Paul Sargent - back from the ashes (and hopefully not pricing itself out of the market)
I'm posting again! I make no excuse other than saying the world is a bit of a state right now, and it's just hard to sit down and write about shoes. But in the spirit of taking pleasure in the small things in life, I am back at the keyboard.
Early last year Alfred Sargent went into liquidation. A brand of considerable heritage but sadly declining sales, the company could not weather the pandemic's effect on traditional English dress shoes. I wrote about it here.
All is not lost though: the brand has emerged from the ashes under a new name - Paul Sargent - offering many of their previously popular styles made in the very same premises Alfred Sargent operated previously. Their new website finally features a shop where you can peruse what's available.
And just to put it out there - I really wish they'd go with a slightly more premium-looking font than they've chosen for the logo shown at the top of the post. Hopefully, that's a bit of a placeholder for them!
As Paul Sargent would know better than anyone, they enter the shoe market at a tumultuous time. It is perhaps today's spiraling raw material and production costs that have driven the brand to enter the market with some rather stretching price points, which have the potential to prove a bitter pill for would-be purchasers.
Now it's at this point that this post requires a bit of a rewrite from its original draft, as Paul Sargent seem to have taken some initial feedback on the pricing onboard and retuned it with a more competitive approach. Previously the brand offered two collections - Exclusive at £600 for all models, and Handgrade at £960. And the reaction from most was "oof... that's a lot of money".
They have since added a third collection, Country, which absorbs some of the less dressy models from the Exclusive collection and offers a price around £450 a pair. That includes classics like the Hannover boots, which had previously sat at £600, but are now a far more tempting £450.
The Exclusive collection has been slightly reduced at £575 for most models - still a substantial increase from Alfred Sargent days where you might expect to £350 for a pair, but a good attempt at compromise at least.
I'll say that none of this is intended as a criticism of the actual product that PS is putting out, which continues the tradition of Alfred Sargent of being excellent quality for the price. There are some very handsome models in the Exclusive collection. Ramsay is a double monkstrap that can cover a lot of bases in terms of formality.
Hannover (now in the Country collection) is a sturdy brogue boot with burnished leather and contrast edge.
And Moore surely needs no introduction, providing a strong alternative to Gaziano & Girling's much pricier St James II. Note the distinctive scalloped brogue backstay section. Truly a classic design.
Well-made shoes undeniably - but difficult to escape the fact that a couple of years ago they could be had for roughly half the price. And yes, clearly the problem is that not enough people bought them at that price (ergo the company going bust) but for the discerning shoe buyer, it's tricky to know how they will do with this attempt to reposition the value.
The PS Handgrade range is in a trickier position, costing £960 across the board even after the other ranges had their prices tweaked: a princely sum that soars above Crockett & Jones and into Edward Green and Gaziano & Girling pricing. Styling-wise, I would say the quite sharp styling of many of the PS Handgrade models has more in common with G&G than Edward Green or John Lobb.
These are very good-looking shoes, make no mistake. Interesting materials used, and details like sole-finishing are on a pair with their £1000 competitors. Milton is a wholecut Oxford with kind of sharp lines you could cut yourself on.
Miller is the prototypical mixed material Balmoral boot - I owned a pair of the Alfred Sargent version of these a few years ago and, while too dressy for my tastes now, they were superbly made.
Browning's dovetail seam is more rakish than any derby has the right to be, offset by some nice pin grain leather.
And Blake is the kind of austerity brogue I can really get behind, with the scalloped backstay seen earlier in the Moore.
As stated earlier, historically Alfred Sargent was always very good value for quality. But all makers are drifting upwards in price (some rather faster than others) so the question for potential purchasers now is whether they think this is a fair price for what they get.
The £1000 shoe market is a small one, relatively speaking, populated by the rich and the enthusiast (and sometimes even the rich enthusiast). Speaking broadly, the former is going to be won over by the cache of the brand name; the latter by its provenance, materials and construction. Both will need convincing to try a new and unproven brand (a cruel irony since the brand itself is well-staffed by people who worked for many years at Alfred Sargent), and I think that the asking price for the Handgrade in particular is a hell of a hurdle.
It brings to mind Foster & Son's sadly defunct high-end RTW line from a few years back. Superb materials and make, and priced similarly to Alfred Sargent Handgrade. And they just never found a foothold in the market: too expensive by far for most people, but not distinct enough from their high-end competition for the rest.
For a maker like Paul Sargent, who in spite of their "inherited" heritage are still sort of starting from nothing in terms of name recognition, the received wisdom is that your product should either A) provide something very different from its competitors or B) strongly undercut your competitors on price. With neither of these on offer, it will be interesting to see how they fare.
It's worth noting as well that in the past Alfred Sargent made a good business from making shoes for other labels (not an unusual situation, with many Ralph Lauren Polo shoes made by Crockett & Jones and Edward Green having produced in the past for George Cleverley's RTW collection). It may well be that PS continues in this tradition, which is of course less visible to the average consumer.
It should go without saying that the continuation of a longstanding family-run business in a struggling industry is something that deserves our support. I wish them the best - hopefully, they can find their niche. Initial reviews I've seen on Styleforum seem very positive, and it may be that the combination of returning customer loyalty and new customers will be enough to see them through.