If the shoe fits
BECCY BROMILOW FEELS BETTER WHEN SHE’S MAKING. EVERY SHOE SHE CRAFTS BEARS THE MARK OF HER
HANDS (AND A LITTLE STILLNESS IN HER MIND).
AUSTRALIA ONCE HAD A THRIVING COMMUNITY OF LOCAL FOLK CAREFULLY HANDCRAFTING
SHOES TO FIT INDIVIDUAL FEET, BUT IT’S GRADUALLY DISAPPEARED AS MANUFACTURING MOVES OFFSHORE. THAT MAKES THE WORK BECCY BROMILOW CREATES FROM A PLANT-FILLED ADELAIDE SHARED STUDIO EVEN MORE SPECIAL.
“Very unfortunately, it’s something that is dying out, making shoes by hand,” she says. “Melbourne’s now the only place you can do the shoemaking course – the Adelaide school closed down a year or two ago and Sydney’s closed down ages ago.”
While mass-made shoes are works of oddly complete perfection, each pair that leaves Bromilow’s BB Shoemaker studio bears the marks of her hands, beautiful little cuts and scuffs that pay tribute to the long hours she spends making them. Each shoe requires careful measuring, cutting, moulding, tacking and gluing, often with giant pauses in between to allow the South Aussie-sourced kangaroo leather to take shape or the glue to dry. Making just one pair can take 20 hours or more. That’s partly why Bromilow creates all her shoes to order with their future owners already in mind, helping reduce wastage but also ensuring the business is doable on a small scale. “It’s physically so hard as a one-woman production that I can’t create that much stock,” she admits.
Creativity kind of runs in Bromilow’s family – her dad’s a fallen timber sculptor and her grandmother was a costume-maker who also taught ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement. But Bromilow walked a slightly circuitous route before settling on her own craft. After leaving school in Year 10, she decided to give hairdressing a crack. Two years later, with an apprenticeship under her belt yet thoroughly unenthused by that industry, Bromilow decided costumemaking might be more her thing.
A hugely practical three-year TAFE course gave her key insights into professional pattern-making and sewing, but something still felt a little off. “It was enjoyable, but overall I wasn’t really into going to the theatre,” she says.
For a while Bromilow knocked about doing odd jobs and also took off overseas for a bit, before deciding to return to tertiary study for a third crack in 2012, this time focussing on shoemaking. “I did millinery and hat-making beforehand and it’s kind of a similar process, so I thought I might like shoemaking,” she says. That hunch quickly proved right. After finishing her studies in 2013, Bromilow launched her business, BB Shoemaker, the following year.
Getting started as a shoemaker is tough, and not just because of the technical skills involved. A crapload of expensive equipment makes the job tons easier, but Bromilow didn’t have any of that. At first, after scoring a spot at Adelaide’s The Mill shared creative studio, she’d knock up what she could there before popping back into TAFE to finish things off. It was custom jobs mainly – a pair of shoes for a friend here and an acquaintance there. “I wanted to dive in and do it full-time, but I was really unsure and scared of failing. Then I talked to my dad and he said: ‘Even if you do fail, it’s just learning and then you’ll go on to something else.’ So I decided to give it a go, because you never really know unless you do it.”
Opposite, clockwise from top Bromilow wielding a leather hole punch by her wor kbench. Each pair of shoes she makes here takes around 20 hour s.
Trimming the insole leather with a shoemaker ’s paring knife. Bromilow has a lot of blades, but r eckons she ends up using this the mo st.
Shoe moulds, called ‘ lasts’, are hard to tr ack down these days, so vintag e ones ar e quite precious.
Each shoe r equires careful measuring, cutting, moulding, tacking and gluing be fore it’s ready for customers’ feet.
Stamping an inner sole with the BB Shoemaker lo go. Bromilow launched the business in 2003 .
Bromilow’s shoes ar e handmade to or der using vegetable-tanned kangaroo leather on their upper s.
At work on some heavy-duty sewing machines in the Adelaide studio she shar es with friends.
The business quickly ramped up, but in early 2016 Bromilow spotted a cracker full-time job at Rossi Boots, an Australian company that still makes its famed leather boots in Adelaide. It was too good an opportunity to miss, she says. “I felt so lucky that this is around the corner from my house and they’re still making boots there. I got better at sewing, got that experience side of it. Even just talking to the people who’ve been there for years and hearing their stories was amazing,” she says. “But I just couldn’t keep up. I was trying to run BB Shoemaker as well, so I would go to work at 7am, finish at
3pm, go to the studio, work until like 8pm or 9pm and then go in on the weekends as well. Something needed to shift.”
“MAKING WITH YOUR HANDS FEELS MEDITATIVE. WHEN I DON ’T MAKE FOR A PERIOD OF TIME, I START FEELING ANXIOUS.”
Six months later, Bromilow decided to go all in and focus entirely on BB Shoemaker. Fortuitously, she had bolstered her equipment list when TAFE SA ditched its course, scoring a few tools and a sewing machine, plus several beautiful sets of lasts, the moulds shoemakers use to craft each shoe. Her Melbourne-based brother helped, too, sourcing a few choice lasts there and kindly driving them 700 kilometres west. Those thrifted lasts are proving especially important now, Bromilow says: “Sadly, the last last maker has retired. He was over in Melbourne, but unfortunately that’s no more.”
The final step in Bromilow’s process used to be a polish on an industrial bench grinder, hooked up to a makeshift dust extractor fan her dad made. But in early 2017, Bromilow found a giant grey secondhand machine adorned with blocky ’80s-style buttons and dials, the kind of thing you might still spot in some repair shops. “It’s got the polishing wheel so I’m pretty excited – we’re going to have real shiny shoes,” she enthuses.
In February 2017, Bromilow moved out of The Mill and into a brand new Gilles Street studio with three friends: sustainable clothing maker Anny Duff, interior plant stylist Emma Sadie Thomson, and musician and yoga teacher Naomi Keyte. Called Ensemble, the light-filled studio has a little shop up front with cheery workshops out the back – a far cry from the gloomy spot the girls first encountered. “It was a Chinese chemist, so all the windows had ugly blinds and bars on them and the front glass was tinted, so you couldn’t see inside. It was real hard to see past a space that had gross carpet and piles of boxes.”
In a marathon 10 days, the four women overhauled the entire place, even ripping up the carpet before grinding and coating the concrete floors for a polished look. Since then, organic bed linen maker Samia Fisher’s also moved in. “I’m really lucky to have really great, creative friends around me that I’ve been able to collaborate with. That’s definitely helped the whole process,” Bromilow says.
Bromilow admits she has to work her butt off to make a living as a bespoke shoemaker, meaning money can be tight at times (living in Adelaide helps, she says, as rent is relatively cheap). “I’m not giving up, because I love what I do. There’s something about making with your hands that feels meditative when you’re really in the zone. You start from nothing and have this end product. When I don’t get to make for a period of time, I start feeling anxious. It’s not just because
I’m not getting stuff done. It’s that I’m not in that state where everything’s tuned out and I’m not thinking about anything – I’m just making.”
Bromilow and her boots are featured in our new book, Look What We Made – an introduction to the new generation of Australian makers. Grab a copy in stores or at frankie.com.au/lookwhatwemade