A step in the right direction

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The Independent Online
SHOES have always been a big thing for Tim Little who, despite his name, is all set to make a colossal splash in the shoe world after just a year in business.

In a recent marketing coup, he sold a pair of shoes to the legendary John Lee Hooker - which were, coincidentally, named after one of the musician's recordings, "Whiskey and Women" - and his other clients include the critic A A Gill and TV's Johnny Vaughan. He even kitted out the Chelsea football team for the FA Cup final. But his success, he says, is founded on the fact that he has always been fussy about what he wore on his feet. "My mother said that even at six I was finicky about my shoes," he recalls.

He is now taking his own personal mandate on to the streets, combining it with experience in marketing top brands and selling his shoes on the strength of a reputation for the quality of British shoemaking, a reputation buffed up in the shoe town of Northampton, where his shoes are made.

Mr Little has been driven by his ability to know and a passion to develop his own tastes. He gave up an early career in accountancy and instead made a foray into advertising. Here he was more at home, and within 10 years he had risen through the ranks of agency Leagas Delaney to supervise accounts and market brands such as Adidas, Porsche and Harrods.

"Advertising is a meritocracy, and no matter where you come from, you can rise," he claims. "You have two different types of people: the creatives, who are a bit left-field and can be difficult to deal with, and the client, who is just as difficult but at the other end of the scale. They must be brought together to reach a solution."

Being able to bring various components together was a vital asset for Mr Little when he decided to launch out on his own. Shoes had always been a passion, but determination fused with inspiration after he met a former City executive who had gone to Scotland to set up a tiny chocolate factory. He was attracted by a similar dream, but was at the same time sure there was a niche in the shoe market. "I had always been a fan of traditional English shoes, and I'd got to the point where I was really bored with what was on offer. You'd get these lovely shoes in a horrible box made on the cheap. It was an old-fashioned environment, and the assistants would never have a clue. I thought: `I am prepared to spend pounds 150 to pounds 200 on a product, and I'm not excited about it in any way. It's just not enjoyable'."

He visited Northampton, home of the English shoe, where he was given a tour round one factory by old-time shoemaker Tom Andrews. When, a year later, he was ready to set up in business, he called Mr Andrews again, but he had retired. I said: `Will you work for me on a part-time basis?' He's been with me ever since."

Mr Little realised he needed to cream off the Northampton reputation but avoid having to worry about factory maintenance. His strategy is to design a shoe and take the brief to a hand-picked Northampton factory to ensure it's made up as he wants.

His customers are encouraged to try on as many pairs of shoes as they like, and if they have a favourite design, he will even consider duplicating it for them. He names his designs after blues songs - "Stormy Monday", "Slidewinder", "Empire State Express" - and puts them in trendy orange and cobalt-blue boxes. He is highly protective of their image and now has arrangements to sell them at Selfridges and at Barney's in New York.

With more than 30 different shoes, and a growing client list of shoe connoisseurs, Mr Little seems to have it made. But he is pleased that his initial assumption has held good. "I just knew what I wanted. If I liked it, enough people will come in and have a similar taste."