The shoe is a very personal item. A pair tells a story of its wearer: the person who moulds them to the shape of their feet, who wears them to work and back home again and to their favourite café on a Sunday morning.
Paddington-based shoemaker Andrew McDonald knows the personality of his shoes like his clients know their own feet. More than two decades of crafting footwear has exposed McDonald to thousands of shoes, yet each pair remains unique to him.
“You might make six pairs in a particular style but no two pairs of shoes will be the same,” he says. “Inherently, each has its own individual characteristic. Ironically, to make it look more individual it takes more time than to look like something else.”
The core characteristic of McDonald’s shoes is longevity. In a world focused on fast fashion and click-through sales, he is pushing a slower and more sustainable craft that sees shoes last for five years rather than five months.
The shoes themselves have a rustic yet polished look that designers often fall short of nailing. Eclectic tie-died finishes, raw leather laces and avant-garde folds make an otherwise classic boot or dress shoe subtly quirky. These simple shoes transcend time and trend. “I am always trying to challenge myself. It’s not about interpreting something else but creating something that has a bit of difference. I look at a shoe like a piece of art,” he says.
Shoemaking was something McDonald fell into while pursuing a career in photography. It was a chance job shooting shoemaker and friend Paul Harnden that sparked McDonald’s interest in the craft. McDonald came on as an apprentice with the forward-thinking Harnden, before moving on to the iconic John Lobb workshop in London. It wasn’t long before McDonald was setting up shop on William Street in 1990.
He has been operating on the same premises ever since, building up a strong clientele who value his service and skill. Customers return again and again, not for replacement shoes, but for new styles that will last them for the long haul. This is longevity at its most fashionable.
This tendency toward practicality has led to the resurgence of the bespoke, with consumers choosing to put value and quality first. From the likes of Harrold’s custom service to Captains of Industry’s Melbourne tailors, we have been seeking out and championing made-to-measure businesses Australia-wide.
Along with individual custom orders, McDonald and his team put out 500 to 600 pairs a year, mainly shipping to buyers overseas, whereas a traditional bespoke shoemaker puts out five to six pairs per week. Despite the volume, McDonald says his quality never wavers. “For us, there is no point in sacrificing. We buy the best because it doesn’t vary the end price.”
With a relatively large team of five, McDonald is able to excel in areas other bespoke businesses cannot. At the moment, he says he is the only craftsman in the world hand-making women’s stacked heels. “The process is all by hand, other people just don’t bother. I’m at the purest end of it.”
Though McDonald can authentically categorise his business as bespoke, he is quick to differentiate between his processes and those of brands jumping on the handmade bandwagon. “All these other designers say ‘made by hand’ or ‘bespoke’ but it’s a loose term, their processes haven’t actually changed,” he says.
McDonald is keen to foster value in bespoke design, running a shoemaking course from his workshop throughout the year. Over a week, students are taken through all the steps, from idea formation and patternmaking to crafting the shoe itself, fit to walk out the door in.
“It’s an opportunity for the world to come into the workshop, and for us to meet people we normally wouldn’t have any contact with. They get to see the birth of an idea come to fruition. It’s a lot of fun.”
Along with his workshops, McDonald is currently preparing for his yearly Paris showings and working on a collaboration with Song for the Mute, set to hit stores in August. We can’t wait to hear about his next endeavour.
The next Andrew McDonald shoemaking course runs in the first week of July.