Hot on the heels of the Hackney mafia

It is hard to believe that in the depths of Hackney, east London, near the pawn brokers, the derelict bingo hall and the Class War graffiti, is the hothouse of shoe design. Even the sign: "Cordwainers Leather Support Centre" gives no clue to the fact that Cordwainers College is the only college in the whole world to offer a degree course in shoe design, and that in the last decade its graduates have included Patrick Cox, Emma Hope, Jimmy Choo, Lawler Duffy and Christine Ahrens.

"We do need something that gives more of an impact," says Judith Shone, Cordwainers' marketing officer, when told that the man from the newsagents directly opposite had never heard of the place and that the mini-cab driver had dropped me at nearby Hackney Community College. "I do struggle to get this across, but the college just hasn't the marketing or press resources."

In some ways Shone need not worry. Cordwainers' has played a part in the success stories of Patrick Cox and his hugely popular square-toed Wannabe loafers (over a million pairs sold), Emma Hope and her elegant fairy-stitched shoes and annual turnover of nearly pounds 500,000, and Jimmy Choo and his fanciful satin sling-backs and well-connected patrons (Princess of Wales, Kylie Minogue). All are graduates of Cordwainers.

It has been reported that the most traumatic event in Patrick Cox's life was neither his parents' divorce nor his coming out, but Hackney. Is this true? "I love that line", said Cox in his infectious Canadian camp. "What can I say? It was grim. Very grim." Landing in London from Toronto in September 1983, and staying at a friend's house in Bayswater, Cox travelled to Cordwainers, a sight unseen. "London became sadder and sadder." Cox was even more horrified to find that the building he had imagined to be like St Martin's School of Art looked more like a sanatorium, and that the grubby pub opposite had bugs in the soup, the lecturers seemed to all be ex-factory managers from East End sweat shops, the pinnacle of their design experience was a pair of children's shoes for Clarks, and that, as part of the course, Cox was taught how to answer the phone. "I went back to Toronto that Christmas and thought, that's it, I'm leaving, but there was nothing else for me to do there, so I came back." Breaking out of the isolation of Hackney, he found his spiritual home among Vivienne Westwood's "World's End" gang on the other side of town, finished the course and the rest, as they say, is history.

Emma Hope too has mixed memories of her time in Hackney. "My first impression was of a bleak outpost in bandit country." But this, she says, is one of its strengths: "Who, but the most dedicated would go there? It has neither the smartness of the Royal College nor its aesthetics. People who survive Hackney are most likely to make a go things for that very reason", she said. Jimmy Choo agrees. "It doesn't matter if you're in a posh or poor area as long as the course and the teachers are good." Indeed, after graduating in 1983, Jimmy stayed in Hackney, set up a shop off Kingsland Road and the neighbours opposite now watch the limousines line up outside.

That designers of the calibre of Cox, Hope and Choo survived the Hackney experience and live to reap the rewards has attracted students to Cordwainers from all over the world. Cox was the reason that Noo Noo, 22, a second year footwear design student from the Algarve, came to this country: "Patrick Cox is big in Portugal. I liked what he did. I knew he studied here. So, here I am". Virtually every good shoe designer working today studied at Cordwainers. And yet both the success of the shoe college and more significantly the shoe designer is fairly recent. "Shoe design has always been the poor relation of fashion," says Judith Shone. "Tell anyone you're a shoe designer and they say, 'Oh are shoes designed?' Graduates like Patrick and Emma have raised the profile of an anonymous industry and made people realise that shoes are actually designed by someone."

The technical college was set up over 100 years ago by the Cordwainers (a medieval word for shoemakers) Company to train people in the practical working of leather (Hackney was then the centre of the leather industry). The course was originally conceived as being entirely technical: the object being to teach students practical skills for shoemaking (it is only recently the college dropped a shoe repairing course). Then, in the early Eighties the college introduced an HND in Footwear Design and three years ago, a Footwear Design degree. Cordwainers is now the only place where design is taught in conjunction with technology.

The course, Shone is a pains to point out, has improved enormously since Patrick Cox's day. Design tutors now have extensive training, people now turn up for the degree shows which, significantly, are now held in "lovely locations" like the Barbican Centre, Saddlers Hall in central London. And, says Shone triumphantly, a new halls of residence is being built behind the college for overseas students. "What!" shrieked Cox, when told of this, "they are making students stay, in Hackney, at night? Knowing I could escape back to civilisation every evening, was the only thing that kept me going."

Cordwainers College, 182 Mare Street, Hackney, London E8

Telephone 0181-985-0273

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Reimagined: Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
Cannes 2015Dheepan, film review
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine