So today I ventured out to sunny Thomastown (or rain drenched Thomastown, as it were) to go and visit a company called Shoe Lasts Australia. It could just as easily be called ‘Last Shoes Australia’, because it’s the only company left in Australia that makes shoe lasts.
Okay, so it occurred to me that people might not know what a shoe last is, and to be frank, neither did I up until a month or two ago. Essentially, it’s a wooden or plastic foot-form that a shoe is built around. It’s kinda like an actual foot but obviously not as detailed, and a bit longer than your actual foot so you have some wiggle room. This is how shoe manufacturers design a shoes’ ‘fit’, and for every size a company makes, there’s an appropriate last for this size.
The guy who runs SLA is a guy called Bruce Miller, and, as it seems, if he doesn’t know about shoes, then nobody does. Over the course of nearly 2 hours, Bruce barraged me with a crash course in Australian shoemaking, and the woes of the industry and by-and-large manufacturing in the West. You probably know how the story goes – anything with a high labour quotient, nobody wants to pay for in the West anymore – and shoes are no exception. Bruce was super concerned about all of the intellectual property that is essentially vanishing because it isn’t being taught in the TAFEs and Universities, and the 1 in 30 students that are any good in any given year are either going overseas or making 10 bucks an hour attempting to make a go at artisan shoemaking themselves. Apparently, RM Williams still makes shoes here in Australia and do take some students on, which is pretty good, and Rossi also still makes some of their boots here, too.
When I asked him about how he saw artisan and alternative shoemaking, he was fairly dismissive, citing people leaving to go work overseas, and those working here and not working for companies like RM Williams not really making any real push into volume work. Not that much of a surprise, really.
The SLA factory is like stepping back in time. Downstairs there’s all sorts of woodworking machines and lasts in various stages of manufacture, as well as an office with state-of-the-art 3D laser scanners and various other pieces of hi-tech gadgetry. However, upstairs is basically wall-to-wall shoe lasts. Some are new, but many Bruce has bought up as companies have gone out of business and moved offshore, and some of the master patterns he showed me go back to the 1950’s! To my utter amazement, there was a master pattern in there Bruce called the ‘Nature’ pattern, which looked like a Keen or Birkenstock kind of organic ‘natural’ shape, the design of which he was telling me was from the 1960’s! That’s right minimalist footwear people – you’re definitely NOT the first modern wave of this style of shoe!
Looking at a snapshot of 60 years of shoemaking was a bit of a trip, let me tell you. There were literally boxes of every style of shoe imaginable, in every size imaginable. Well, every size except mine, of course. Apparently, big feet are a fairly modern phenomenon, so I couldn’t just walk out with a pair of lasts in my size and in a shape that I liked, so unfortunately I’m having to get some made for me.
So whats the plan, you might be thinking? Well, I’m going to make some crude and simple shoes for myself. In my D.Anthro course we looked at shoe design and looked at the way that the meaning of “good design” or “appropriate design” is modified and transformed by fashion and culture, and I was especially fascinated by the shift towards minimalist footwear and shoes that are designed to engage more of the foot’s natural musculature after being stuffed into rigid or super bouncy shoes for the past 200 years.
So over the course of the next 6 months or so I guess, I’m going to generate some blisters and hand-stitch some pretty minimalist and simples shoes like turn shoes and desert boots, and then from there once I get my eye in I might start to make some more ‘designed’ shoes that are a bit more original. Speaking of which, I wonder if you can guess what these patterns are for?