THE INSEAM VOL. 67: Westerly Handmade Shoes

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Vancouver is home to a thriving fashion industry made up of individuals committed to its growth and success. Get to know these personalities in The Inseam and discover what makes the Vancouver Fashion scene so awesome. Every month, The Inseam’s Eco Edition focuses on the innovators that shape the green movement in local fashion.

Photo courtesy of Westerly Handmade Shoes

There are some of us who have always been attracted to locally handmade goods, and others who are becoming more aware of what options are out there. There is the desire to have a greater connection to where your clothes, shoes and accessories come from, and the enjoyment of actually interacting with the person that made them. The global fast fashion craze has moved us so far away from the traditions of buying something of quality and keeping it for years. However, the recent garment factory collapse in Bangladesh has brought the issues of our habits to the forefront.

The movement to slow down fashion couldn’t be better defined than handmade shoes. Maybe it is the perceived difficulty and skill required, the time it takes to build a shoe custom fit to your foot, or maybe it’s that with proper care they can last literally for decades.

One local shoemaker slowed down her life to focus her career on making shoes, teaching us all to have a bit more patience and value quality over quantity.

Jessica McIlroy: Tell me about how you got started.

Renee Macdonald: I don’t have a background in design or fashion, other than having fun with it in my own ways.  Shoe making came at time in my life when I was changing everything about what I was doing. Ending my marriage, moving from Gabriola Island. I had been working in office administration, and for years had been telling myself to get out.  Over some brainstorming sessions with my friends, I honestly just picked shoemaking.  One of my friends asked what do you like, what do you enjoy. I heard about a shoe making course in Port Townsend, researched it a little bit. It was a five day course, so I did those five days and came back.

The guy who taught the course advised me to start out like he had, working at a shoe store to learn about shoes and feet, and what customers wanted and expected.  I got a job at Gravity Pope, worked there for a couple of years, and learned a lot about the customer and how people are with their feet.  A lot about the expectation and the sense of identify people get from their footware. That was hugely valuable.  From there I got a job at the Quick Cobbler, again to keep learning from the best in town. I have been working there for almost four years.  In the midst of that, my studio started out as a piece of my dining room, then my boyfriend’s house, then built my way up to bigger studios.  And I started working on my own feet and designs.

Photo courtesy of Westerly Handmade Shoes

JM: How long does it take to make a pair of shoes or boots?

RM: The shoe I was making then was a very simplistic form and I didn’t have much machinery, it took maybe 20 hours.  But as time goes on, I can be faster but my technique becomes more complex so I’m probably still spending around 20 hours.

JM: But you can do more in those 20 hours.

RM: Yes, and my first shoes weren’t so great, but I wore them. So I’ve been making shoes since about 2008, and with the job at Quick Cobbler I was able to learn all about the machinery.  My boss there is passionate about shoes and creates a great environment to learn about shoe repair and shoe making.

JM: How would you define your style? Is it based on a design or the process?

RM: I think the style has come from how I want the boots to perform. I’m a cyclist, and everything I wear on my feet has to endure the Vancouver weather and biking.  Plus working at a shoe repair, and seeing the shoes that had been raked over the pedals, that gave me some immediate awareness. I wanted them to withstand cycling, Vancouver weather, and be strong.  I learned the pitfalls of shoes and where they breakdown.

JM: Where have you been sourcing your leather?

RM: There is a shop in town, Lonsdale Leather, which is convenient and their leather mostly comes from the States, as well as Europe.  As time goes on, I’ve been wanting to source more local leather.

Photo courtesy of Westerly Handmade Shoes

JM: Do you find that it is available?

RM: No, not really. Not yet. To be honest, it is also dictated by the style of the shoe and how I’m making them. I like to be able to see the whole hide and handle the leather. It would be great if there was more.

JM: And you buy the rubber for the soles as well?

RM: Yes, the only thing that is pre-made is the metal shank that runs through the middle of the shoe. Everything else I cut and shape and build by hand, including the rubber sole.

JM: Are you only doing custom orders?

RM: I started out making the shoe designs that people brought me, which is a great way to learn how to build things that I wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to. But my intention is work with my own designs and sell what I have each season, which is what I launched last fall with the Westerly Handmade Shoes brand. So the idea is that there is a set price, and certain designs, yet the shoe is made to the individual foot and custom fitted. I can do some basic modifications to the designs as well.

JM: How has the response been?

RM: Great, a lot of interest.

JM: Have you started doing some bigger marketing then?

RM: Not yet really. I did the last Eastside Culture Crawl, and that was my first attempt at being “out there”, and it went really well. I was totally overwhelmed by the response. So it made me feel like I was on track, some reaffirmation that I’m on the right path.

JM: What’s the best part of it all for you?

RM: I can’t say I’m the most creative person, but I have all these thoughts of how something could be constructed and fit together and what I could create, and then I get to come to the shop and make it. So that is lots of fun. Then the other part is when you finish something and you are totally happy with it and it is beautiful, and then the customer puts it on their feet and they love it. It’s a great moment!

Get in touch Renee through the Westerly Handmade Shoes website to order your custom fit shoes or boots.