Conker shoes – a Totnesian institution, goes a long way back. 1977 in fact. Originally a co-operative of several people and inevitably having several changes is now owned by Simon Gwilt and Yvette Worrall.
Passing through the immaculate showroom takes you into a thoroughly functional factory space where the handcrafted work gets done. Simon explains that he needed a change from being a builder and took on the Conker brand a few years ago.
Daughter Katie, is next to us, working on glueing a partial sole to the uppers in a process getting them ready for stitching later on while Paul is machining a brogue at an ancient Singer on the other side of the room. Simon has emerged from a noisy closed room where he was completing some soles on the spinning finishing wheel. Everyone here is involved in the manufacture of a rare thing today. Handmade and bespoke footwear that is sold throughout the world. The leather they use has seen an increase in artisan suppliers supplying from the UK although the majority comes from overseas. This brings up the question of Brexit. Simon is ambivalent about the decision, however the delay in coming to a conclusion is a cause of frustration. “Businesses don’t know where to jump next so everyone just seems to be waiting. People are spending less because of the un-certainty, so that has some affect on our sales over the last year.” He doesn’t appear overly concerned- the recent refurb of the shop is evidence of their confidence. “I just wish they’d get on with it!”.
The workshop is noisy with activity and there are racks of projects in progress and in preparation including shelves of handbags in a miriad of bright attractive colours. Colour is a constant theme throughout. One of the racks has worn shoes that don’t look like they would go well on the glass shelves in the showroom. Katie explains, “These are being prepared for re-soleing. We always have shoes here that people want us to put new soles on. They last a long time and owners dont want to lose a pair of shoes they absolutely love”. The care and attention to each pair made here is obviously very important. Simon shows me some modified lasts that are shaped specifically to pre-measured feet. There is a card with each that has instructions for the shape specific to the customer. “We have thousands of these on file. It means a customer might see a new design on instagram and can order it, knowing we will make it with an exact fit”.
As is fitting for a business in Totnes, everything is done with sustainability in mind. There are extractor fans with multiple filters to extract everything back outside, nothing is wasted or thrown away. A bin of leather remnants is overflowing and ready to be offered to makers who can re-imagine the next form the leather will take. Simon picks up a piece, turning it over to reveal a gleaming gold finish. “What maker wouldn’t want to create something beautiful from this?”. It’s obvious that he loves what they do here.
The sustainability runs through-out the business back through to the airy shop front where they also stock items from organic producers MonkeeGenes and from ethical producers such as People Tree. I offer that this is ‘high end’ stuff! “No, not really.” Simon explains “The quality is extremely high, but it not expensive and I would say it’s mid-range when it comes to price.” He show me a black cashmere sweater made in northern Spain by Fair Trade company Skunk Funk. “This retails at £120 for example, cashmere usually costs a lot more than that!”
Finally we look at the finished shoes made here. They aren’t cheap, but considering the craftmanship, care and quality of the finished product, they really aren’t expensive. These are shoes that can last a lifetime. They always stock 4 width fittings and half sizes for each shoe on display but if you want a multicolured shoe in colours and style of your own choosing, they’ll make that for you. It takes about 6 weeks.
Simon and the dedicated team at Conker seem proud to be part of the High street and seem to exemplify what makes this town so unique. Conker shoes are the definition of Totnes.