‘F-Troop’ was, according to Wikipedia, a ‘satirical army sitcom set in Fort Courage, Kansas’. And though Sergeant Sylvester, Captain Wilton and co. sound like a hoot and a half, we’re far more interested in F-Troupe, the niche London shoemakers who create semi-retro, semi-ironic but wholeheartedly gorgeous designer footwear. Stocked worldwide by Opening Ceremony and Urban Outfitters, the designs are drawn up in a pokey little basement in Soho, underneath their flagship store. We paid a visit to brand founder Mick Hoyle, to talk Monty Python and the specific width of Winkle-Pickers.
First things first, how did F-Troupe start out? Did you already have a background in shoes?
It started more than twenty years ago. I had some of the franchises for a company called Red or Dead, and then I sold them. After that I had a shop in New York. I started thinking about my own collection, looking around for styles I couldn’t find anywhere else. Then around eight years ago I decided to start making my own shoes.
Was it always planned to be a very London thing, a kind of heritage shoe company, to appeal to Dandy Revivalists?
Not really, though we are inspired predominantly by British history. But the line is full of all sorts of reference points. Britain has a great history of shoemaking; around the Midlands and Northampton there’s a major industry. Or there was, rather. It’s fizzled out now. But the core remains, craftspeople making good handmade shoes.
Do you test out the shoes?
Everything gets tested. We test them out ourselves- the samples usually come in my size. Right now they’re the shoes for next summer, so I get to wear them around town for a bit and see what they feel like.
What’s your favourite decade for inspiration?
I’m still really into Victoriana.
The golden age of buttons…
We find ways to put them onto everything. Lots of button shoes. We do Victorian gaiters with buttons on them; originally they were for tucking trousers into, and the military still have them for keeping their socks dry.
Do you look through archives for ideas?
We tend to buy antique shoes and get ideas from looking at those. Yes I have quite a collection at home, it’s pretty intense. It’s an obsession for me; I’ll just buy up anything I like, on the off-chance I can use it for work… We design the shoes ourselves from scratch, though I like to look at vintage shoes for ideas on details, or on the shape of the last. All our shoes are based on a wooden last, with a different shape for every one. When we made winkle-pickers, for instance, we based them on a Victorian style last with a squared toe instead of a really pointed one. They’re very different to modern winkle-pickers, a lot more elongated and with a bit of a heel.
Do the people who buy the shoes always know the work and thought that goes into each model?
Nearly all of our customers find us and come to us because they know what they’re looking for. They tend to be as thoughtful as we are about our shoes. They’re the kind of customer we really like.
Do you think there’s a more general move towards fashion nostalgia, with people going for old-fashioned, proper handmade shoes as part of that?
That’s true; we do a Made in England collection that’s our kind of Heritage Line, with the shoes made in Northampton. It’s very much part of a recession, that people go for something that will last, that they can wear more. We also get people every so often doing costumes for a show. They come in and buy ten pairs at a time. Some of the stuff is so relevant, for instance right now we’re very closely inspired by Victoriana, and it’s easier for them to buy from us than to remake period shoes.
‘F-Troupe’ was the name of an American sitcom in the sixties, right?
It was spelled ‘F-Troop’, like a cavalry troop, so we wanted to play on that and make it into a dancing troupe. It’s a combination of the two. The font on the inside of the shoe is kind of Germanic or Russian, industrial age-inspired.
Was building the brand planned out in your head from the start, British heritage with a bit of Monty python thrown in?
Oh the website is totally Monty Python! The hardest part was sourcing things; with the shoes just about anything can be recreated in this day and age, but for the shop how do you even begin to track town thirty Victorian tiles for the fireplace, or antique wood to make the counter out of? Though I’ve a got a great collection of Victorian bric-a-brac and curiosities and things in the shop, it was quite fun assembling it all.
Like the two-headed cat!
I got him in America from somebody who used to run a circus side show. I don’t think he’s actually real, though. We were going to have a competition to name him- right now we’re calling him Tintin…
Are you really the ‘Cobblers to Her Majesty’? (It says so on their shop sign)
Haha no! That was a bit of a naughty joke. An innuendo. You might have to be British -or maybe Irish- to get it, though…