Barker Black Brings its Edgy English Style to Los Angeles
In 1880, cobbler Arthur Barker broke ground on a factory in Earl's Barton, Northamptonshire, England. He was trying to fulfill outrageous retail demand for the highly regarded shoes and waterproof peg-sole boots that bore his surname.
In 2004, Derrick Miller took a walk through the Barker factory, chose the best craftsmen as his own and created a luxurious line of shoes with lambent style. The next year, he set up a retail post in New York to fulfill retail demand for shoes that bore the name Barker Black.
In 2010 the march west made The Other Coast, with Miller bringing Barker Black to Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles. Luxist was there, and we had a chat with the founder to find out how timelessness, The English Way of Shoes, rock-n-roll, and the Duke of Cambridge's Own 17th Lancers are all supposed to fit on a gentleman's feet...
Gallery: Barker Black Arrives in Los Angeles
Barker shoes sport their own courtly chic, stitched up with enough Goodyear-welted posh to keep the company in business for more than 130 years and land it a boutique on London's Jermyn Street. That cavalier's thoroughfare, named after Henry Jermyn, the first Earl of St. Albans, is also home to shoemakers WS Foster & Son, Edward Green Shoes, Crockett & Jones, Church's and Tricker's.
The shoemaking sextumvirate, however, is mainly concerned longevity – good English shoes are meant to last, employing construction techniques so impervious to time that you'd think they had been invented by Imperial Romans. It is not uncommon for a good set of English footwear to outlast an English car, and that makes fashion a bit of an issue. When you can be fairly certain that traditionally traced toecaps and brogues will still be usable currency in the upper suites in 20 years, why risk more? Or, as Barker coos on its own site, "In a world where things are constantly changing, it is reassuring that some things will always remain the same."
Cue elegans persona Derrick Miller, fresh from a tenure as conceptual designer for Ralph Lauren sportswear, to inject mode into the heritage. His project with Barker Black was to suffuse the classical composition of English shoes with a subtle tension of fashion – overlay Edward Elgar with touch of Jimmy Hendrix, adorn Empire with a little bit of electric.
"After going through the Barker factory and their range I could tell they make an extraordinarily good basic product," said Miller. "I just wanted to add a little more luxury to it, have a little bit of a different sensibility as an alternative to traditional English shoes."
The keynote here is that Miller is adding polished friskiness, in no way subtracting any of the hearty qualities that have given English shoes their renown.
"I've grown up around English shoes and I love them, but after you've had four or five pair of John Lobbs or Edward Greens you own the whole collection. Traditional shoes don't really move on a lot, so I wanted to create a collection that was a little bit more modern in feel, but because the shoes are going to last for 20-plus years they have to look good 20 years from now."
Almost all Barker Black shoes are still made in the Barker factory and the production manager is ex-Edward Green – a gentleman with 40 years in the business. Miller said it took about a year to select the best craftsmen from each step in the process of making shoes – who were then given their own area in which to work – and develop the methods and delicate madness behind the line.
"I came up with the first round of the collection in 2005, and it's primarily in the details that the modernization took place," said Miller. "We changed the specifications and upgraded all the materials and I designed lasts from scratch, so we have very traditional last shapes with modern shapes and designs on them."
The only exception to that is the driving moccasin. "The English are fabulous at what they do, but I tried to get them to make a lighter weight, easier-to-wear, rubber-soled shoe and it went down in flames. So I went to the people that do it best: I found a great manufacturer in Italy to do the moccasins for us."
In Barker Black there are four features that don't often cohabitate: the finest materials – like French and Italian calf and chestnut tanned and oak-bark tanned soles; the finest hand-built construction – like Goodyear welting and leather uppers hand stretch over four different kinds of lasts for up to 30 days; assertive style like the skull and crossbones motif and crocodile and suede golf shoe; and hand-finished stylistic details like the hand embroidery and hand-tacked waists, and crown cutouts in the penny loafers.
"I try to inject interesting detail into every shoe," Miller says. "Our velvet slipper has the skull and crossbones motif, but they're hand embroidered so they're all slightly different. I like the idea of everything about the shoes being that you can tell somebody did it by hand."
That also goes for details you might not ever notice or even see unless you're the owner.
"It would have been easy to have a machine tack the nails on the bottom of the shoe, in the waist, but that would defeat the purpose. On top, everything is finished by hand – some are a little bit darker, or a little bit less antique or more antique, depending on the mood of the guy who polishes the shoes."
That note of individual resonates not only in the making of Barker Blacks, but also in their inspiration: rock-n-roll, and even further back, the 17th Lancers.
The Lancers were a British military regiment dating back to the mid-18th century, and their fierceness in the clash led them to duty in immortal contests such as the Battle of Bunker Hill and The Charge of the Light Brigade. The regimental logo was a death's head above the words, "...or Glory," and they were not only known for having a warrior's arrogance but also the sartorialist's dress sense. Miller discovered them on an errand while at Ralph Lauren.
"I was at a silk mill in England and found a skull-and-crossbones with a banner underneath, and it was a really cool symbol of rock-n-roll mixed with old fashioned English sensibilities. The 17th lancers were known for their dress prowess and being an arrogant regiment, and I love the idea of taking that same mentality from who those guys would have been then and moving it into who they would be today: kind of cocky, successful guys. It doesn't have to be quite so serious, but it has a hardcore undercurrent to it – that's the mentality I have when I'm designing the collection."
Not that you ever need to have held a lance to appreciate a pair of the Lavenum Boots, Archdale Wingtips in antique chestnut calf, or high-top sneakers in white calf and royal blue silk – all you need to is to hold a pair of the shoes, a ritual carried out by a complex assortment of characters.
"It's a mentality that strings my customers together more than what they look like or what they do. I have hard core rock-n-roll customers as well as investment bankers who work in Greenwich, Connecticut. It's somebody with a rebellious spirit even if they're not necessarily outwardly rebellious. They'll buy the same shoes but it's about how they wear the product – I don't want to say 'ass kicking,' but you get a tough kind of vibe when you put the shoes on."
There are 30 different styles in the current collection, each with a couple of color combinations. The welted shoes begin at $775 and the boots at $1,025, or you can touch the sky with items like the crocodile and suede golf shoes that ring up at $3,250. The hand-stitched driving shoes start at $450 and come in three flavors: calf, a lightweight peccary hog skin of the same vintage used for driving gloves, and a croc moc for $1,850.
Barker Black doesn't do full bespoke, but they will do made-to-order if you want to alter a color or material. They also do ties, bowties, braces and pocket squares, with belts and scarves on the way.
"They all have the same thread of modern aesthetic meets old world," said Miller of the accessories collection. "If you're used to wearing an Hermes tie which doesn't necessarily have a sense of humor or hardcore edge to it, ours does, but it's done in such a subtle way that you can't really tell until you get up close. With everything we make, the details are so well hidden that the wearer is really the only one that knows about them."
If you become a Barker Black customer, best remember that sheer material endurance of English couture means you'll have a long time to get to know those details. And in fact, Miller's favorite thing among his own creations is how they shine throughout the years: "There's an aura you get from a pair of shoes that's really seen a lot of life, and I love that."
Barker Black's wares can be found at 450 N Robertson Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90048, or for those of you on that other coast, 198B Elizabeth Street, New York, NY 10012.