A visit to Alt-Berg in Richmond, Yorkshire a few years ago gave me the idea of exploring the development of a new boot model. Mike Sheehan, the owner and senior boot maker, agreed to help and the stage was set. Alt-Berg makes classic designed leather boots, using the best materials and, where appropriate, new technology with the emphasis on good bootmaking and good boot fitting.
We worked our way through a series of stages that set out the development process clearly. The initial idea usually comes from a combination of the following:
• problem solving – for instance, a new tabbing boot based on feedback and the work done on Svartz footbeds with Headley Court.
• a gap in the product range
• repetitive fitting or boot performance issues.
Design follows naturally from the idea and it takes around two years to develop a new style. Mike said, “I always consider the look of boots first and then re-design for fitting; fitting design takes the longest.”
Materials and components come next and he noted, “I work with the same suppliers on a long-term basis. I don’t ‘chop and change’ on price and tend to stick with tried and tested material components but always looking at these key criteria: weight (lightness), ease of use – ‘D’ rings, durability, desorbency (drying out), genuine technical reasons why a material may be better – not the ‘marketing spin’. Assessing and balancing pros and cons takes time – and experience.”
Lasts are the foundation of Alt-Berg’s success. Mike said, “An Alt-Berg customer can buy another boot, made on the same last, even after 15 years.” Developing a last appears to be as much an art as a science and it was interesting to note that he avoided the crutch of CAD in favour of the more complex skills of eye, experience and manual execution in size grading.
Traditional cement lasted has been Alt-Berg’s main method of manufacture although other constructions have been looked at recently. Mike said, “The main key is the patterns – the grading and continuity; I try to avoid too many changes. Where upper construction is concerned, I like minimal stitching – combined with the best quality materials – and I definitely like simplicity. Achieving simplicity in design and manufacturing is probably the most difficult thing I try to do.”
Testing of pre-production samples of new models takes two parallel routes: Intertek and SATRA for testing to British and European Standards plus wear trials in the field. He said, “I have a small number of people who test boots for me. Some are the same size as me, so I wear the boots first, and then pass them on to them.
“I have continuity in the people I use for testing because over the past 15 years, they’ve come to understand quite a bit about the bootmaking and materials. They can interpret what is happening on the foot in a way that is meaningful to me. For instance, on boot flex issues, they would recognise the contribution of each of the factors that determine flex.”
The unique form of Alt-Berg’s lasts and the work in development required makes them a key asset that needs to be protected. Mike said, “I use trademarks where appropriate to protect innovation but other than that it is difficult to protect. Also, there is a good deal of cynicism in the market about innovations with trademarked names. That’s mainly because, most of the time, the fancy trademarks are nothing more than marketing spin with no substance behind them. I only trademark genuine developments.”
Nobody spends time with Mike without becoming aware how much personal and professional integrity matters to him so I asked him to sum up his attitude, He told me, “It goes right through the business and the products. It’s all about long-term relationships – suppliers, customers, workforce – and you can only develop long-term relationships based on honesty. Absolute 100% honesty. For me it is black and white – there are no grey areas when it comes to integrity.”