After 130 years in the business, British shoemaker Barker has all but perfected the art of footwear manufacturing. The company has upheld the finest cobbling methods ever since Arthur Barker made his first pair of boots in 1880. But now, as other shoe companies jump on the heritage bandwagon, employing century-old techniques and producing footwear that often looks like a relic of bygone eras, Barker is moving in the opposite direction. Barker Black, the brand’s luxury offshoot, is all about boldness and modernity.
In 2005, the company, based in Earls Barton, England approached Derrick Miller, then a designer for Ralph Lauren, to help market Barker in America. He saw the opportunity to turn a brand known for its quality, but lacking in modern style, into a fashion-forward line for a younger generation. “I didn’t feel like there was anyone in the market making a shoe that appealed to cool guys that wasn’t a cheap throw-away thing.”
It may sound oxymoronic, but Miller’s path to developing a modern Barker actually took him further back into British history. As inspiration, he landed upon the 17th Lancers, a cavalry regiment of the British Army during the 18th and 19th centuries. “They were a very arrogant, hardcore group of guardsmen. They were well-known for being well-dressed,” he says. Miller adopted the regiment’s badge, a crowned skulled and crossbones, as the logo for Barker Black. It can be found on every shoe, whether hand-stitched onto a velvet slipper, perforated into the toe of an oxford, or hand-tacked onto a pair of boots. The effect is jarring, to say the least—a seemingly classic shoe design interrupted by an iconoclastic image.
As for construction, Barker Black remains faithful to Barker’s meticulous attention to detail. Every pair is handmade by expert cobblers in Earls Barton, the same village where Barker has been making footwear since 1880. “The production manager and I went through every single process and pulled the best craftsmen … It’s about looking at shoe manufacturing as a historical entity. A lot of the details were lost because they weren’t profitable. I love bringing back some of those details that other people weren’t really using or paying any attention to.”
Case and point, a Barker Black shoe may be left on the last, a wooden brace that gives the shoe its shape, for up to 30 days. “The cheapest, fastest way to make shoes is to bang a bunch of them out and not leave them on the lasts very long,” says Miller. “But that means the shape of your shoe isn’t going to stay for a very long time.” Using such old world methods means it can take as many as 16 weeks to produce a single pair of Barker Black shoes, but Miller says that guarantees the quality his customers are after. “There is a huge interest now in how many steps there are to make a shoe. How many tacks are in the sole? How long it takes to do the tacks? How many coats of polish are on them? People are interested now, and when you can back up your product and educate your customer, it’s better for everybody.”
Barker Black truly understands the symbiotic relationship between substance and style. Too often, fashion is concerned with one at the expense of the other—consumers either get high style with little substance to back up the product, or vice versa. Derrick Miller may be considered a renegade artist by some, but he is, in fact, that rare designer who finds a way to bridge style and substance—the two essential ingredients in all fashion and art.