This piece was created in partnership with Crown Northampton, but that doesn’t really matter—Stitchdown would never publish a partner piece with a brand or product that we don’t believe in incredibly deeply.
Almost a decade ago I was a sneakerhead. I wasn’t the textbook Hypebeast chasing every drop, and I’ve never flipped a pair in my life. But with 70+ pairs of Nikes and Asics and New Balance and FEIT and OG Pumps and you-name-its filling up a 500sqft Manhattan apartment, I couldn’t have been mistaken for much else.
Then I developed a stress fracture in my foot, and spent four months dragging a walking boot around the snowiest NYC winter in a decade. The doc told me it was the sneakers’ fault—no support!—and urged me to get myself into a real pair of boots or shoes. I listened to a doctor for the first time in my adult life, and, well, here we are—telling the ever-important story of the wonderful world of welted footwear.
I didn’t acquire a new pair of sneakers in a half-decade.
But wait all of a sudden I’m back wearing sneakers! Because Crown Northampton’s mad shoe-genius owner Chris Woodford made some out of Horween shell cordovan, Crown’s Harlestone Hand Stitch Derby—including my pair that you see above, in Color 4 shell (which is available now as a limited-to-20-pairs MTO run).
And that rarest of upper leathers is honestly just a fraction of the story of these shoes: simple, beautiful sneakers built with the materials, techniques, and precision of some of the best welted footwear in the world.
Crown Northampton’s Unique, Winding History
In 1908, Earnest Woodford & Sons was founded on South London’s Love Walk by (you guessed it) Earnest Woodford. Bespoke shoes were Earnest’s game, and while the London clientele certainly offered a level of taste (and wallet size) that aligned with his aims, before long Earnest couldn’t resist the gravity of Northampton—England’s past and current cradle of quality shoemaking.
As the decades and world wars passed, the Woodford operation grew. By the 1980s—now under the watch of Earnest’s great-grandson Andrew Woodford—it went the private label route. More than 250 craftspeople in three factories manufactured impressive amounts of handsewn moccasin-type shoes and boots for large British retailers like Marks & Spencer—and also all of Lonsdale’s boxing boots sold around the world.
Around that time, Chris Woodford, Earnest’s great-great-grandson, was trying not to get into TOO much trouble as a young child, running around his father’s factory. “Pretty much my first ever memory is from when I was four, being surrounded by the constant repetitive clicking and tapping sounds from the industrial sewing machines and workers thinking: ‘this place is massive.’”
But it didn’t last. “At the time, it was a brilliant idea, upscaling everything into mass production without his own brand,” Chris said. “In retrospect, it was a terrible idea. His story’s really, really common. There’s a reason there are so many flats where there were once factories in Northampton. All the department stores all went, ‘well actually we can get these cheaper anywhere else in the world.’
“My memories later in life are, ‘everything’s gone. There’s a lock on the door.’”
But Andrew Woodford was undaunted—he had to keep making shoes, one way or another, and started another small operation that eventually began making hand-welted bespoke shoes. Chris, now out of university and unsure what the hell to do with his life, made the only logical decision: go into the family trade.
Chris’s arc started with learning the precise art of pattern-cutting—selecting and cutting specific pieces of hides best suited for different uses on different types of footwear—before getting schooled by masters on hand-lasting, hand-welting, and every other step of bespoke footwear construction.
Perhaps inevitably, he had become a shoemaker, and 15 years ago Chris Woodford created Crown Northampton, the first branded effort by his family in well over half a century. Now the only thing to decide was what type of shoes he wanted to create.
Channeling his learning from the factory floor, Chris created designs based on his knowledge of hands-on manufacturing and bespoke detailing. Crown Northampton launched their Jazz Shoe Collection, comprised of elegant, lightweight, and honestly funky dance-shoe-inspired models that sell in Japan like so many British hotcakes.
From this pared-back, hyper-minimal Jazz Collection, Crown Northampton’s core DNA then filtered down into all other collections, where each stitch and finished detail is there for a reason—and if there’s no valid reason for it, then it’s simply not included. A desert boot and a unique desert shoe (which speaks deeply to my boot-shoe-loving heart) in Horween and C.F. Stead leathers—including their wonderful reverse snuff kudu— then came onto the scene, followed by their extensive Sneaker Collection, even more so inspired by the minimal style of the Jazz Collection which is itself due to be revamped in full early next year.
Crown Northampton Sneakers
Then, after creating a lineup of beautifully straightforward sneakers, Chris decided to pose a challenge to himself: could he leverage his bespoke knowledge to create the best-made sneakers in the world?
“I just thought: what if I design something using the best materials, off the back of what I do with the welted shoes? Oak bark stiffeners and toe puffs, the best I can buy of everything. In a sneaker.” Chris said. “So that’s where the cordovan models came about.”
While the pattern and overall design of the Harlestone could only be described as minimal, Crown’s shell cordovan sneakers are an exercise in shoe construction maximalism. The base of everything is a layer of good ol’ fashioned Northampton cork topped by oak bark-tanned insoles (clocking in at 3.2mm), heel counters, and toe puffs from fabled British pit-tanner J&FJ Baker—the same used in some of the world’s best hand-welted bespoke shoes.
Then comes in Horween’s famed shell cordovan, which is fully lined with premium veg-tan leather, then hand-cut and hand-stitched at the toes and dogtail in the rear of the shoe before being attached to the insole.
From there, a sidewall stitcher secures 100% natural Lactae Hevea outsoles that Crown commissioned to match Chris’s custom last. (Something I never realized until Chris told me, probably because I haven’t thought about sneakers very much for a decade: when a manufacturer buys a sneaker cup outsole, nine times out of ten it will only work with the last that comes along with it. Just think about it—a cup sole is a set shape. The only way to change the last is to customize the sole.)
This video by Friend of Stitchdown/notorious shoe-cutter-upper Rose Anvil gives you a fantastic look at what’s going on inside Crown’s Harlestone Hand Stitch Shell Cordovan Sneaker—it’s absolutely worth a watch.
How the Little Things Add Up to Create a Lifetime Sneaker
If you’re going to make shell cordovan sneakers, you might as well do every single thing to an insane standard. The materials are only half the story—Crown’s process tells the rest of the tale, one that would otherwise be invisible.
“Cordovan is notoriously tricky to work with,” Chris said. “There’s a lot of prep work.” The shell is hand-skived to allow for a hand-folded French binding, and a backer is also placed on the quarters of the shell, to ensure the oak bark heel counter isn’t visibly protruding.
But perhaps the most crucial element is one that ensures Crown’s sneakers can be resoled time and again—something that very few sneakers can truly claim. Roughing the edges around the sidewall of the sneaker removes the leather’s top surface. This creates a firmer adhesion for the glue Crown uses—but also means the shell cordovan won’t be damaged when the shoe is pulled apart come re-sole time.
The idea of a shell cordovan sneaker that you eventually have to throw away is outright criminal. The idea of a lifetime sneaker is more than a bit contradictory. But here we are, with Crown’s shoes combining things that make no sense, and making them make sense.
“It is a little bit bonkers,” Chris mused. “But I don’t have that thought process of ‘is this nuts?’ I had an opportunity to make something that’s the best it can possibly be, and to train the staff in the best possible way. It actually didn’t matter if I didn’t sell a pair in the first year, because it’s about me being honest about everything I’m doing. It’s just who I am.”
The Harlestone Shell Cordovan Hand Stitch Derby Lineup
While everything is made-to-order, Crown has essentially a “core” range of Horween shell cordovan colors—bourbon, black, dark cognac, and Horween’s legendary Color 8 shell cordovan—paired with your choice of the natural Lactae Hevea outsole in black, off-white, or gum.
That lineup of Harlestones are available constantly, and Crown has the shell stockpile to back it up.
Directly below Crown’s top-tier shell cordovan collection, the Harlestone Hand Stitch is available in a damn fine veg-tanned calf in a range of colors, premium Scottish deer, and olive oil-tanned buffalo from Horween which features a very unique shrunken grain.
But things start to get even more interesting with their limited-release shell cordovan drops, in which Crown will make available 20 to 30 pairs each (still made-to-order!).
While the rest of the half-dozen forthcoming shell colors are being kept under wraps for now, 20 pairs of the color 4 model that I’ve been wearing and loving shown above (but again, your choice of sole color) are available as of…right now.
Every Order, Made To Order—With VAT Excluded!
Crown Northampton’s business and manufacturing models are completely intertwined, with the brand holding zero stock and every pair being made-to-order for each customer. And their turnarounds are rapid: all orders are quoted to be delivered in 20-30 working days, or 45 days for shell cordovan orders.
The upsides are manifold, with the lessening of Crown’s environmental impact being paramount as far as I’m concerned. But also, it creates a lack of need for flash or Black Friday sales to move out old product, streamlining Crown’s business and letting them focus on simply making fantastic shoes.
On the pricing front though, Crown Northampton shoes are basically always on sale for non-EU customers. After you complete your checkout at full price, Crown will refund you 20% of your purchase price. Not bad! Not bad at all.
To Memory Foam or Not Memory Foam?
In addition to the positive environmental impact, made to order also means the ability to customize your Crown Northampton sneakers in certain ways (including with a wider width fitting—more on that below).
The standard version of the Harlestone Hand Stitch Derby does feature a very thin 3mm layer of memory foam between the oak bark insole and leather sockliner. The idea is to create a bit more of a sneaker-like, out of the box feel without sacrificing the ability for the insole and cork to mold themselves to your foot over time. I personally quite like it! Or at least, it certainly troubles me in no way.
However, if you’re seeking more of a welted shoe feel straight away (that’s a cool thing they say in England…not bad, huh??), Crown can omit the memory foam during construction. Just note that request in the cart notes box just before checkout.
Alright Let’s Do Sizing!
It’s honestly pretty easy: Crown recommends going a half size bigger than your size in other Northampton welted shoes (a la Tricker’s, Crockett & Jones, etc). I went .5 down from my D-width Brannock size, which squares up solidly with that recommendation in some Northampton lasts. And they fit beautifully in terms of length, width, volume, everything.
The other way to determine size is to compare the JP/CM sizing on Crown’s size chart—which is measured directly from the last—with the JP/CM from your favorite fitting sneakers or shoes. Crown get a ton of questions about sizing, and they’ve found this is one of the most accurate means to really dial in yours.
Crown’s Northampton’s Harlestone sneakers are all offered in an “F fitting,” which I’d say is quite similar to a US D width. However, they also offer all sneakers in a wider G fitting—to make that happen, just add ‘G fitting’ the cart notes box just before checkout.
The Final Take
It’s no stretch to say that Crown Northampton has created a special and absolutely differentiated product with their shell cordovan Harlestone Hand Stitch Derby sneaker. And when you begin to understand Chris, it’s easy to see how Crown Northampton was the brand that could make it possible.
Chris still lives on the factory floor, where on any given day he can be found personally executing some aspect of the shoemaking process. While he keeps a slight distance from the sidewall stitcher these days—which almost cost him his right eye after an accident a few years back—he especially enjoys the hand-cutting of the shell cordovan, a nod to his own shoemaking roots as a pattern-cutter.
“I like to learn each process so I can teach others, and they can get better at it than me,” Chris said.
“At the end of the day, I’m just a guy working in a factory. That’s me. That’s how I want to be.”