With its solid reputation for making men’s formal shoes for some of our best British high-end names, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Goral & Son is a relative newcomer to the UK’s footwear manufacturing industry. It arrived on UK soil from Poland just 16 years ago.
Celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, Goral was founded in 1936 by master shoemaker Franciszek Goral on the outskirts of Krakow, an area that specialises in shoemaking. He started with a small workshop, making and repairing shoes, then found himself in such demand that the whole family helped out. He took on crafts people and the workshop became a factory. The Stalinist years saw business suffer and the factory operated mainly at night, with the women of the family hiding shoes under their clothing to get them out to the customers. Franciszek ran the business until 1964 and died in 1988. His wife, Florentyna, who died in 1998, worked with him, and their son Czeslaw took over and ran it until 1987. Then came the third generation, current managing director Bogdan Goral, who now runs Goral & Son with his own son, Dominik, 23.
Back in Poland, Goral made men’s formal footwear for the domestic market, explains Dominik, and for exporting to Russia. “My dad Bogdan, who was born in 1964, learned from the ground up, from sweeping the floor to becoming master shoemaker,” he says. But the economy and the business began to decline at the turn of the century and so in 2005 Bogdan decided to move the firm – and his wife, Sophie, and their four children – to England. They chose Sheffield. They had no relatives there but felt that the steel city would offer less competition for the shoe repair business they decided to start with than they might find in the Midlands.
Within years, Goral returned to master shoemaking and once again established itself as a skilled maker of men’s premium formal shoes, this time traditional British styles, winning contracts to make for high-end British brands. Goral shoes are hand-made from start to finish, with all processes carried out under one roof by skilled crafts people. “We have people who moved after Dad moved, so people who have been working with us for 20, 25 years,” says Dominik.
Goral has grown so quickly that it relocated three times in its first 13 years of manufacturing in Sheffield. In 2018 Princess Anne officially opened its current home, Forum House, a 12,000 sq ft converted former college, five minutes from Sheffield station at Spital Hill, where there are now 40 staff producing shoes and uppers for well-known names (the company prefers not to say who they are).
“We have got everything under one roof,” says Dominik, who joined in 2018 after gaining a degree in business and economics, and now oversees the commercial strategy. His sister Kamila Kluska is production manager and they have two brothers who are no longer involved with Goral.
“It’s not your usual production set-up,” adds Dominik. “It’s a lot of small rooms and each small room has a different process of the production, with two or three guys in each. One of the main reasons we chose it is that there are a lot of windows and we get a lot of light. When you are working with leather, you need natural light so you can see the defects.”
Goral has built its reputation on the skilled manufacturing of formal footwear and 90 per cent of the business is making leather shoes for other brands, but in 2018 it branched out and began making its own shoes to sell directly to the customer. “We were looking at the typical British product, the brogues, the boots, Goodyear welted so resoleable, but then there are a lot of features about it not being comfortable – you have to break it in, it’s very rigid, not soft and flexible,” Dominik says. “There are a lot of people wearing trainers to the office with suits so we decided to do this hybrid, bring the trainer and formal shoe together – have the comfortable features, have the sole, but then we have this construction that allows it to be resoleable so once they get worn out, you can send them back to our factory to get resoled. We saw the market going more that way. With our heritage and expertise, we can offer something different.”
So there are a range of Goral trainers and hybrid styles, for example, with a loafer-style upper on a sports shoe sole. Prices for own-brand range from £260 to £385. Dominik designs the styles working with a freelance designer, and they are sold directly to the customer via the Goral website and also through distributors in the UK and the US. The shoes are made to order. “There is overconsumption in the fashion industry, so we are looking at sustainability,” Dominik adds. “You get updates saying ‘your shoes are currently being cut’, ‘your shoes are currently being stitched’.”
Sizes range from 6 to 13. “With trainers it is hard to find bigger sizes,” says Dominik, adding that a lot of the leathers come from Charles Stead in Leeds.
“We have this construction on trainers that currently no one else is doing – the blake stitch construction – that allows the shoes to be resoled,” says Dominik, adding that the factory’s energy supply will be moving to wind power.
That brave decision, taken just 16 years ago, to leave Poland and start again in Sheffield has resulted in a company that continues to take pride in what it does best – produce the quality hand-crafted footwear that has grown and underpinned its success, ensuring that it continues to be sought out to make for some of our best British brands, while now also making innovative designs under its own name to sell to a discerning new customer.
“It was a risky approach to take,” Dominik says of the big move to the UK. “Looking back now, it has been very positive and kept the heritage of our family in the shoe industry.”