shop Get Stuffed. It’s a road where old and new, trade and commerce, still happily muddle along. Perhaps that’s why the arrival of storied bespoke shoe-maker Henry Maxwell shouldn’t seem so surprising.
The Henry Maxwell team, previously ensconced in refined Jermyn Street in the West End, arrived in their new headquarters in September. They are now resident in a neat, brightly lit unit in a converted piano factory, its courtyard rammed with vans belonging to contractors for new tenants but also an old Merc owned by Henry Maxwell’s managing director and last-maker, 42-year-old Simon Bolzoni.
The departure from Jermyn Street was triggered by the business being rattled by the pandemic – more on this in a moment – but, insists Bolzoni (and the company’s owner and chairman, Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson, agrees), it presents a unique opportunity to reinvent a very high-end luxury business and to make it feel vital again. “I respect our role as custodians of heritage but it’s then hard detaching from people’s expectations, especially in the West End,” says Bolzoni. “We cannot get bogged down. Our customers like the fact that we are now looking forwards. People can get fatigued by heritage.”
In this new outpost, Bolzoni believes that, without the terrifying overheads of an sw1 postcode, the brand has the best chance to focus on making impeccable bespoke shoes and taking care of a healthy list of men – and some women – who pay more than £5,000 for a pair of Maxwell shoes. And its home already looks like a home: the walls are covered in old lasts, hung like pheasants in a butcher’s window. There is also an old gold-handled desk, some comfy green-leather chairs, a piece of carpet cut from the chairman’s office, and the last-making bench, all brought from the old gaff. But no one is pretending that this isn’t all rather fresh. That’s the whole point.
But let’s get through the history bit, which is as tangled as a jumble of old laces. We’ll start in 1750 when a gentleman called Henry Maxwell founded an innovative spur-making business that gained him royal warrants from King George IV and resulted in his designs being displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the 20th century, as trotting around on your steed gave way to hitting the automobile’s accelerator (or getting your chauffeur to oblige), the spur business transformed into a shoe and boot one. In recent years, however, the Maxwell name, the brand, has been rather quiet. But here comes another twist in the tale that you need to know about.
Richard Edgecliffe-Johnson had enjoyed a successful city career but wanted more thrills in his life and left for new adventures. One day, while playing backgammon (he’s a leading figure in the game), he met the widow of a man who had owned two pukka shoe businesses – Foster & Son, maker of ready-to-wear shoes, and Henry Maxwell. “This was in 2006,” says Edgecliffe-Johnson. “I said that I would get involved if I could secure a controlling interest. And then, in 2010, I bought out the remaining shareholders.”
From here, trade ticked along nicely. There was a shop on Jermyn Street. In 2018 a new Foster & Son factory opened in Northampton. Maxwell was still around as part of the business, tending to a small but dedicated list of devotees. Then came the pandemic and all bets were off. Suddenly the eye-watering West End rents could not be tolerated. The shop shut. The factory was closed down and then sold. Foster & Son stopped trading.
“Our customers are free-thinking and they like what we are doing; they see themselves in us. They tend to be successful and they like coming here”
This is when both men saw the light. “It was painful but it was a golden opportunity,” says Bolzoni. “We could strip the business back to what it should be: bespoke.” Edgecliffe-Johnson agrees, adding that the West End’s glory days had passed in many ways. “Rents and rates were high in Jermyn Street and footfall low,” he says. “So it was a case of, ‘If you can’t go back to yesterday...’ It doesn’t work.’”
So that’s why we are here today on Essex Road, where the neighbours are not gentlemen’s shirt-makers but a hairdresser called Crops & Bobbers. Bolzoni greets us wearing a red apron over his jeans and T-shirt, and a pair of scuffed black shoes (he’s never had time to make himself a pair of Maxwell’s). He has long black hair and a straight-backed posture; perhaps a leftover from the four years that he spent on runways and in fashion campaigns as a model for the likes of Prada and Marc Jacobs.
But after those four years he wanted out. He got a job in a menswear boutique; became a buyer. “I was buying Vivienne Westwood and Maison Margiela,” he says. “Alexander McQueen was a customer but it was hard to find good English shoes; people were buying thin-soled Italian ones,” he adds, with a slight hint of disdain.
Then one day he was in an antiquarian bookshop in Charing Cross Road and found a hefty Victorian title about making boots and shoes. “I knew that this was what I wanted to do,” says Bolzoni. “I went to George Cleverley but they were not training anyone. I walked down to Foster & Son and pushed open the door. The shop was empty but then this man appeared who turned out to be Terry Moore, the master last-maker. I hadn’t thought about last-making as all the books are about the shoe-making; pattern cutting. He told me that it was a dying trade but we got chatting and we realised that we were from the same part of town and then he said, ‘Wait a moment,’ and he went upstairs. Richard had just bought the business and [Moore] said to him, ‘I want to see if this kid can do last-making. I’ll take him over to my workshop next Wednesday. If he can do it, I will train him.’” The day became a week, the week turned into three years.
“It takes that time,” says Bolzoni. “He would make the right foot; I’d then make the mirror image for the other foot – but it’s never the same shape. It’s all about problem solving.” And the tools don’t help: you start with a long, fixed, sword-like blade to chop lumps of hard beech. And then there’s that strange mix of physical force and tender crafting. And feet.
You’d think that the rest would be history. But Bolzoni left the firm in order to take care of his baby, fell into starting a fashion label and ended up spending eight years out of the firm. In 2017 he found his way back to working with Edgecliffe-Johnson, rejoining on the shop floor, then working his way up to MD and also, more significantly, the last-maker.
The last-maker is perhaps the most important person in a bespoke shoe business. The point of contact for the customer, they are the designer, the salesperson and a craftsman. “You have to get to know customers and to understand them,” says Bolzoni. “We want to make something that’s perfect for you and in the right context.”
At this point we rejoin the story when the pandemic is locking the doors one final time on numerous businesses; pulling down the shutters on cherished brands. But Bolzoni and Edgecliffe-Johnson see a way ahead. “We needed to do something radical,” says Bolzoni. “We did a whole new business plan. Took it to pieces, stripped it back and rebuilt it from there.” But with the press full of stories about the death of formal attire and the abandoning of the office, a focus on bespoke shoes could look like a risk. Bolzoni disagrees. “Our customers are free-thinking and they like what we are doing; they see themselves in us. They tend to be successful – heads of companies or owners of their own businesses – and they like coming here.” And they are still spending.
For a business like this to thrive, it doesn’t need thousands of customers but it does need those who love the process of having something made, care about being part of this world, want comfort, like to look good and have wealth. Henry Maxwell has many lifetime customers who own several pairs of these leather masterpieces.
Bolzoni isn’t alone in his mission. Reece Cox, an Australian-born pattern cutter, works at the atelier, as does leather goods-maker Conor Masters, who specialises in hand-stitched briefcases and dispatch boxes. They are a youthful, focused team and clearly get on (Cox chips in from his bench when Bolzoni can’t recall a date). It’s a company that has a great history but also the air of a start-up.
Bolzoni is confident. “It takes about a year from walking in the door to getting your first pair of shoes and there’s also a finite number of shoes that we can make,” he says. “I imagine that we could see people waiting up to two years as the business grows. You’ll be pleased you got in.” And though most of his customers are in their fifties, others are in their twenties.
At the end of our conversation, Bolzoni shows me some of the samples that he has on display. There’s a full-saddle loafer in crocodile, a co-respondent in brown and beige, a lace-up boot. Some of these shoes were made 100 years ago but if you saw someone in, say, the nice loafers, you’d think they were yesterday’s designs. It’s heritage like this that great brands such as Hermès and Goyard have used to create very modern businesses. Henry Maxwell can surely tap into a little of the same spirit, stitching together past and future and finding people who are determined that Mr Bolzoni will not be the last man standing.