SIMON Bourne from Durham wants to change the whole concept of selling shoes. Sarah Millington meets the man with major ambitions

OPENING the door of The Hand Dyed Shoe Company’s new premises near Durham, you’re greeted not so much by a shop as an entire world. Shoes stand in pairs in vintage apple crates stacked against the wall and at the far end is a home-made shoeshine station with – of all things – vintage theatre seats. There are shelves of dyes (a dye-stained apron hangs from the wall) and in the back corner is the old Victorian school desk where Simon Bourne – who describes himself as a Shoemaker Extraordinaire – executes his craft.

But this is far from just a glorified workshop. As you sink down on the beaten-up tan leather sofa or matching chair, you’ll be offered a drink – which could be either coffee, sourced from Ouseburn, or something a little stronger. Glance across to the window and you’ll notice the drinks globe (literally a globe for spirits) containing local Durham Gin. As a shopping experience, it couldn’t be less conventional.

Loading article content

In the midst of it all is Simon, with his full beard, artfully-curled moustache and hair swept back with a flourish. He fits the setting perfectly – and so he should, with the business being, by his own admission, an extension of himself.

When he acquired the unit, within a courtyard just off a busy Langley Park road, he knew exactly what he wanted – somewhere stylish but welcoming; a place to linger and enjoy being made a fuss of. The shoeshine station isn’t just a prop – part of the service Simon offers is a complimentary buff and polish – and by providing drinks, he hopes to put people at ease. For him, it all boils down to one simple thing: customer experience.

“The business model is that I want to change the way people buy shoes,” says Simon, 32. “I’ve always found shoes a really fascinating product. I love shoes. I love dressing up and I have my own unique sense of style. That’s where this concept of creating handmade shoes, made to order, that can be customised and made in four to six weeks came from.

“When you come in for a consultation, it’s not just a case of in and out in ten minutes. It’s very much an experience. I want to get to know my customer, to find out what they want to wear – are they happy doing what they’re doing or do they want a change? I’m here to guide you through the process and have some fun.”

Having tried offering blanket choice, which he felt only baffled the customer, Simon has modified the business to provide 18 models and 15 colours. He only makes men’s shoes, using classic shapes like brogues, or Mr Rump, as he calls them – all his styles are named after cows – and once you’ve chosen your model and colour, you can add customisations like embossing or a monogram. Simon doesn’t actually make the shoes – that’s done by hand in Portugal – but takes delivery of them in raw russet leather which he then dyes. Whatever the customer wants he’ll try to accommodate it.

“If you came to me and said you wanted a colour that wasn’t in the 15, I could still do them – I would just have to use a different type of dye,” says Simon, who lives in Langley Park. “The USP is you can have whatever you want. You don’t need a pencil and an easel – you can just follow the simple model then eventually come out with a one-of-a-kind, exclusive pair of shoes.

“There was a customer in this morning who said the thing that attracted him was the fact that these were his shoes. He chose this colour and that style, and he chose to put his date of birth in. I’ve done many shoes for weddings. Weddings are a huge thing for me.”

The shoes Simon has on today – olive green Mr Rumps – are his current favourites, with the “burnt” toe and heel effect that’s become a trademark. Hugely important to him is that people are free to express themselves, whether through plain black or bright pink. “We’re a repressed society because we’re all driven by the high street,” he says. “I say screw the labels – be yourself. What I’m not saying is that I would encourage anybody to buy a red pair of shoes.”

So crucial to Simon is the customer experience that he’s prepared to go the extra mile – sometimes literally, like when he drove to Sheffield with a pair of shoes after a delivery went missing. He sees the business as not just a shop, but a social enterprise.

“I want to create a company that people want to work for, that does things for the world,” he says, without a hint of irony. “Part of my desire is to create a charity that will run alongside The Hand Dyed Shoe Company that will do quite incredible things in the world. It will ask people to donate their old shoes so we can distribute them throughout the world. It’s not just a little workshop in Langley Park.”

While the shop has just opened – though the business has been trading online since 2015 – Simon already has the future mapped out. In the short term, he hopes to branch out into other parts of the UK. “I’m looking to replicate this in London, Edinburgh and Newcastle,” he says. “On the back of that, I would love to put this into Liberty of London, which is a brand I absolutely love. That would be almost like a rubber stamp of ‘I’ve achieved it’.”

An optimist by nature, he doesn’t intend to stop there. “I’ve got massive ambition, but I believe the profit will come when I get the service right,” he says. “I’ve got ambitions to have stores around the world – New York, San Francisco, Dubai. The experience would be the same.”

For now, though, Simon is content doing what he loves – making shoes and making his customers happy. “Nothing has ever been to a timescale or a business plan,” he says. “It started as a hobby of me dying shoes in my bedroom – now it’s turned into something much bigger where I’ve got this desire. I love to be liked and I think if I can create a business that does that, I’ll die happy.”

  • The Hand Dyed Shoe Company, The Courtyard, Langley Park, Durham DH7 9XE.
  • For more details visit: handdyedshoeco.com