7 September 1956 How two Czech brothers who fled Prague in the war relaunched a successful family tannery in Northern Ireland
In 1938, at Munich time, there had been no employment in the village of Killyleagh in Northern Ireland for twelve years. A deserted flax mill was the only sign that the inhabitants had ever lived in anything but absolute poverty. But in that year two Czech brothers called Erik and Gerhard Utitz started in the deserted flax mill, a branch of the tannery which had been their family business in Prague since 1795; exports from Prague had stopped, and this was an attempt to continue their trade with Great Britain.
When Hitler marched into Prague the Utitz brothers slipped out, abandoning lock, stock, and barrel, but taking with them just one skilled tanner. The little branch in the converted flax mill became the main tannery for Uta suède. The villagers not only had to be taught an entirely new kind of work; they had to be taught to work at all: twelve years of total unemployment had bred total despair. To hope, at that time, to have 60 skilled workers within two years seemed just a piece of Utitz optimism; yet now 400 men and women work at the tannery, coming in by bus from a ten-mile radius around Killyleagh.
And out from Killyleagh goes suède to all the leading makers of shoes on the Rome-Paris-London fashion axis. For suède is pervading all the high fashion places. This is partly due to the trend for shoes to match the clothes with which they are worn; suède can be produced in the finest subtleties of colour. Again, it is partly due to the femininity of to-day’s fashions; suède, when it is made from kid leather, is a soft, almost sensual material; flexible, supple, lending itself to the most intricate designs for the most elegant shoes. And yet again, the pervasion of suède is in some part due to the chrome-tanning process at Killyleagh, which produces suède containing no resin and with no plastic surface (the foot can, so to speak, breathe); and which, in the new Uta-pruf version, is water-repellent – after wearing in the wet it only has to be sponged or brushed with a very soft brush.
Pastel, peach-bloom, and mushroom pink suèdes made the most charming shoes for this most uncharming summer. Autumn colours are riper, richer: berry red, leaf browns, ripe plums, lush black. Shoes themselves have taken on a medieval turn. There is a touch of medieval Venice in the long, slim escarpin from the Dior-Delman collection in Paris; of medieval England in the town bootee, half-way between a shoe and a boot, designed by Charles Creed to go with his autumn collection.
It is a comparatively recent development for the London couturiers to collaborate with shoe manufacturers. Michael, for his autumn collection, designed suède shoes, made by Norvic, with what he called a greyhound look – the last word and latest line in tapering slenderness… toes brought to a fine point, heels to a slim spike. Mattli showed suède shoes he had designed for Saxone in a new bluish-beige Uta colour; Hardy Amies, John Cavanagh, Norman Hartnell, and Digby Morton all designed shoes executed by Rayne, one of the new Associate Members of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers.
Mr Edward Rayne pronounced himself fascinated by the completely fresh outlook given to shoe designing by these four dressmakers. The shoes are now in the shops, and the customers will need to be fascinated too, for they cost twelve guineas a pair. They are called the Rayne Couture C0llection, and are being produced in what is known as a “limited edition.” But for those who themselves have limited purchasing power, the Miss Rayne Collection at five guineas will commend itself most warmly.
Miss Rayne, a mythical charmer, is not subject to unreasonable flights of foolishness. Her shoes are pretty and youthful, yet contrive to be sensible as well as seductive. There are low-cut, straight-vamped pumps in bright coloured glacé kid, with baby Louis heels; and there are town walking shoes of soft cork-grained leather, with a brogue tongue wrappings over the vamp. And there is a particularly pleasing version of the classic black suède court shoe – or pump, as it is now called. We hear a great deal about “the little black dress” as an essential of every elegant woman’s wardrobe; but it is the pair of well-bred, slim-heeled black pumps which ensures that the foundation of a well-dressed appearance is well and truly laid.