Kelvin keller – king of comfort
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photography by Pip Andersen
Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. That’s a piece of advice that a previous boss gave me early on in my career. Thinking about it, this was, perhaps, a subtle hint to sharpen up my exterior presentation, as I did look like a wandering minstrel at the time with a strong leaning towards the bohemian end of the fashion spectrum. Either way, I found it to be true and made my peace with the fact that, sometimes, first impressions really count and, in the business world, that means sometimes having to don a Southgate-esque waistcoat or, dare I say it, even a tie.
At Grow, we have a relaxed approach to what we wear, opting for comfort in the recent heatwave rather than formality. That said, we don’t half scrub up well when we need to if we do say ourselves. However, even my finest attempts at looking the part would have paled in comparison to Kelvin Keller, Store Manager of Loake Shoemakers on the corner of the Cathedral Green, who I recently met with for a chat. Dressed in the finest tweed, with a complimentary salmon shirt, floral bow tie, ornate cufflinks and a particularly nice watch, he looked every bit the English Gentleman. This strong first impression was only reinforced when I caught sight of his shoes; a pair of hand-crafted, beautifully designed brogues made by Loake themselves.
Now, if you ask my wife, she’ll tell you that I have more pairs of shoes than she does (a bare-faced lie of course). I might have been known to buy a pair or two in my time though and to say I was excited about meeting Kelvin for a chat, would be an understatement. There is something about the feel, fit, smell and aesthetic of a shoe that just does it for me. Well, good ones anyway. So, as I sat down with Kelvin on a roasting early-afternoon a few weeks ago, I was ‘all ears’ and couldn’t wait to find out about the high-end shoemaker’s recent arrival to Exeter.
But first, let’s meet Kelvin. Originally from Leicester, and with a background in hospitality and catering, he worked his way up from washing pots to eventually becoming a Head Chef and running his own businesses. Throughout this journey, his training and experience were centred around the satisfaction of the end-user, a value similarly upheld at Loake. More on that a little later though.
As his hospitality business grew, Kelvin found himself working eighteen-hour days, seven days a week and he felt that he was missing his daughter’s upbringing. Eventually, he decided that enough was enough and ‘upped sticks’ with his wife and daughter to Els Poblets in the Valenciana region of Spain. This was no ‘Ex-Pat-endeavour’ though as they threw themselves into local life, learning the language as quickly as possible and immersing themselves in the local culture. After six years in Spain, the Keller family returned to England, moving to Bath, which had been recommended by his sister-in-law. They lived there for six years too, during which time Kelvin was the Store Manager of a Gentleman’s Shop called Havana House, selling whisky, cigars, shaving accessories and other such fare. It was as the owner of Havana House that he became a customer of Loake Shoemakers in Bath, purchasing fifteen pairs during his time in the city!
Behind the scenes, a family company called The Brogue Trader (started by Cardiff-based businessman Chris Macnamara four years ago) runs this and eight other Loake Shoemakers shops in the UK. Originally stocking many of the finest brands of men’s shoes in the world, they started to sell more and more Loake Shoes, to the point that they decided to make their relationship with the manufacturer exclusive and only sell Loake Shoes. So, even though The Brogue Trader is a small family-run business, they brand all of their stores as Loake Shoemakers. With Exeter becoming the ninth Loake Shoemakers shop in the UK, it joins Cardiff, Oxford, Chester, Edinburgh, Bath, Canterbury, Leeds and Glasgow in the high-end shoe revolution of the British high streets, and their tenth shop is due to open in Manchester within the next few weeks. Fitted with Axminster Carpets, Chesterfield Sofas and leather wingback chairs, Loake Shoemakers stores have carved out a reputation not only for the quality of shoes that they sell but also for their unique approach to the customer experience. Potential customers are treated to a glass of wine, a cold beer, a chilled soft drink or a selection of high-end teas and coffees whilst they are given a custom-shoe fitting by an expert member of the Loake team.
“People are used to knowing their shoe size, which is often completely wrong, walking into a shop and just buying a pair off the shelf. In fact, many people haven’t even had their feet measured since they were children and still do that awkward walk around the shop that their parents taught them to do as a child too! What we do is offer a bespoke service to each client, insisting that they let us measure their feet even if they feel that they know their shoe size. Almost always, people are at least half a size out and, sometimes, as much as one or even two sizes out. The look on people’s faces never gets old, when we tell them their actual shoe size, or when we offer them a beer or a glass of wine as we’re measuring their feet. The customer experience that we deliver is based solely around comfort and convenience, something that many aim for but few manage to deliver. It is what makes us unique and what keeps our customers coming back over and over again.”
This approach clearly works, as Loake have a special club called ‘The Six Pair Club’ where purchasers of their sixth pair of Loake shoes get the seventh pair for free. You don’t buy six of something that isn’t truly excellent, do you? As previously mentioned, Kelvin himself purchased fifteen pairs of Loake shoes as a customer before joining their team; a common pattern at the Loake where many members of the team are happy customers from years gone by who are so bought-in to the brand and its approach that it eventually makes sense for them to become official brand ambassadors and work for the company.
I thought it would be rude for me not to try out this custom-fitting service, so as we continued our chat, Kelvin measured my feet and fitted me with a beautiful pair of ‘Edwards’ Brogues; a light tan, pure leather, premium country brogue with Goodyear welted rubber soles. Without exaggeration, they are the nicest pair of shoes that I have ever tried on and they fit perfectly. And guess what? I was a full size smaller than I thought I was!
A real foodie and a fan of all things fine, as our conversation drew to a close, Kelvin talked me through some of his favourite treats in life; a perfectly cooked Fillet Steak, a dram of Balvenie 12 Whisky, a glass of Pouilly-Fumé or reading his First Edition copy of ‘Uncommon Type’ by actor and author Tom Hanks. He also likes his Gin and, when I asked him if he had heard of Exeter Gin (run by the amazing Karen Skerratt) it turned out that, not only was he already a fan but knew Karen from his time in Bath where she ran a Gin Palace and was a central part of the food and drink scene there. It just so happened that I had a miniature bottle of Exeter Gin in my briefcase (not something I usually carry around, I promise) so I decided to gift it to Kelvin as a memento of our chat; a perfect example of the wonderfully tight business network of Exeter in action.
You will be hard pressed to find a nicer shopping experience, be served by nicer people or to find nicer shoes than at Loake Shoemakers. After just a few months of trading, they have already established themselves as an absolute gem in the retail crown of the city. Don’t just take my word for it though. Go and experience it for yourself.
Now, how much were those ones I tried on again…..