Charles F. Stead learnt his trade as an apprentice to Thomas Wright & Co. Ltd. His great manner with customers and knowledge of the products helped him excel as a successful salesman. After having gained much experience within the trade, Charles decided to set up a business of his own, in a small premise on St. Anne’s Street, near Leeds city center.
With business booming he took over Sheepscar Tannery, which had up to that time been operated as a tannery and glueworks by Messrs Wilson & Walker Ltd. Some of the present day buildings date back to 1823, the founding of Wilson & Walker Ltd. The Meanwood Valley contained many tanneries, all relying on the soft water of Meanwood Beck.
The original leathers produced from 1904 by C. F. Stead were based on domestic sheepskin for making book-bindings, chamois and ‘fancy’ leathers (‘fancy’ was the term for leathers for wallets, purses, bags etc.) Rough vegetable tanned skins imported from East India were also further processed and dyed.
With increased demand a new steam engine was required to cope with turning the fully loaded large wooden drums used in the ‘Chrome’ tanning process. Subsequently the electric generator was revolutionary and produced enough power for the machinery as well as the lighting.
The Twenties saw the birth of the Englishman’s love affair with suede shoes. This started with a member of the Royal Family; Edward, Duke of Windsor, ‘the best-dressed man of the 20’s’, who caused a sensation by wearing his brown suede shoes with his dark blue suit.
Despite the leather industry picking up pace the twenties also brought unfortunate tragedy as Charles F. Stead was involved in a car crash and sadly passed. This forced his second son Phillip K Stead, at the tender age of 22, to take control of the business. He began a gradual but significant change towards the curing and tanning of Deerskin and Buckskin later moving into splits and de-grains.
The 1930’s saw the introduction of the Perfecto leather jacket look, and with it the notorious ‘Biker Bad-Boy’ image burst onto the fashion scene. Gaining reputation through brands like Harley Davidson and immortalised thereafter in the glamour of Hollywood’s young ones. This subsequently announced leather was not only a durable material but a fashion statement in its own right.
The Forties signaled the commencing of the Second World War, bringing severe disruptions to trade, with supplies of hides and skins controlled by the government. A country at war, Britain relied on C. F. Stead and other British manufacturers to supply Sheepskin garments, boots and gloves for the RAF to support our troops at high altitudes.
C. F. Stead started the movement from traditional leathers into modern suede products that still underpin the company today. This has developed into C.F.Stead’s creative range of high quality suede leathers, on which its reputation remains based today.
The Fifties brought new hardships to the faltering leather trade; C. F. Stead was an ailing business and was rumored to be at breaking point. Ernest Crack was drafted in as Managing Director, tasked with trying to recover the falling business. He quickly set about re-defining the organisation by cutting failing lines for more popular ones, and is widely acknowledged as the catalyst in the turning point of the companies fortunes.
The emerging market for credit cards forces manufacturers of leather purses and wallets to introduce a standardised slot. This boom in the market boosts sales in quality leather goods as such products become more obtainable for the masses. Hair was worn with a side parting slicked back with ‘Brylcream’ and often supported by a leather jacket and jeans.
The “Swinging Sixties” not only witnessed the start of a massive investment program at Leeds, it also led to a bigger demand for leather clothing; fueled by the fashion scenes of King’s Road and Carnaby Street (for those who remember, leather mini skirts and thigh length leather boots were ‘Fab’ and the ‘In Thing’ to wear for the ladies).
The decade also spelled expansion, with C. F. Stead acquiring a further tannery in Strensall, York while many other UK tanneries were closing.
As the leather market began to become increasingly global, C. F. Steads took its suedes to the wider world, attending the early Italian fairs in Florence.
Hardcore punk emerges, patches and leather accessories adorn the youth of the time and a need to look different and branch out ripples through the fashion world. Experimentation is everywhere and this didn’t pass by the leather industry.
C. F. Stead begin to produce elegant pattern books in each season to allow potential customers to get an insight into the ever changing fashion colours available in Stead’s suedes, the first company to do so.
The iconic Dr. Martens capitalised the British fashion scene with grunge taking the reins after a very unsteady punk period. A combination of quality leather and a comfortable padded soles made them a popular choice for the fashion conscious comfort craving public. Steads supplied Dr. Martens with its new Waxy Commander and Repello products, both of which continue to be mainstays of its range.
C. F. Stead were awarded the Queens Award for Export in the late 90’s, something still held very proudly by the company to this day.
The 2000s saw Steads begin to apply its tanning expertise to a range of skins from the antelope family, the first of which was Kudu. Working closely with people in several African countries to the benefit of local communities, C. F. Stead are able to obtain skins generated in the annual wild antelope cull, and utilize the natural blemishes (cuts and grazes caused by the environment they live in) to make a unique product which has a combination of softness and strength without two skins being the same.
The rush to the far east abates and there is a renewed focus from brands on the quality and provenance of their leathers, as a result of which Steads strengthens its position as the preeminent supplier of suedes to top grade shoe and bag manufacturers in Europe, the US and Japan.