SPEND an hour in Simon Bourne’s company and it’s hard to believe that this charismatic, successful entrepreneur was in the depths of despair less than two years ago.

With his dream of establishing a hand-made shoes business seemingly in ruins, the guilt of failing his family was too much to bear, and Simon suffered a nervous breakdown on Christmas Day.

“I’ve suffered with anxiety and stress all my life and there were times when I was so low, I felt like ending my life,” he admits.

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But look at him now. His Hand Dyed Shoe Company is celebrating a successful first year as a limited company and is the latest business to move into the grand setting of Ushaw, near Durham.

“Life’s good,” says Simon as he smiles beneath his twirly gentleman’s moustache and relaxes on a leather sofa in his new business suite at the reborn former seminary. “I used to ride my bike past here as a kid. Now I’m part of its future.”

It all began for Simon in 2014 while working for a furniture company that specialised in exclusive, hand-dyed leather sofas. One of his tasks was to pick up leather off-cuts and chuck them in the bin. “It suddenly hit me that it was madness to throw this stuff away, and I wondered whether I could use the off-cuts to make accessories and dye them,” he recalls.

He started with bags, selling them on eBay for £20 each, and he was encouraged enough to add hand-stitched, hand-dyed belts, lap-top bags, and phone cases to his repertoire. His real ambition was to sell made-to-order shoes but there was one major problem – he could hand-dye leather, but he couldn’t make shoes.

He took to the internet and found a family shoe-making business in Spain. Within days, shoes made nearly 2,000 miles away were being hand-dyed in Simon’s bedroom in Langley Park, County Durham. His first sale came in January 2016, when a former Chester-le-Street book-seller, Colin Elrick, bought a pair of “chestnut wingtips” for £185. Simon made just £15, but it was a start.

However, he wasn’t satisfied with the quality, so he moved production to an Italian shoe-maker called Roberto. The quality was “fantastic” but, six months later, Roberto announced he’d had enough of making shoes.

Simon had taken a bank loan and, overnight, his source of quality shoes had stopped. Devastated, he suffered a nervous breakdown. “I’d chased a dream, staked everything, and was consumed by guilt that I’d let my wife and little girl down,” he said.

Just when all seemed lost, a message landed out of the blue from a man called Mario, an agent for a shoe-maker in Portugal. Mario sent a sample, the quality was outstanding, and Simon saw it as his last chance of salvation. He convinced his wife Lauren, a student midwife, that he should fly to Portugal and, with no money for a hotel, he slept on a bench at Stansted Airport.

The next day, Mario took him to the company’s workshop in Porto and Simon outlined what he wanted: a wide range of pay-as-you-go, made-to-order shoes, including the option of embossed customers’ names. Designs were sketched, language difficulties overcome, an agreement reached, and Simon flew home with renewed hope.

The relationship proved to be a perfect fit, with 12 beautiful pairs of £295 shoes being sold within four weeks. Simon had taken a job as a manager at another furniture company, but he quit to concentrate on the blossoming shoe business.

The Hand Dyed Shoe Company was established as a limited company in August 2017. Simon was still based at home but, by November of that year, he’d moved into his first business premises in Langley Park. With sales picking up, he recruited an apprentice and began looking for a new location – “something bigger with a sense of romance and destination”. Fate struck when he went for a haircut in Bearpark and was introduced to Dr Ian Leslie, a relational coach, who had a business unit in the former Ushaw College.

Up to seven years ago, Ushaw was an historic seminary for training priests but, over the past four years, it’s been re-opened as a tourist attraction, events and exhibitions venue, and business hub. “I went to have a look and knew immediately that it was perfect,” says Simon, who is now happily settling in to the old President’s Suite at Ushaw. He’s also repaid his loan, invested £16,000 in a new website, and orders are coming in thick and fast.

The suite even features a “Shoe Shine Theatre” with 1920s seats from a theatre in Alnwick and, during consultations, customers have a choice of champagne, wine, gin or “proper coffee”. “I want buying shoes to be an experience,” he says. “Ushaw is ideal for that – I could see it becoming a destination for craft-based businesses,” he says.

His aim is to turn the Hand Dyed Shoe Company into a global business. Ambitious financial targets have been set. He has stockists in London, Dubai and Leicester, with plans to add more.

Perhaps bolder still is his vision is to build a team around him who’ve experienced mental health issues. Digital marketing apprentice, Amber English, who suffered from panic attacks before joining the company, is the first such recruit. “My message is ‘don’t give up’ because you can do incredible things,” says Simon. “This is just the beginning for me.”

  • The Hand Dyed Shoe Company
  • The President's Suite, Ushaw Estate, Ushaw College, DH7 9RH.
  • W: handdyedshoeco.com