It was John who designed the Zlin, a sample from 1988, derived from one of this favourite Edward Green styles, our signature hand-sewn Dover. The Zlin has a longer counter which meets its quarter, creating a curved chevron, reminiscent of the Galway, and a slightly heavier, more casual appeal. We’ve re-introduced it in three new colourways, as a tribute to John, as an opportunity to hear a little more of his story as a refugee, and whilst doing so, raise funds for today’s equivalents, fleeing from nearby Ukraine.
Zlin was a town where they didn’t only make shoes, it was a shoe-town; everything from the smart modern houses to the doctor’s surgeries and sports facilities had been built by Tomáš Bata who’s eponymous shoe company grew from a humble shoe repair shop. Bata shoes focused on making good quality accessible footwear in highly mechanised factories, and it was a formula which proved enormously successful allowing Bata to expand globally with both factories and their associated workers' towns - rather reminiscent of the Lever Brothers’ Port Sunlight or Cadbury’s Bourneville in England. Places where workers had a real sense of belonging and which they felt proud to call home. John’s family lived there, with his father Ignac working for Bata as a lawyer.
From Zlin to Northampton : A shoemaker's journey
John Hlustik was a man of enormous flair and panache who remoulded Edward Green, focusing our commitment to making 'the best shoes without compromise.”
As we launch a special edition of one of his earlier designs, we learn more of John’s own story, of how his family fled from communist persecution, finding refuge in England through contacts in the world of shoes.
You might notice something different about our latest model : the Zlin. Usually our shoes are named after the villages and neighbourhoods of the British Isles. But Zlin has the sound of a place a little further afield. In fact, it's a town nestled in the highlands of eastern Czechia, around a thousand miles from Northampton.
But nonetheless we felt it was the right name for our new model because it's Zlin that our one-time owner John Hlustik hailed from. John was a man of great flair and panache and someone we see as being akin to a second founder, revitalising the business in the 80s & 90s and refocusing our commitment to making 'the best shoes without compromise.’
By the late 1930s a heavy shadow was cast across Europe and the Batas, sensing what lay ahead, migrated to Canada, where they continued to expand their shoe empire, founding the new town of Batawa. The Nazis took direct control of those factories which they could adapt to their war effort – and by that point the Batas had expanded beyond just footwear into other areas. But it wasn’t until after the war that the businesses were all requisitioned, with the new communist authorities seeking to nationalise and erase any Bata presence in Zlin.
John’s father, Ignac, was by then a politically-active anti-communist and after the pro-Soviet coup of 1948 soon found himself a marked man. Soviet soldiers told John’s father in no uncertain terms that if he didn't cease his political activity 'the next trip would be to Siberia.’ And after a tip-off he was to be arrested that same night, he fled with John’s older brothers, through the mountains to Murnau, a refugee camp in Bavaria.
John was to stay in Zlin with his mother Anna, until a year later when they too began the journey west. His father sent a message saying there was money buried beneath a plum tree in the orchard. When she went to dig there, she discovered a box but inside there were only bones.
Mother and son began their escape, with John recounting tales of a night in a hotel with the bar downstairs full of lairy Soviet soldiers, and another night hiding in the hay of a barn. Their final train stopped near the border, leaving them to walk into Germany and to the refugee camp on foot. Short of money his mother had her gold teeth removed to keep food on the table.
John’s father had been dreaming of life in Canada but upon reaching England he was met by the Tommy Bata who had decided that their company town near Tilbury, east of London, would become their new global centre. Unable to practice law, John’s father worked as a buyer and John settled into a new country, a new language and a new way of life. But the buildings of East Tilbury would have felt familiar, built in the same style as Zlin.
His early introduction to the world of shoes had left its impression and John aspired to be a shoe designer. After finishing school in Essex he moved to Milan to study at the world-renowned Arsutoria. He went on to set up his own design practice working for many makers and developing an appreciation of the best in both English and Italian shoemaking. It was in Italy where he developed a specialism in sophisticated leather finishing techniques which allowed him in time to bring such character to the shoes that he made at Edward Green. The richly antiqued calfskins weren’t known of then in Northampton, where shoes had been typically finished in black.
In 1978 Edward Green had been bought from the original Green family by an American, Marley Hodgson, who thought he could turn it around and had even tried to bring John in as a manager. But John was resolved that if he was going to put his heart and soul into Edward Green it would be on his terms, with him owning the business. Finally, he got a call from the US and it was agreed that a deal was to be done. John flew to New York and signed the papers, taking on Edward Green, and its debts, for £1 - a deal struck at JFK airport before he turned on his heels and returned to the mission ahead.
Once again, Edward Green was to focus on making shoes ‘for the discerning few’ – those buyers who appreciated an unsurpassed quality of detailing which set their Edward Greens apart, just as we continue to seek to do today. John introduced his ‘antiqued’ finishes to Northampton, patinated calfskins such as Dark Oak and Burgundy Antique. The range was refreshed, shoes were given names rather than numbers. He summarised the design ethos : “We do a very elegant shoe. Neither heavy and clunky nor slick. I’d say it’s an understated gentleman’s shoe.” And John reached out to a sophisticated global customer base: he travelled back to Italy to sell Northampton’s finest to perhaps Europe’s most discerning dressers, and beyond to Japan, where an economic boom had combined with that culture’s age-old appreciation of craftsmanship to create Edward Green’s largest market.
John passed away very suddenly, and far too early, in 2000. But his vision lives on. And after the Dover and the Chelsea and the Piccadilly, we now have the Zlin.
Today sadly there’s a new menace driving people from their homes, not so far from where John once grew up. And, so, we felt it fitting that 15% of revenue from the Zlin should be donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Fund for Ukrainian refugees.