"Bob Diamond wouldn’t hire a guy who had bad shoes," Sepand Oboudiyat informs me. And the latter has done very well out of the City’s predilection for fine footwear. The founder of new men’s shoe brand Sons of London has only been trading for seven months, but he’s already seen 75 per cent growth month-on-month.
Sitting at his desk a couple of years ago, the RBS and Deutsche Bank veteran inadvertently found a solution to a problem he was more than familiar with. “Like many people, having a nice pair of shoes is important to me. I’d spent my life waiting for designer sales and hoping I’d get lucky. One day, I was looking on Entrepreneur.com and I came across a profile with women’s fashion brand Everlane.” The founders had come up against the same thing Oboudiyat had: “crazy price tags that had been marked up over and over between manufacturer and retailer.” Everlane uses a direct-to-consumer model to slash costs and deliver a more transparent product to its customers. Oboudiyat found himself wondering if he could do the same for shoes.
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As an online-only brand with an extremely lean supply chain, Sons of London does not need the five to eight times mark-up employed to pay for branding and stores. “It’s not a con; you’re just paying for the privilege of walking into a store, seeing Leonardo DiCaprio advertising the clothes. But now, if you’re not interested in those things, there’s an alternative – a more modern approach.”
Sons of London offers “five sons” – each a different design of shoe. There’s the Toe Cap Oxford, for £180. Then the Semi Brogue Oxford was spawned, followed by the Double Monkstrap, Chelsea Boot and Strap Boot. Unlike mainstream competitors, you won’t find different versions of the same shoe – it’s one brogue; you can only change the colour.
Go on Oboudiyat’s website, and everything is remarkably simple. There are the five products, how to look after them and a story of how they came to be. Like other new founders in the market, Oboudiyat is rejecting “fast fashion”: “This is the slow fashion movement. People don’t want to buy things that will fall apart, they’re feeling increasingly uncomfortable with how and where things are made, and the environmental impact of that process.”
Provenance is important to Sons of London. “Made in Italy” wasn’t something Oboudiyat decided on because of the immediate branding connotations, but because he spent months trundling around and finding the best place to source and manufacture – and ended up there. “Everyone said when I started, ‘oh, you’ll get them made in Italy, presumably?’ and I said no, I’ll look at the fundamentals and start from scratch: where could I get the best price for the customer? Where could I get the best quality?”
He quickly moves on to Italian cows. “The conditions under which the cattle live is very lush, and they’re not particularly susceptible to nicks and cuts. The skills used are still very traditional, and it’s where I found the right factory with the right people in it.”
Relatedly, it then transpires that I’ve fallen victim to poor leather choice in shoes. I wave my feet around, complaining to Oboudiyat that the new pumps I’ve just bought have stayed smooth on one foot but wrinkled on the other. “Ah, the wrinkled one is likely belly leather, whereas the other one is back,” he tells me.
Jumping around subjects is something Oboudiyat has had to get used to. “The biggest challenge as a sole founder is the switching between disciplines you have to do. I have to dedicate days to different parts of the business.” At the moment, Sons of London is just him, the factory and an agency.
Yet something that has come as a surprise to Oboudiyat – more than the long nights and hours he’s spent alone – is the sheer amount of support he’s received. “I actually don’t feel like I’m working alone. There is so much support out there. Emma Jones of Enterprise Nation has been an inspiration – that was one of the organisations that made me feel like this was actually an option.” Ex-colleagues have also been very positive. “I suppose everyone’s got that little dream – however much they love their jobs. All my colleagues and friends from work were my first customers.”
Going from banking to entrepreneurship wasn’t difficult for Oboudiyat so much as “just about taking the first step. There are so many of us in that environment who have the means of doing something like this, but it does take a lot of balls. It’s an industry where you’re really well rewarded; that makes it hard to leave.”
So far, Oboudiyat has bootstrapped his firm – plus receiving a couple of small grants. I ask him if he’s considered alternative finance options, like equity crowdfunding. “I have, but what I really want now with investment is more expertise. I need a clear growth strategy, so really I’d like a partner – find someone with the skills I don’t have.”
In the meantime, he’s clear that, although he has suede versions of the sons in the offing for the autumn, he’ll never offer more than a few designs, or multiple price points. “I can definitely envisage having another two sons. But what we’ll never have is two versions of the Toe Cap Oxford.” And while he loves getting emails from satisfied customers, he knows who’s having the most fun: “this is the shoe collection I’ve always wanted; and now I’ve got it.”