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Muddy meets… Caroline French

Being in charge of a two-century-old shoe shop, W.J.French & Son, has got to come with some major footwear perks. We caught up with the toe-tapping Caroline French to talk perfect shoes, broken bones and , of course, gin.

Caroline FrenchCaroline French has a job that most women could only dream of. As owner and head of the Southampton institution, W.J. French & Son, it is literally her job to shoe shop.

As well as the day-to-day running of the shop, she also heads up purchasing and has the task of knowing what the next big trends in footwear are going to be.

She and her dedicated team are some of the best in the industry as well, having scooped the uber prestigious title of Drapers Independent Footwear Retailer in 2019.

We caught up with Caroline to talk about fashion, footwear and a spot of old school DIY.

Hi Caroline! How are you today?

Are you ready for this?  I broke my leg in April last year falling off a boulder crossing a river in Dartmoor. I had to be airlifted to a hospital and underwent an unsuccessful op. So, after 8 months of walking on crutches, I’m now modelling an external frame. It kind of looks like a game of kerplunk. I have been commuting to work on a mobility scooter – much to the amusement to anyone who recognises me!

Yikes! We’re glad you’re on the mend!

Me too! It’s been emotional!

You come from a long line of shoe sellers (the shop was opened back in 1803!), what would you say is the best part about your job?

WJ French Main ImagesTalking with our customers, which makes every day different and interesting.  It is great helping someone who has had trouble finding suitable shoes.  And we have such a huge selection so it is really rare if we can’t find something.  I also love seeing the new seasons collections and choosing which shoes to buy… although you need psychic powers to get the correct number of pairs in the right sizes.

What would a typical day be working at W.J. French & Son?

The first thing I do is answer my emails, then I usually pop into the workshop and see what jobs Tony our cobbler is working on. He gets some really varied shoes and leather goods in to fix and it’s always worth having a look to see what’s come in. Then it’s down to the shop floor to see how everyone is and see what has been selling. I’ll then head over to Goods-In to see if we have had any new deliveries and what Internet sales have come in overnight.

My day is normally split with office work and serving customers on the shop floor, but I also do a host of other jobs including HR, finance, buying shoes, social media…. even cleaning the gutter on the roof!

Who would you say your celebrity shoe idol is?

I always think Kate Middleton looks good and has a great shoe wardrobe.  When she doesn’t have her court shoes on, she has some lovely espadrilles, boots and lace-up pumps.

We obviously spend a lot of time walking around in stilettos here at Muddy, have you got any tips for selecting the perfect pair of pumps that won’t hurt our feet?

shoesFirstly, get properly measured!  Your feet change throughout your lifetime and often after pregnancy or weight gain.  Many people are wearing shoes that are too small for them and that does all the damage.  I would also recommend trying on a number of different brands.  You will be surprised at how different they all feel. You’ll be able to instantly tell which ones support you correctly and feel the most comfortable. And, if in doubt get a professional shoe fitter to give you some advice. Lace-up shoes are so much more comfortable and supportive for your feet and always wear socks, so you don’t get a rub in the hot weather.

Great advice! What pair of shoes do you think every woman should own?

I would ideally have four pairs to in my staple shoe collection.  A lace-up pump/trainer, an espadrille or sandal, an ankle boot and a low heel court shoe. This covers most wardrobe situations.

If you had to pick one pair of realllllly expensive shoes or lots of pairs of good, but slightly cheaper shoes, which would you pick?

The saying ‘you get what you pay for’, is definitely true for shoes.  Although personally I wouldn’t buy a designer label as you often don’t get value for money, and I would never buy cheap shoes as they are never comfortable or last well.  If you spend around £75 -£120 on a pair of shoes you should get a pair that will last you a few years and wear well.

Also, a lot of men’s shoes are traditionally made with a Goodyear welt and can be repaired up to three times. This means although you have spent £200-£400 on a pair of shoes they may last you 30 years.

Have you ever had any celebrities come into the shop?

Lots of celebrity cricketers and footballers, of which I am completely oblivious to as my sporting knowledge is so poor! We’ve also had the Mountbatten family, judges, local TV presenters, actors who are performing at the Mayflower Theatre and even local MPs.

Which shoe trends could you never get behind? 

Crocs and those barefoot running shoes that have separate toes.

How many pairs of shoes do you own yourself? Do you get lots of samples in for “research” purposes (we would totally do that…)

There is a problem with the samples, in that they are all size 3 and 4s which is very annoying. I have around 30 pairs of shoes,  though I recently did the Marie Kondo clear out and now I only have shoes that ‘spark joy’,  so they are all very comfortable – even the high heel ones.

My shoe collection started getting out of control when I first started working at the shop, as I would have to get a few new shoes every season. Also, when I was serving customers I would see how amazing a pair looked when they were being tried on and would have to nab some for myself.   I have had to get a grip and limited myself to just one or two a season now, but I can always justify having lots of shoes though, because of my job!

What do you do to relax when you’re not working?

Have a cheeky gin! I have acquired quite the impressive selection of gin bottles over the last few years.  I also love walking the dogs but that’s been off the cards lately with the leg situation, so instead, I have recently learnt how to crochet and also completed a lifelong ambition of solving a Rubik’s Cube. It always baffled me as a child!

Do you have any favourite places around Hampshire and the Isle of Wight you like to go?

I enjoy walking in the New Forest. Visiting Lepe Country Park and Beaulieu Motor Museum are both great days out with the kids.  I particularly love old buildings and if I get the chance I will do the walk around the old walls in Southampton every now and again.

W.J. French & Son, 40 Bedford Pl, Southampton SO15 2DG. Tel: 023 8022 6542

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