Others with a greater handle on the history of ‘Leeds’ may disagree, but, to me 1991, has the look of a strong contender for the title of the city’s greatest year. Granted, Leeds had only actually been a city for 98 years at that point, but, before or since, has there ever been a better time to live here? I can’t answer that, I only moved over the Pennines in the summer of ‘92, so I missed out on the first few months of a season that would end in Leeds United’s last title win, the opening night of what would become a clubland giant, Back to Basics, and the chance to purchase the very first pairs of footwear produced by a new brand created in the city, Nicholas Deakins.
A quarter of a century later, the football club may have hit hard times but for Back to Basics, the music plays on, in Leeds and beyond, and, Nicholas Deakins is still based in the city, making shoes and boots and a whole lot more, having exported the White Rose logo to the world. Remarkably, the chap who designed and then sold the very first pair is also still at the helm, so, for Craig Nicholas Tate, 2016 has been a bit of a landmark year.
“It started out as a necessity, a need. I was going clubbing a lot, Hacienda on a Wednesday and Saturday, Up Yer Ronson in Leeds on a Friday and there was nothing to wear on your feet that wasn’t trainers. Patrick Cox did a line of shoes but they were 300 quid a pair. I was studying fashion in London but I had a summer job working in Strand, probably the foremost designer menswear shop in the north at the time. I had a mate, Justin, who worked in another Leeds’ menswear shop, Accent, so we sat down together and just worked on a concept for what we might want to wear and other people in our social circle might want to wear as well. Neither of us had any experience in footwear but we thought we knew what looked right, I could draw, come up with a design, so we had a crack at it.
“We looked around and saw what else there was available, Blunstones, a work boot, Hawkins, a hiker boot and that sort of biker boot, like Shelley’s used to do. So, we took a bit from all of those and I came up with a drawing. Then we picked up a yellow pages and rang every shoe maker in Northampton, ‘cos we thought that’s where they make shoes! We went down there next, must have visited 50 places, got kicked out of 49 but, eventually, one of them, WJ Brooks, said ‘Yes, we’ll give it a go.’ and they really helped guide us through the process.”.
You can see the actual finished product in a 25th anniversary display in the Leeds’ store currently, ‘the Castletop’, a sturdy black leather boot with a squared toe, ‘ski hooks’ for the laces and a chunky ‘commando sole’.
“We got our first sample and took it to show our mates, who were all DJ’s or working in clothes or shops or as agents or whatever, to show them, they liked it. Then I went to see my Boss at Strand and he went, ‘You know what, they’re alright, I’ll take 48 pairs.’. Because we had Strand, when we went to other shops, like Psyche in Middlesbrough, they went, ‘If Strand have had them, I’ll take some..’. The factory said they could only make 600 pairs at the most and we sold them all to shops all over the north and midlands. They were £90 boots so they weren’t cheap but the market then was more ‘premium’. Because of that, I applied to college to take a year out so I could give it a real go and I haven’t been back since!”.
Born in Yorkshire, the rose was adopted as a suitably striking logo and the brand’s always sold well in Manchester despite early warnings that it wouldn’t go down well with in the land of the red rose. ‘Nicholas Deakins’ came from Craig’s middle name and his partner, Justin’s last name, with an ‘S’ added. Justin was bought out a year or so later, but Craig carried on, designing and selling. In those days, it was just shoes, the clothes came along a dozen years later, and everything was made in England, either at WJ Brooks or Frank Wright’s. Craig was driving down to Northampton to collect the latest order every Friday, by the time the following week came round, they’d all sold out. Nobody else was doing what Nicholas Deakins was doing, making smart, trendy, shoes for going out at night, they were a big hit with lads who’d grown up with the terrace fashions of the 80’s but who couldn’t get into clubs in their trainers on a Saturday night. A concession in the basement of Accent quickly became a first shop in the Corn Exchange then things took a quantum leap, the boot with the padded heel went global. “That broke us into Japan, Australia, America, we sold hundreds of thousands of pairs. This took us out of being just a UK brand to being an international brand.”.
Craig cites a subsequent exclusivity deal with Barney’s in North America in the mid 90’s as being one of the highlights of the 25 years(drawing shoe designs incorporating a square toe that would accommodate her bunions on a napkin for a drunken Cyndi Lauper on a business class flight over to New York was another, but that’s for another time).
“It was good times! We got a deal in Japan as well and I went over there with Stuart, who’d been with me pretty much from the start, and we were doing magazine interviews and all sorts, it was brilliant, we hit onto a chord just at the right time.”.
If they were the good times, there have been harder times since. The company was proud of the ‘Made in England’ status it could attach to it’s early products but when fashions changed, that status couldn’t last. “English manufacturers hadn’t been investing in updating their processes like other countries. When styles changed and moccasins became the fashion, they just couldn’t make one. We had to go abroad. It wasn’t to do with them being cheaper, it was just if we wanted to meet demand for new styles, we had to look elsewhere.”.
Elsewhere is now Spain, Portugal and, of course, China, the workshop of the world. With the company now making clothes and the imminent advent of a new ‘diffusion’ line, products being marketed at a younger, less affluent customer, there was no choice but to follow their competitors into the Far East.
There have been other seismic shifts in the retail world in the last quarter century, the internet, the decline of the high street and the growth of giants like Sports Direct, JD Sports and Primark amongst them. The latter’s been relentlessly driving down prices, the first two have been hoovering up well-known British brands, controlling the market and putting independents out of business. Even Deakins have succumbed, to an extent. The company’s still based in Leeds, still self financing, still designing it’s own lines but Craig sold his shares to JD a couple of years ago, although staying on as MD. They still have their own shop in the city centre, just opposite the shiney, new, Trinity Centre. It’s sky high rents make it pretty much an independent free zone.
It’s a more crowded market place than it was when they found that niche 25 years ago, as well. In Deakin’s wake, other companies cottoned onto footwear as a neglected area in menswear and dived in. More surprisingly, a company that’s always had a strong following from lads who like to sport the ‘casual’ look, has suddenly found itself joined by a host of other companies targeting the same sort of customer, Weekend Offender, Luke 1977 and Peaceful Hooligan to name but three. Once an underground thing, the terrace ‘look’ is now readily available on the internet and the high street. The good news is, the Dads are still wearing the clobber and now, so are their lads, but, all round, money’s tight, times are tough, and Brexit definitely hasn’t helped.
“The collapse in the pound to dollar exchange rate has made a big difference. We’re designing and buying a year in advance so when we went to China straight after the Referendum, we found everything was costing us 15% more, it’s too much to absorb, we’re going to have to pass that on to our customers and they’ll have to pass it on to their customers, the guy coming into the shop. It’ll be January before you see the real impact but it’s coming, prices are going up, not just for us but for everyone.”.
Craig says it’s ‘adapt to survive’ that’s the key phrase at the moment, especially if he and the white rose are going to be around for the 50th anniversary. With a good design team and lots of experience of making all sorts of footwear, he and his staff are in demand for ‘private line’ work, producing stuff on behalf of other companies. The school shoes range is proving extremely popular, Craig actually invited his old school, Morley High, to come in and discuss their requirements after they put Nicholas Deakins on a list of shoes that pupils weren’t allowed to wear, that knowledge has been adopted in the design and using leather offcuts from furniture manufacturers is helping keep quality up and prices down.
Craig still takes a part in the design process, still goes out with his designers to see what it is people are wearing both here and abroad, to make sure they continue to make clothes and shoes that people want to wear. “We still get people contacting us asking us for shoes that came out 18 years ago, or wanting their original pair resoled or repaired. We have to tell them we can’t help, the factory’s gone, it’s a housing estate!”.
As for the anniversary, it’s being marked with a special range of collaborations on shoes and coats with the iconic terrace brand, Peter Storm. Well-designed jackets have become a staple of the clothing range, “Simplicity is the key to success with clothes and footwear. A lad wants to go to the boozer to meet his mates and he wants to look smart but he wants to fit in. He doesn’t want them to say, ‘you look a bit of a dickhead in those!’. So, we do nice branding, a subtle logo, decent fabrics. On the Peter Storm coat, we’ve taped up the internal seams to make it waterproof and added a hidden orange zip to the pockets. There’s a detail on the drawchords as well, I was looking at them in the factory and thought what can I do to make them different without making them ‘over the top’? I added a couple of little orange hoops. You’ve got to look for it but it’s there. When our customers see that attention to detail, they’ll know we haven’t just chucked this together, we’ve thought about it, it’s part of a considered process. Many of our customers have been obsessed with nice clothes all their lives, they’ve got a really well developed eye for something that looks ‘right’ and something that doesn’t!”.
There’s no big plan for a party to mark the quarter century, discussions were held with Back to Basics founder Dave Beer, also still in Leeds, about a joint venture but Dave’s plans for some sort of trans-global party tour seemed a tad over ambitious in the current economic climate, so Craig’s planning on taking the 10 or so members of staff out to the pub for a few drinks to celebrate, very Leeds.
“The thing that gives me the most satisfaction is that, after 25 years, we still have a relevant brand and I still love to sit down and talk about it with people like yourself. It’s been a hell of a journey from starting with nothing, highs and lows, but I still have the passion and we still have people that want to wear it, want to buy it. My Dad worked here, my Mum, my brother works here now and Stuart’s been with me for 24 years. It’s been a real team effort. The challenge now is keeping it going, keeping it relevant.”.