Northampton is the centre of traditional boot and shoemaking in the UK, and one of the
oldest companies there is W.J.Brookes & Co, founded 110 years ago. Competition forced a radical
change in focus for the company masterminded by boss Steve Pateman. They now specialise in fetish designs for both men
and women. Having been featured in endless magazine and newspaper articles and on TV shows like Esther and Trouble At The Top this most
traditional of companies is fast becoming known as The Kinky Boot Factory.
We met Steve Pateman at the Divine factory in Northamptonshire. The building, tucked away on a
street in a small village was quiet and still.|
Once I had been buzzed in, I found a small shop lined with the tallest, shiniest and
most impractical shoes and boots possible. With them hung an array of clothes that would
look perfect on a club dance-floor.
Divine now also offers a wide range of cool and kinky
clothes to match their carefully well made but outrageous shoes.
Steve Pateman says modelling high-heeled shoes is "no big deal"
Originally the company that Steve and his father before him had worked for produced
traditional men's shoes. The leather brogues and boots had been made there for over a
hundred years and made the company very successful with a large part of its market abroad,
particularly in Germany. However, the strength of sterling made exporting virtually impossible.
The effect was that suddenly without the company's costs changing at
all, their shoes cost a huge amount more abroad. The customers in Germany dried up.
Their orders went from thousands to twenties and before their eyes their export base
disappeared. Worse still, the strong pound meant that English customers could import
shoes for much less and those customers vanished as well.
It was at this point that Steve got a call from Sue Sheppard from Laces in Folkestone,
who had heard of the company through the Footwear Federation. She rang to ask if they
could supply shoes for her. Her existing suppliers were very poor and caused all sorts
of problems - bad fitting and inconsistent quality, unpredictable delivery times and
unreliable quantities and cost. Though Steve had never had anything to do with the
fetish market, he could see that there was something that his company could do. They
could answer those four problems - cost, fitting, delivery times and quantities. With
this in mind, Steve rang round all the adult, fetish and other shops he could find and
asked them what they needed from a supplier, and if he could help them. Many of them
were interested. Up until that point, he had thought that fetish was a tiny minority
and that his company couldn't make enough sales to make it worthwhile. But as he asked,
he found more and more people saying they wanted exactly these kind of shoes.
From this beginning, Steve set up Divine to market fetish footwear made at his factory
and went to the Dusseldorf footwear show in March that year to see if this radical change
of direction would work. They had plenty of interest and it looked like Divine could be
a success. Steve received another call from the Footwear Federation. The Financial
Times was asking for quotes for a piece on the state of the footwear industry. He told
them that from his perspective, the industry was in great difficulty and that for
his company, Divine would be a make or break move. If he couldn't make a success
of Divine, then his company would close.
The article was printed a day or so later. That same afternoon, he received a call
from the BBC. The series and show producers for the documentary 'Trouble At the Top'
wanted to film what his company was doing. Divine had all the right ingredients for
their program - a company in difficulty, a family business with a plan to solve their
problems. On top of that it also had that extra ingredient - sex! Or if not that,
then the next best thing - sexy shoes!
The programme was an immense success. However, the company had originally
employed more than seventy people. When 'The Kinky Boot Factory' was recorded
there were only fifty five and at the end of the first year they were down to
twenty one. Though the programme was a success, it was slow to translate into sales.
Divine was going to save the company, but only just. Unfortunately a deal with a
US company collapsed with Divine owed over thirty thousand pounds. After such hard
work this was to signal the end of manufacturing at Divine. They could no longer
support the large factory and workforce and still focus on quality.
Happily, Steve managed to contact a small family firm of only four people who were
willing to train in making the shoes that Divine was now selling. They took on the
manufacturing and in a neat twist are now themselves growing to meet the demands
for quality fetish shoes.
In the mean time Steve has produced the Divine catalogue
and recently launched a web site to sell shoes and fetish wear. We talked to him
about his catalogue and the products he sells.
Divine also sell fetish clothing from designers like David Spain
OutUK: You're no longer just selling your own shoes in your new catalogue?
Steve: Yes, it's our own shoes, plus the ones that we buy in from America. I've
been going out to America twice a year anyway to support our customers out there
and build extra business. There we came across the new platform shoes by accident
and loved them, I thought they were absolutely fantastic. I put two and two together
and brought them here. Of course now they've caught on and everybody in the high
street is trying to get them in. But we still have the edge - they're bringing
them in as cheap imitations from Portugal, Italy and Spain, but they'll only play safe.
The companies we deal with are the best - they sell to the lap dancers and cage dancers
on the Californian coast and their products have had to stand the test of time.
OutUK: But it must be difficult to maintain the quality?
Steve: When I started this I said that I wanted to be so different from everyone else
and to do that we've had a lot of advantages. For instance, as I said on the
programme a lot of fetish shoes are made on ladies fittings which start at a
size three and go up to an eleven or twelve - but they're all just graded up or
down from a ladies size eight so a bloke is having to take two sizes up. What we
did was keep the ladies sizes from three to six and then for a size seven up to
thirteen we had our own last, our own fitting made based on a man's brogue but
for a thigh length boot or court shoe. It's received loads of support not only
from the men, but also from women, because people's feet are getting wider and bigger.
OutUK: And now you're doing your own web site.
Steve: Yes, that's coming along. We've had to re-shoot the pictures to get the right
level of detail, but it's coming along. Everything that we've done we've tried to
learn from, to try to move it on. I love the freedom and excitement of this - though
I always miss working in the factory, I've always enjoyed marketing and talking to people.
I really enjoy doing things like the interviews, and now I even do after dinner speaking.
Last week I did my second lecture at Leicester University to mature business students!
The tutors want to show people how businesses are run and though we haven't always done
the right thing, we can at least explain why we've taken this approach.
OutUK: That must be fun. How do the students react?
Steve: Well I always ask this question. After I've told them what I do I ask them 'Does anyone
think I'm a pervert?'. Usually a couple of hands creep up, but I ask them to consider
that we've just had Christmas. We went to see a pantomime where there were two blokes
dressed up as women, a woman dressed up as a man wearing thigh length boots and slapping
their thighs - and that's children's entertainment! That's been going on for years.
You go back to the cavalier times and they were wearing frilly cuffs and long boots
with high heels.
In actual fact we were aiming the shoes mainly at women - between seventy and eighty percent.
But we also knew that men buy them and needed to show them in the catalogue. The documentary
saw that and played that up quite a lot. People ask why I modelled the shoes for the catalogue
and it's quite simple. I wasn't going to drag someone off the shop floor, and I have roughly
average sized legs. We had to show the shoes on a male foot, to show that they really do
work - so really it had to be me and I have no problem with that. Then if I was going
to model them, I couldn't have hairy legs, so I had to shave them. It's just not a big deal.
We did Esther a while back and we had given one of the researchers a copy of the catalogue
so they could see what it was like. Esther walks in to the show through a sort of tunnel,
so the audience can't see her until she steps out. I was sitting there thinking 'Oh gosh,
she does children's charities, things like that, what will she think of me?' As she
came out, it was the first time that she had seen us and she had the catalogue in
her hand and gave us a big thumbs up. She just said 'I admire what you did'. It's
amazing how it crosses barriers.
OutUK: How do your customers break down now? You were saying that you were initially aiming
more at women, but the BBC played up the crossdressing angle?
Steve: After the first Erotica show we exhibited at the majority of our customers were women. Then as the
programme went out, and we got more involved with the crossdressing scene because
the programme put out that image. I would say it has evened out a lot more.
We get a lot more men buying now - we do a lot of styles that will suit men.
Hopefully the guys who have bought from us are saying 'These are good quality,
I got them quickly and I'll get some more'. We'd like to do more - but it's very
difficult. Some of the other catalogues show men dressed up wearing the clothes,
but they look so much men, which doesn't look very nice. The way I'd like to do
is that when I do do it, it should look as good as possible. I can see that a
crossdresser doesn't want to look like a bloke in bad drag, he wants to look
like a model.