The fragmentation of production in modern assembly lines has evolved since the Industrial Revolution. To think of the T-Model Ford being produced with the locality of the sources for most of its working components, compared to a Holden Commodore, made up of parts produced thousands of different hands and eyes from all over the world, signals a deeper type of splintering.
I meet Jess Cameron Wootten at the start of a working weekday, after he has just opened the door to Wootten Cordwainers. My eyes trace around the gallery-esque white walls of the retail space adjacent to his workshop. It's usually open on the weekends only, with all the production happening in the workshop within the days closed. Today is an exception, for a little while.
It's not long before we, as two shoemakers in our own rights, embark on discussing the existence of his Australian shoemaking business that produces its shoes totally in house. Jess trained as an industrial designer prior to pursuing his dream of Wootten, developing the upholstery materials and working within a portion of the interior of their cars. The desire to be more connected to a product, to be more invested in the sum of its components, compelled him to birth Wootten. He says he grew tired of being lost in the sea of anonymity and at times invisibility within the company.
I find that it's difficult not to be political when it comes to things that defy the common-sense of the modern capitalist market. Why should one avoid being political too, when the logic of keeping costs low and output high thwarts many visions from succeeding as ideas versus economics?
"I guess you could call it adaptation rather than submission, what we do here" Jess answers mesays. Jess' own father worked a long time ago for the Bulgarian master shoemaker, George Koleff and today Jess continues the tradition of craft through Wootten. Here in Prahran he has assembled a miniature production line, employing three shoemakers, as well as overseeing and contributing to the major stages of construction of the footwear. As much as possible while retaining the level of quality required for his shoes, he sources local materials, but he notes at the rarity of them and also of the equipment required to produce shoes in a factory setting. "There is a true shortage of the machinery itself required to produce shoes here in Melbourne- most of it has left in containers landing to equip overseas factories with things that we used to do here."
I queried him on how he feels about taking shortcuts in the shoemaking process to minimise production time. "There are things that you simply can't fake and even if you do it's going to show up later down the track" He says to me, with a committed look. It runs deeper to attention to detail. The black burnishing of a toe on a pair of dark brown brogues may also need some dark brown and burgundy wax in the burnishing to give it its subtle aesthetic beauty. There are many reasons why handmade shoes will always have more appeal.
Jess is aware that in order to survive in the present consumer environment, where shoes largely prevail as disposable items, his main concern within a role that is usually acquainted with producing a low volume of finished products, is to produce an adequate quantity of shoes to make the business expandable. His father's approach as the bespoke shoemaker, hand stitching every thread involved and taking every slow way possible, has been shown to Jess to be more worrisome and exhausting in today's environment. "It doesn't mean that those ways are entirely excluded from my practice, as in hand welting, but they aren't the requested norm. To produce shoes in that way at stomachable prices for the Australian public, is to heavily deflate the cost of what the shoes are actually worth. Granted that, in finding the balance there are certain compromises that I'm not willing to make."
We squint and scratch our heads, labouring over thoughts of what is possible in the future of shoemaking in Melbourne. Consumer culture is changing at a increasing pace. Compile the fed-up-with-plastic consumer, the arrival of more and more high calibre English shoes in Melbourne within the retail setting, a renewed interest from younger generations in traditional shoemaking- and you find a signal that change is abounding.
Until then there is work to do and this is exactly what Jess will do when I leave. Tooth and nail.
Wootten Cordwainer and Leather Craftsmen
20 Gratton Street, Prahran
Ph: 9532 2611
- Story Royce Alido