As an ad exec in the early 90s, Tim Little reinvigorated Adidas. Now, as creative director and owner of Grenson, he is raising the storied Northampton-based brand back to its rightful place among the elite men’s shoemakers. We talked with the footwear guru about his philosophy, his own line, and what he’s wearing.
Now that the last collection is out and placed in stores do you go back to the conceptual drawing board?
Next season is about three-quarters done already. It gets earlier and earlier these days because everyone wants the shoes earlier. They overlap and it starts to get weird. I often forget if I’m doing winter or spring/summer. What’s difficult is when there is a snowstorm outside and you are working on some new lightweight shoes, you know, for the beach.
Tell me about your process—from going back through the really rich archives, to doing things like the Glenn boot.
What we’re really well known for is the brogue, the classic wing tip. When I got involved I took the real classic beauty they had from the ‘50s and kind of reinvented it. From that shoe we’ve developed different versions—a really chunky version, a lightweight version that is more summery… Suede, things like that. Then there are shoes like Glenn. I saw this article with a picture of an Italian marching boot from about 1900. It was slightly awkward looking because it was so old, but we changed the last and we changed the materials a little bit and then I just made it look a little more up to date. Sometimes a shoe will start just completely from scratch.
You do some really great collaborations, like the Glenn with Tenue de Nîmes. How do you decide on the people you work with?
The one thing we do is we only work with brands and companies we like. We don’t like the collaborations that don’t make sense—a café in Manhattan collaborating with a shoemaker in England, you know, what are they doing? We’ve kind’ve kept it at a minimum. De Nîmes is a great one. And Tres Bien in Sweden—they’re a fantastic brand, a fantastic store. What they like to do is choose one of our shoes and then kind of customize it to them.
You know, you are probably the reason I wore shell-toe Adidas throughout my adolescence and the reason I am wearing Grensons now.
Amazing. I was working at an ad agency and we were hired by [Adidas] in ’92, when they were being destroyed by Nike all over the world. They’d become really un-cool. We started getting the old shoes out, saying, “you’ve got these amazing old shoes.” To start with they were really reticent about doing it, saying, “well, that’s old fashioned. We want to be modern.” Well, [I said,] “People are going to vintage shops looking for these old shoes. They’re desperate for them. And these are the people setting the trends. You want to start looking at the back catalog again.”
They were the coolest shoes in the world.
Which was your favorite? The shell toe?
The black and white shell toe with the fat laces.
Yeah. Well I’m a big gazelle fan. I always liked the straight gazelle.
What shoes do you wear now?
I wear mainly Adidas gazelles—of which I have about 15-20 pairs at the moment. And I wear classic wing tip brogues a lot. And then the other thing I wear all the time is the whole cut, made out of one piece of leather with no seams at all. I love the simplicity of it. Also I wear a few things—you know there are always patterns around the factory that were made slightly wrong—so I wear a few shoes that aren’t quite right. But that’s another story.
Where does Grenson fit in the cosmology of shoemakers?
What’s nice recently is the revival of brands with a story—heritage or older brands. People love the idea of buying a shoe from a shoemaker rather than from someone famous for a perfume or something. When you’ve got story and depth you are able to sell to everybody of all different ages. We get letters from an 80 year old guy who was a sergeant major in the army sending his shoes back to the factory 30 years ago and we’ll get an email from an 18 year old who has just saved up enough to get his first pair. It’s nice not to have a target audience. We just want to make nice shoes, really.
Does all of this leave you any time to work on your own line?
No. Hardly any. Over the last few years I’ve done bits and pieces but I haven’t done as much and had as much fun with it as I should’ve done. That’s the plan though.