Interview: John Happ of Alden, and the danger of fashion
During Alden’s recent trunk show at Trunk Clothiers in London, I chatted to John Happ (Alden’s Director of European Sales) about why he dislikes talking about heritage - and the penny loafers they didn’t make for Ernest Hemingway.
Permanent Style: How did you start out in the menswear industry?
John Happ: I’ve been in menswear since I got out of school. I speak a couple of foreign languages, and that’s how companies have got to know about me, and use me. I studied at the University of Madrid for a year, and worked first in Latin America and then Spain. I’ve since learnt French, German and Italian.
Do you get to use all of them enough to keep them up?
I do, even when I’m not travelling and at home - in correspondence, telephone and email. I’ve been very fortunate in that sense, because I love working with real people, in their local market. If I’d been a physics guy or a math guy, everything would be done in English.
It’s interesting that that happens still in fashion retail, where it’s disappearing in so many other industries.
True. It can be hard to keep them all in your head though. I remember doing a trade show in Birmingham once, for an equestrian company. It was before the euro, so we had French prices, German prices, Italian.
I was turning from one person to another, answering questions in different languages, when a young woman comes up and asks about the materials in a pair of boots. She said she was a vegan, and then asked how much they cost. And I panicked, I was thinking ‘vegan, vegan, vegan, do we have a vegan price list? There’s German, Italian, but vegan? Is it a currency? Where do they use the vegan?’ It took me about five minutes to realise what she was talking about.
Things are a lot easier with the euro now I guess. How do you generally juggle prices around the world?
As a US company, I think you have to pick a dollar number and stick with it for a while, whatever it is. The local prices in other countries might vary with the exchange rate, but you can’t start changing your prices all the time to deal with that.
So you were working in other parts of the menswear industry - when did you start for Alden?
About 15 years ago. I had got to know the owner of Alden (it’s a private company) because I was working for Bass in Europe and Alden was looking to share some warehouse space with us.
When they lost someone on the sale side, one of us got in contact with the other, and I ended up joining Alden.
How has the company grown in that time?
There are no public numbers, but as an example, we’ve grown from one customer in the UK to seven in that time, which is a lot for us. And I’m sure the factory personnel has grown by at least 10%.
Interestingly, Alden has always been very strong internationally, but in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve become really strong in America. I’m not sure how that works, but it’s been a big part of our growth.
Do you think that’s been driven by fashions around heritage, craft and vintage clothing?
Perhaps. People talk about men today buying not what their father bought, but what their grandfather bought. Maybe there’s something to that.
I try to shy away from discussions of heritage though, because it sounds so fashionable. Alden certainly has heritage - they’ve been making shoes in the same way, with real people stitching real leather, since 1884. But it's not what I want to focus on.
Why don't you like talking about the heritage?
It just sounds like you’re jumping on the bandwagon, selling on the basis of where it’s made or how long it’s been made for. I hate the idea that people just look for that on the label.
Is it more a question of avoiding anything that’s fashionable?
Yes, perhaps. There are long-term cycles in the market that mean the brand is hot for a while, and then it’s not. But the people that want to buy from us when the brand is hot are not good long-term clients.
We are lucky to have very good, very stable demand, and so there’s little incentive to go chasing these new customers. We want to sell to people that appreciate the product on its merits.
Can you physically make any more?
There isn’t much capacity - the factory is pretty full. And that means for every pair you give to the fashion guy, you’re not giving it to the traditional customer. We could be better on delivery generally, we certainly could, so we want to always prioritise that long-term customer that is worth investing in.
I’ve generally argued on Permanent Style that it doesn’t matter where something is made - that that can be a rather lazy assumption of quality. Would you agree?
Sounds rather controversial - which is great to hear! Yes you’ve got to ask, what is the point of the product? Is it just to be made in the UK or the US?
From my point of view, we are selling a practical shoe with orthopaedic origins, designed to fit and to be comfortable. The toe shape of our shoe is not a fashion shape. The lasts were originally designed for people with specific foot, leg and back problems.
Some of the lasts are more extreme, and sometimes those lasts get picked up by fashion people, but we have to explain to them that that’s not what we do.
Interesting that the shoes were so specifically orthopaedic to start with. Do you think they can still have that role today?
Well, that niche is more filled by people like Dr Scholl’s today, but the principles of good fit and comfort are the same - control your heel, support your arch, provide a natural foot bed, which forms with the pressure of your foot.
I remember a fashion customer in Amsterdam, big Alden fan, wore them every day. I said to him once, ‘I think you’re wearing the wrong size’. They were too small. I got him to try a size up, and you could see the light go off in his eyes. He finally got what I’d been talking about all this time.
That’s what my job is - to push people in that direction. Not to sell shoes because they’re fashionable, or heritage, or because Elvis or someone wore them.
Do people bring up those stories a lot?
Yes, in fact I had this guy approach me recently at Pitti Uomo. He had just got back from Cuba, where he’d visited Hemingway’s house. He swore that in Hemingway’s bedroom there was a whole line of Alden penny loafers.
Well, Hemingway died in 1961, and we didn’t come out with that penny loafer until at least 1967. This guy was sure he had seen Aldens though. I guess when you’re that well known, people just assume.
What’s the biggest issue with the way people buy and wear Aldens today?
Well, one issue is the lack of widths available. We can make many widths, but most shops don’t have the stock to offer them. I’m a 10.5 A, for example. My foot shape is very narrow.
We have some shops that stock 3 or 4 widths, but they are the exception rather than the rule. I guess that’s one nice thing about doing made-to-order trunk shows, but it would be fabulous if more people carried a greater range ready-made.
Is the supply of raw materials an issue? I know a lot of tanneries have been bought up in recent years by the luxury brands - though I guess that’s more at the top end of the market.
Yes, that’s more top-end calf and exotics. We had a big shortage with cordovan over the past five years though - the biggest I’ve known. We’re just coming through it now. I’m not sure quite what was behind it, though at one point people were saying that car-seat makers had started using the butt of the horse skin as well as the rest of it.
How has managing the factory been?
It’s been OK. We certainly have issues when the economy is booming and everyone wants a job in Silicon Valley, and benefit when things are worse and factory jobs look attractive.
The factory hasn’t physically grown though. We took a decision not to do that a few years ago because the availability of raw materials was a big constraint, and it still is.
How optimistic are you about the industry, and perhaps the world, in general?
Well, there’s a lot of uncertainty, that’s for sure. But I’m pretty optimistic.
I'm a student of history, and I have to say we’re not living through the worst of times by any means. You have to take the long view - there is so much less war, strife and hunger than there has been in the past. It’s just that we’re so much more aware of it these days.
Nice to finish on an positive and progressive note. Thank you John.
Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man
Clothes: Caraceni bespoke cotton jacket, with linen shirt and fresco trousers. Full review of the Caraceni jacket next week