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

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