Kenneth McClure makes shoes. About three pairs of them a week. The shoes he makes are traditional but distinctive. If you owned them, you’d probably wear them every day. If you visit his showroom-workshop in Sheffield, you might find him bending leather or punching lace holes on incredibly noisy, vintage machinery.
“I’ve been a maker of things from a young age, first being taught to darn by my grandmother around age six” he says. As a young man Kenneth studied Design and Craft in Ireland, creating his strong affinity and appreciation that intricate makers' language present only on hand-produced works. While studying Fashion Design at Edinburgh College of Art, turning two dimensional patterns into 3D forms came naturally to Kenneth. He didn’t realise it at the time, but leatherwork and shoes would become an extension of this.
Later, when he met his wife Amy, making is something they shared. As a teenager, Amy had made clothes. Amy took Kenneth to see Guat Shoes, a workshop specialising in Guatemalan sandals in Crookes, a hilly and student-filled Sheffield neighbourhood. The owner Bridget was thinking of winding the business down as she approached retirement, and Amy’s had a hunch that Kenneth would fall in love with it all. She was right, “The machinery all made sense to me and felt quite natural” Kenneth says. He began working with Bridget, and later bought the business from her. An unexpected turn, which felt entirely intuitive. When he renamed the business Noble & Wylie, it was after the maiden names of his mother and wife.
Materials have always been at the core of Kenneth’s work. Before Noble & Wylie he designed luggage and soft goods. Though Kenneth says that the other side of these creative pursuits were often just as rewarding. He worked for a while as a pizza chef, and a massage therapist. “It’s an unusual thread, but there has always been an element of using my hands, intuition, of crafting or caring, and an appreciation for the body. Our feet are the root and base to that structure.”
Neighbourhood is also important to Kenneth, and the Noble & Wylie operation. The original Crookes premises were needing a lot of repair work, and with the threat of the landlord turning the space into a house looming, Kenneth found the space on Abbeydale Road, a much-loved strip of road which alternates between international food spots and independent coffee shops and bars. He says they plan to stay there for a long time.
Conscious is an overused word, but Noble & Wylie shoes can be genuinely described as conscious. All the shoes are made to order, which reduces waste, and means the customer gets exactly what they want. Kenneth starts with taking a foot drawing and measurements to ascertain the best size and styles for a customer. Customers choose the leathers, styles and soles, and can customise down to some of the smallest details. The leather he works with is all by-products from the meat industry. Everything is resoleable and repairable.
The leathers come in sides. He carefully examines the piece, choosing the best parts of the leather, tweaking to the customer’s particular fit. The uppers are then cut out by hand, and the edges skived (thinned at an angle) where needed. Most styles are stamped on the tongue with the Noble & Wylie logo, which is Kenneth’s interpretation of the seven hills and five rivers on which Sheffield is built. After trimming and glueing, the shoes are steamed, taking on their finished form, and left to dry for at least 24 hours, before trimming and sanding to a smooth finish on the finishing machine. After one final check and polish, they are ready to be worn.
Home life is busy: Kenneth and Amy have three young children and their dog Rufus. If he has time he’ll get out for an early morning swim, if not, it’s coffee and stretching at home before the school run. Then he’ll cycle in from the suburbs to the workshop on Abbeydale Road, a place he’s been steadily making feel like a home away from home. A day in the office alternates between emails, resoling old shoes, making new ones, and holding customer appointments. Often curious passers-by will wander in, enticed by the shoe shop that isn’t quite a shop.
As someone who is obsessed with the minutiae of making, he extends his approach to the rest of his wardrobe. He admits, his assessment criteria is meticulous. “The first criteria is style, does it fit with the rest of my wardrobe, and do I actually need it. Secondly, is the fabric; is it quality, is it natural, will it last. And then, how is it made? I used to be an absolute perfectionist, and if it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t right. But I’ve realised that there is a lot to gain from appreciating the imperfect maker's mark on an item”.
It makes sense. For Kenneth, it’s all about the story behind the garment. “Where was the garment made, where was the fabric woven, and who is the company I am buying from? Who am I supporting? It matters now more than ever that we buy from who we believe in, so each purchase I make, I feel is a vote for the kind of world I want”.