Arriving at Starchild HQ you are instantly transported into the world of its owner and designer, Janet Middleton. Having worked in the shoe manufacturing industry for nearly twenty years, Janet has experienced every side of the industry; from high fashion labels such as Vivienne Westwood to women’s shoe factories in Leicestershire, Manchester and Cumbria.
Janet now lives in Loughborough and Starchild shoes is based in Ibstock. Starchild shoes and Janet’s return to Leicetershire all came about following the birth of her baby boy in 1998. Suddenly swinging from the hectic world of London’s high fashion brands to the land of bibs, baby-grows and blankets, Janet found herself frustrated by the lack of boy’s footwear products on the market. Bored of the same navy palette, Janet chose to make a purple shoe with yellow stars and so Starchild shoes was born.
Janet met with Team GBE to chat all things Starchild and we also wanted to get this shoe industry patron’s thoughts on British manufacturing, her experience so far and how she feels more could be done to support British producers.
So, in the beginning what was it like at Starchild shoes?
When I first started at home I had nothing; no set up, no money, just an old sewing machine. It was really hand to mouth and a bit like ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’. I’d researched the baby market and knew I wanted to make something organic, soft and natural. I’d also come across a child’s style of shoe called ‘Bobux ’ from New Zealand and I just thought, ‘I can make these… but I think I can make them better’. So I did and I knew I wanted to sell to independent retailers and be quite niche in regards to suppliers. I really concentrated on designs that would relate to the UK market and as things progressed we started to get calls from stores like Harrods and retailers overseas and we just went with it.
What do you think is the appeal overseas for British made products?
The Chinese are incredible at copying designs and products but they struggle to set trends. Our Beijing client loves us because to them we represent something that is not only well made but well designed and has a story and heritage.
In France there is a certain snobbery towards imported products but they are our biggest overseas market at the moment. Britain is really famous for quality and even though the French hate to admit it, they love our products. Our Union Jack design is the biggest seller there and it’s because they love the image of ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ and of course the Royal Family.
British products give people a connection to our heritage and our identity.
You’ve mentioned that British products are internationally identified as being of high quality. How do you view Britain’s manufacturing industry now in comparison to when you first started making shoes?
I’m hugely passionate about manufacturing in the UK and people like Mary Portas have been great in raising the profile of manufacturing; but we really struggle in regards to training. Years ago there were footwear training centres and colleges where you could do two weeks of intense training to learn the machining; nowadays there’s just not much help.
Recently we have been looking for a ‘cutter’ and every time we interview we hear stories of people applying through the Job Centre and being sent on IT courses because that’s all they can provide; it’s ridiculous! We have lost a whole generation of skilled workers as a result of factories closing and now we’re struggling to teach younger recruits; people who have the knowledge to teach are nearing retirement age and what’s even sadder is that the machines we had here in the UK have all been sold and shipped off to the Far East so we having nothing to teach people with. If I hadn’t bought a machine from a factory where I had worked my business wouldn’t be here today and not only that but it’s the running of that machine and it’s components that sustains a whole other workforce. It’s not just people like me making products that are a part of British manufacturing, there’s a whole other workforce that could be brought into play if the trend for manufacturing here in the UK continues.
Training young people is really important to you and your business, what can be done to attract more young people into manufacturing?
Manufacturing needs to be rebranded, young girls want to be beauticians not machinists. Years gone by being a machinist was considered a good job. It was seen as an opportunity to learn a skill and make something. I think the media does belittle the industry somewhat, factory workers are always given the role of the underdog. I’d like to tell people what we make and how we make it and that these products do end up in Harrods being bought by Princes!
Not everyone is good at dealing with the public and these roles are suited to people of that ilk. It’s a great community environment and you do learn skills and above all you make something.
You mentioned there about a sense of ‘community’ and here at The GBE we feel that is really important and needed for British producers. Given your experience what do you feel you can share with other British producers?
When I look back at how I started and the milestones we’ve passed I remember how scary it was. Being restrained by your finances and daring to get a loan, employing our first outworker and paying a wage for someone, getting premises, lighting bills and rates, it’s a lot to take on, on top of making and developing your product. You then have marketing and selling to consider as well. I think a lot of the elements of running a business are underestimated and more free help is needed. If The GBE can provide help for businesses facing these decisions I think that’s great.
I’d also happily share contacts I have in regards to materials and resources. For example we use a tannery in Italy where we source our custom made leather. I have an exclusivity agreement with him that he can supply the leather we create together to other people as long as it’s not baby shoe manufacturers. There’s no point keeping all your contacts to yourself as that doesn’t benefit the industry as a whole and as long as I can protect my product I’m more than happy to support other makers.
So what lies ahead for Starchild shoes?
Well recently we employed a PR person to support the business for 12 months and I know it’s not for everyone but it really promoted our business in a different direction. That’s helped me recognise that I can promote the business in different ways, so I would like to start a personal blog about the every-day running of the business and I’d like to explore more projects like my recent collaboration with the charity ‘Hands Up For Uganda’. It’s great to have got to the point in my career where I can get creatively involved with others and even without consciously meaning to I do find that there is a cyclical path to everything where somehow Starchild is involved in one way or another.
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