If the shoe fits

Smith Journal - - Opinion - In­ter­viewer Koren Hel­big Pho­tog­ra­pher An­dre Castel­lucci

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.

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“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.

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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.”

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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

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