Within ten miles of the East Midlands region of England you will find a disproportionate percentage of cobblers. Among them are all the big British names you know well: Crockett & Jones, Tricker’s, Edward Green, Church’s, Grenson and many more. But among the big brands that have used the region’s abundant livestock and fresh water supply for hundreds of years, there’s one that stands out: Solovair. Since 1881, it has quietly produced its iconic hard-wearing designs, reflecting the quality of more formal shoemakers while producing rugged work boots designed to take a beating.
Stepping through the indefinable doors of its Victorian red-brick factory, where the company has been based since 1899, feels like stepping back a century. Time has stopped here. Sunlight streams in through skylights in the high ceiling, illuminating decades-old machinery and rows of shoes in various stages of completion. Each part of the shoe is assembled in this building, by hand, the old fashioned way.
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It starts with each roll of leather, equal to a whole cow, meticulously cut into the correct shapes for the upper of the shoe. This satisfying process is like a game of leather Jenga, tasking the worker with minimizing waste as efficiently as possible. The pattern pieces are then taken to the sewing room, where they are carefully sewn together on Puritan machines that are over 120 years old. One is particularly intimidating and pokes three needles at once, looking more like an M60 machine gun than a typical sewing device. During my visit, I resisted the instinctive urge to take cover and saw the upper of a shoe shaped out of a last and then fused onto a bouncy rubber sole by a machine that heats up to 1,290 degrees Fahrenheit, operated by a man without gloves.
If you thought Solovair’s rugged boots look like Dr. Martens, you’d be right. In fact, Solovair (or rather, its parent company, NPS Shoes) made the very first pair of Dr. Martens back in the 1950s and continued to do so, under license, until the 1980s. Dr. Martens eventually decided to move its production overseas, but Solovair stayed put, continuing to manufacture the styles it helped invent. He is best known for his derby work boots, with their rounded toes, high 8-eye ankles and extremely grippy rubber soles. When fused to the upper, these soles trap air in between for a bouncy feel, giving the brand its name: sole-of-air.
While the derby style now accounts for 99% of Solovair’s sales, it offers a range of boots. There’s the Astronaut, with its slightly more elegant posture, a quintessential chukka, a chunky-soled Chelsea boot, a speed-laced hiker, as well as derbies, buckles and loafers. All have the brand’s signature durable rubber sole, making them ideal for casual wear with denim and off-duty wear, but their practicality ensures they’re also suitable for workers in the factory they’re in. manufactured.
Northampton’s shoe industry is no longer as thriving as it once was: in 1840 it was estimated that over 1,800 shoemakers were producing in the area; today there are just over 25. Cheaper overseas manufacturing has almost wiped it out, but Solovair has weathered the tough times and is now reaping the rewards. It currently makes around 100,000 pairs a year, a fraction of what its biggest rival produces (Dr. Martens made 14.1 million pairs in 2021). The fact that some of fashion’s hottest streetwear brands, such as Noah and YMC, choose Solovair to make their shoes is a telling compliment, but that’s not what sets its boots apart. Solovair has been making the same shoes the same way for generations, and two world wars, a pandemic, or a recession couldn’t stop that. The brand is as strong as the boots it creates, and that’s tough.
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