Introducing Modern English

31st May 2016

There’s a new, unisex footwear brand on the scene, blending traditional Northampton craftsmanship with distinctly urban sensibilities.
Cryptically stamped with the logo ‘MDN ENG’ (short for ‘Modern English’), this under-the-radar label is committed to making English craftsmanship relevant to a younger, edgier audience. What’s more, it’s giving half of the money it makes back to English craftsmen and women.

Modern English Trainers and Sandals come in 6 colours – and sizes to fit men and women
Modern English Trainers and Sandals come in 6 colours – and sizes to fit men and women
Typical of this people-powered brand, Modern English’s next collection is now available to pre-order on Kickstarter prior to the launch of its high-street collaboration with the Natural Shoe Store, in July.
We sat down with Modern English’s founder, Jamie Harris to find out what makes him tick…
Modern English founder, Jamie Harris. Image by Marc Lilius
Modern English founder, Jamie Harris. Image by Marc Lilius
When did you first decide you wanted to design footwear? 
About 3 years ago, I wanted a pair of shoes and couldn’t find anything I liked. So I decided to make my own.
Did you have a background in design? 
I grew up in the wake of punk, which was an incredibly creative moment in time.
Punk encouraged ordinary people to express themselves: to make the most outrageous ‘costumes’ they could and to act out on the high streets of Suburbia. At the time, ‘design’ wasn’t a word on everyone’s lips. There was no snobbery about creativity. In fact, the more crude or visceral your efforts, the better! Which left a generation of people like me believing anything was possible. Quite a few of us ended up at St. Martins just because punk was so closely affiliated with the college. But we did more posturing than studying for the most part.
Do I sense a certain disdain for design education?
After punk, it felt like there was nothing original left to express. So design reverted to ‘style over substance' – designers continue to remix the styles of bygone eras – and design education focuses on getting paid for delivering more and more of them into industry. It's consumerism in its purest form. No one ever asks, “Do we need another dress, another T-shirt, another pair of shoes? Do we need more designers?”
Is Modern English really any different?
Our motivation isn’t just to create more and more things to sell. We want to create something worthwhile. We consciously opted out of fashion’s relentless cycle. We don’t work to seasonal deadlines… We don’t release anything 'til we think it’s right.
When you say ‘We’, you’re referring to craftsmen?
Yes, Modern English really is a collaborative effort. I work with traditionally-skilled English craftsmen and women. Together we come up with what you see.
So when did this small idea of making a pair of shoes, turn into the brand, ‘Modern English’?
When I started looking for craftsmen to help me that first pair of shoes, I very quickly learned that making in the UK wasn’t easy. The shoe industry had all but disappeared. It took me months to uncover the names of a few functioning factories – and none of them were interested in working with me!
It was at this point, I started calling around some of the industry bodies (The British Footwear Association, The British Fashion Council, The Manufacturing Advisory Service…) and they all told the same thing; “Don’t waste your time, trying to make things here.”
I was being advised to go abroad by the very people I considered should be looking after our home-grown industries. This made me so angry that I decided I needed to prove them wrong. That’s when I came up with the name ‘Modern English’ – because I wanted to show my commitment to making in this country.
Modern English shoes being developed in Modern English’s Northampton workshop
Modern English shoes being developed in Modern English’s Northampton workshop
Making in the UK is notoriously expensive, how did you manage to keep costs down?
It’s all about designing intelligently. Designers who have no idea how a shoe is constructed tend to make stylistic decisions that are hard to construct. Factories have to figure out how to replicate these and, the more difficult and time-consuming it is, the more expensive the final product becomes. I simply sat with the craftsmen and women to understand how they worked and we designed not just the shoes but also the manufacturing process – knowing that the more efficient this was, the more cost-effective and higher quality the final products would be.
Does your route to market also impact price?
We decided, as part of our commitment to manufacturing, we’d split everything we earn 50/50 with our makers. And we also decided not to penalise our customers for our decision to make in the UK – so we don’t inflate our prices based on the fact we are “handmade in England”. We also sell mostly direct, which allows us to control our prices. Though we do have an exclusive partnership with the Natural Shoe Store, where we will sell a limited edition, from July.
We like to be accessible, which is one of the reasons we offer collections to pre-order via Kickstarter.
 Video thumbnail
Find out more about Modern English and watch their brand video on Kickstarter.
Words by Sophie Exton

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