From his workshop and store in Sydney’s Strand Arcade, Andrew McDonald and his team of shoemakers create custom-made footwear and accessories with character and originality. Here, he shares some insights.
I usually get into work somewhere between 7:30 and 8 o’clock.
The first thing I do is flick on the lights, sit down at the computer and choose some music. Then I would probably look at all the unanswered emails, just do all that admin stuff. Then I start to prepare my shoemaking for the day, my work plan for everybody. That’s my favourite time in the morning – when everybody’s here it’s like the circus begins. The days can be hectic because it’s managing the workshop, the digital side of the business and the customers.
My workshop moved to the Strand Arcade five years ago.
And I was in Paddington for 14 years before that. The Strand approached me and initially I wasn’t sure. But I think what really attracted me was the heritage of the building. It’s always been a kind of home for Australian design and the curatorial effort at the time was very much focused on developing this concept of a standalone arcade that specialised in artisan craftspeople. It was creating a unique shopping identity that was different from your Westfield, your shopping centres, and drew from the heritage of the building.
I’ve been making shoes for 27 years.
Before that I freelanced as a photographer for 10 years, after studying photography at Sydney TAFE. And I worked as a medical photographer at the University of Sydney veterinary science faculty. Then I moved to England and worked at Guy’s Hospital in London and stepped into more commercial work. And that’s where my first interest in shoemaking came from. I met a shoemaker, Paul Harnden, and I did a story on him. And then he made some shoes for me. I came back to Australia, went to college and learnt how to make shoes.
I loved the idea that you could be working with your hands but you’re actually making something that is tangible.
Photography is kind of different. I photograph the shoes for the website and Instagram, and so I could always satisfy that interest – but it was just the idea that I could make something that is useful. It had a practical use and I could somehow improve the quality of people’s lives.
The [custom-made shoemaking] process begins when a customer comes in and I take their measurements.
Then they choose a style and a material, and we create the story. Then they come in for a series of fittings. My favourite part of the [physical] process? I have to say pulling the upper over the last. You make the pattern and then before this, everything is two dimensional. And then you pull it over the last and it becomes three dimensional, and the life begins.
The three key elements in a shoe?
That the design works for you, it’s a design that you feel comfortable in and that it complements what you wear. That the material of the shoe makes you feel good. Not only that your feet feel comfortable but the rest of your body does too, you’ve got good posture, it makes you smile. And then the composition of the materials, the construction and the type of materials. That they’re durable, with no synthetics, are sustainably sourced and use vegetable tans; all that stuff, you know?
AT the core of it all is that I need to have a very tactile, highly contextualised image of the people wearing my shoes.
If I don’t, I don’t have a market. I see people in a restaurant, I know the brand of clothing they’re wearing, I know what they look like; I’m visualising that person.
My customers are split between creatives and business people.
Your classic architects or designers or people who have an interest in design… Or they’re finance people, barristers or surgeons. It seems to attract those three professions, I don’t know why. It seems they’re looking for a creative outlet of some kind. Some escape from the trappings of corporate life or the pressure of being a surgeon or whatever…
They’re coming for the experience and I think that you can walk in here and there is a palpable texture you can smell, you can feel.
I think they’re looking for something that’s got a bit of grounding for them. There’s a personal connection within the product. People talk about ‘oh there’s a trend back to handmade’. It’s always been there, I just think people have got greater awareness of it now. And I think the awareness has arisen out of the fact that people have gone, ‘well you know, you can buy something handmade and really the cost is pretty much the same, or not much more than if we bought the equivalent luxury brand’. The digital age allows you to navigate beyond commercial brands and choose for yourself.
I think the awareness is definitely a reaction to everything else being the same.
Even in luxury goods the products are pretty uninteresting when you think about it. Beautifully made, sure, but there’s nothing that you look at and go ‘ah that’s art’, or ‘that hits me in the soul, I feel that’.
I don’t mean to say that what it was like then is better than now, but it was different.
You went to buy things and you met the person who made the thing, so you had a greater understanding of the process. You had a texture of the person. I think now there’s a highly mechanised aesthetic out there. People have this expectation of everything to have this line of perfection, and that line of perfection is derived from machinery. I’m not saying all things, but a lot of things made by machinery are pretty cold, they don’t have any kind of soul or feeling. There’s nothing you can have a connection with. And I think that’s something people are increasingly looking for – having a connection to your environment, yourself, the products you wear.
More and more I think that I’m in the relationship business.
My business is about maintaining a relationship, or building a relationship with individuals and maintaining that over a period of time. I’ve got a few that are over 20 years old. This guy here [whose shoes I’m mending] has been a customer for 25 years. That’s what it’s about for me.
When I first started out I was kind of following the design lines, the silhouettes, the colours of the market at the time.
The trends that were happening then. It took a long while to find a sensibility and then I realised it would be great to just draw from my environment, what’s around me. So I’m always thinking about the colours you see in the environment in the desert, that kind of scorched, stained, streaked palette.
So what I’m trying to do with the design is take the classics and twist them a little bit.
For me, I’ve got to have a design that’s a bit different. But the other thing [that’s important to me] is the surface texture of the leather, and honouring the integrity of the leather. I work with really great tanneries so that I can find leather that is the natural finish, it’s vegetable tan, it has no fillers, it has no structure or paint put on it to create a continuity. I want to see the skin for all its scars and I want to honour the scars. I want something that is what it is and not something else. There just doesn’t seem to be any point for me to make shoes or use leather that everyone else uses. You’re not really creating any point of difference.
Visit A.McDonald Shoemaker on the second floor of The Strand Arcade in Sydney for ready-to-wear or custom footwear and accessories. Andrew also runs five-day shoemaking courses, during which beginner students can design and make a pair of shoes.