Proving the art of shoe making isn’t Dead & Buried

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving grown tired of his 10 year career in digital and industrial design, Steven Phillips longed for a creative challenge. Being surrounded by several likeminded artists, he was quickly propelled into pursuing his passion project of shoe making.

Primarily self-taught, Phillips is now developing his first line of handmade, high fashion women’s shoes, crafted from his Swanston St studio, Dead & Buried. The workshop slash retail space also harbours a creative community of four jewellers and a handful of other helpers.

Phillip’s eye for detail and passion for handmade local products has led him to develop his own components and techniques that best suit the vision for his eponymous brand, set to launch later this year.

We are thrilled to announce Steven Phillips as curator of the debut `Shoe Gallery’ exclusive to the Australian Shoe Fair. The photographic exhibition draw parallels between the beauty and complexity of shoes and the equipment and skills required to create them.

Showcasing beautiful and unique shoes from the past and present, coupled with imagery from the the factories and craftspeople that create shoes as their livelihood, the Shoe Gallery will feature striking photography with a creative balance between the shoe and the shoemaker.

We took five with the stylish shoemaker to delve deeper behind his decision to take the plunge and turn shoe making from a hobby into a career; to explain the creative process from drawing board to finished product; and the personal challenges competing against mass-produced, quick to market footwear companies as a hand made independent shoe maker.

You have spent the past 10 years practising as a designer in Melbourne before taking the plunge and turning a shoe making hobby into a career – what propelled you to make that decision? 

Over the last few years I had grown a little tired of working in digital design jobs, and decided to start a new career that would hopefully set me up to be making things with my hands and dealing with happy customers, rather than just working on small parts of large projects in an office, in front of a computer. The only real way to ‘climb the ladder’ in multimedia is to work on more and more complex projects, or to take on managerial roles, and that isn’t all that appealing to me.

My wife Dani and a lot of my close friends are craftspeople, and the genuine satisfaction they seemed to get from making something with their own hands looked like a much better way to spend my days… I love the idea of ending up retiring to hand build hot rods or furniture, rather than being and old stressed businessman attending meetings all day.

That said, I haven’t turned my back on all the skills I have learned over the years, I currently am incorporating 3D modelling and printing into my design toolset, I design and build my own websites and have also put a lot of work in to creating our workshop and retail space at Dead & Buried as a purpose built space for Dani and I to create and sell from.

HOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAow does shoe making inspire you and what is it about the craft that drives you creatively?

So far the absolute start-to-finish aspect of shoe making is what keeps me excited. Many other things I have worked on have been long projects where I only had control over a finite part of them. This is something where I can hand make 100% of the product, so I get to control every element. As you may have noticed, I’m a bit of an obsessive control freak and I don’t get much sleep!

You initially planned to make limited edition sneakers, how has your aesthetic and footwear designs changed since then?

Initially I wanted to make sneakers as a logical step (as a designer) from me buying too many collectable Nikes. As they piled up on my shelves, I realised I wanted specific things that no one else was making, so I thought I’d make my own. After a few months of investigating sneakers and a short course at RMIT I realised that not only were sneakers very hard to make without serious industrial machinery (plastic and rubber moulding etc) I also noticed that I was essentially dreaming up Frankenstein shoes from parts that already existed, which seemed a bit pointless.

Being a late 20s male at the time with a love for cars and guitars, I had little to no exposure to women’s shoes but when I started reading some old Harper’s Bazaar mags the lightning bolt hit – that was what I wanted to do. So many options, so many colours, so many styles and all being worn by beautiful women. I’m not sure why it took me so long to work it out! Now I’m obsessed with runway fashion, know my Balenciagas from my Balmains – and of course get plenty of eye rolls and confused looks from my friends.

Tell us about the creative process from drawing board to finished product? Do you start with a sketch or do you start with the material first?

I definitely start with sketching. My background in Industrial Design leads me to see the shoes as a whole, so I draw to scale, in a pretty engineering based style rather then loose gestures and ideas. This has its pros and cons, as I am able to come up with some harmonious designs that marry heel heights with platforms etc. but it also has forced me to work on making my own components as the curves and dimensions are all very specific to my tastes.

What have been some of the challenges working as a shoemaker today? 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOh man, I could talk about this all day, and will no doubt be on my high horse about it for years to come. From what I have experienced it is VERY hard to make shoes yourself these days if you aren’t prepared to make large numbers, or use off-the-shelf components like heels and soles etc. The main challenge is not only finding parts and suppliers that stock what I want, but dealing with the fact that with very few smaller manufacturers in Australia, those suppliers understandably no longer stock a variety of options, or in many cases entire businesses that I have heard about no longer exist.

How does your label compete with the onslaught of mass produced and quick to market designs?

Full disclosure here, my ‘label’ is still to release a single product, so I am not sure exactly how I’ll go competing with big brands. I started assuming I would just buy leather, buy heels, buy buckles and get on with the shoe making, but a year later I am now casting my own plastic components, experimenting with dyeing leather and am a few steps away from creating every single part I use from scratch.

This has pushed me to aim for a more Couture level marketplace, where I may as well make something that Lady Gaga would wear, instead of toiling for hours or days on something that looks like it belongs in a department store. It’s been a long process, but I am pretty certain it will pay off.

I am also aware that I’ll no doubt get ripped off or copied in the future, but I see that as a bit of a compliment and hope to counteract it by offering limited runs and new designs that will keep me one step ahead of the others.

How long does it take to make one pair? Are they all bespoke made to order or are you planning to launch a ready to wear range?

Making a basic pair of shoes might take a day, but that is spread over a few hours here and there as I wait for materials to dry, parts to cure, leather to relax and things like that. I am working with some people in the hopes of using hand stitched embroidery and sequins etc in my uppers, so that will no doubt blow the construction times out to multiple days per pair.

I intend to make a ready to wear range, but in limited numbers – so once I have reached capacity with a particular design it’s off the shelf and gone for good. There will be some scope for bespoke fitting if the client requires it, but I am not going to offer a bespoke design service, my designs are key and I see it more as a brand where I make high fashion designer shoes out of control-freak necessity, not as a “tell me what you want and i’ll make it up” product. There are plenty more people out there better at that than me, so I figure why step on their toes (no pun intended).

How has your background in industrial design, film and 3D animation influenced your work now as a traditional craftsman?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt has made me bring the “nerd” in to my designs much earlier than I thought I would. As I mentioned earlier, I design my own shoes, then spec them up with accurate dimensions just as I would with an electronic product or chair. I 3D model / scan / print components to suit particular designs, and I am forever dreaming up short films and photoshoots that will push my brand identity, to the point where I have MORE brand identity kicking around than actual shoes at the moment, but that is just because I’m more efficient at that side of it so far!

My background also makes me more willing and confident to consider powder coating my own parts for example just as viable an option as searching for something ‘similar’ and making do with what I can buy.

What style of shoe do you love designing most and why?

MASSIVE high heels, with straps and buckles, that are probably almost unwearable. Following on from shoes Galliano did for Dior and anything McQueen designed. That is what I love looking at, what I love drawing and what I love to see on the shelf.

The obvious issue is that as a male, I dont wear them, so I’m already having to deal with a fair bit of flack from my female friends about creating such a thing, but again, I see shoes as objects or art pieces, so I’m able to assume that as an art object they’re not going to be worn 9 to 5. A little extravagance now and then is ok if your aim is to stand out from the crowd.

You are about to exhibit a photographic collection at the upcoming Australian Shoe Fair which ‘draws parallels between the beauty and complexity of shoes and the equipment and skills required to create them’ – why did you feel this was an important theme to showcase and make people aware of?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt wasn’t what I first proposed, but after a looking through my collection of images from Tumblr and fashion blogs I realised that although I, and lots of other people, love a nicely photographed shoe, there is so much that goes on BEFORE the shoe is on the shelf that is at time just as interesting and beautiful.

Seeing cooking books and TV shows lean more towards photos of the chefs or close ups of equipment in use, made me want to showcase the cool things that I get to see as a shoemaker and give a bit of a thumbs up to those hard workers in their studios or factories who make these amazing objects we fawn over.

The exhibition will also showcase the creative balance between the shoe and the shoemaker – describe your own relationship as a shoemaker with the process and the shoe?

This is sort of covered earlier, but in my (relatively short lived) experience there are constant battles between design and construction of a shoe. A simple change to the width here or an angle there changes the fit, and just designing a platform because it looks great usually ends up in it being uncomfortable to wear.

This is what I have developed a deep respect for lately, that the upper makers and clickers and lasting specialists out there in factories, as well as shoemakers tapping away making things by hand, constantly have to be aware of how what they do affects the end product and not just assume it will all work out somehow in the end.

Many other products get smoothed over with a little paint, or polished up later on, but leather is unforgiving and I’m in awe of some of things these people make day in day out and get so damn perfect.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat’s in store for the future?

Well… pretty much everything! We have just finished the fit out of the Dead & Buried retail space, which Dani and I did almost entirely by ourselves, and the workshop is at a stage where I can work from it comfortably, so the next and most important step is for me to move from prototypes to finished pieces and get some shoes out on the shelves. My branding is ready, my ideas book is full to the brim, so I’m all set to launch the brand as a whole in the coming months.

From there I plan to get my shoes on some carefully chosen celebrities and muses, collaborate with various other craftspeople on a limited edition shoe project I have planned, sell to customers outside of Australia and then… if all goes to plan… spend some time in Paris and New York to live the dream. Dani and I would like to take our wares to the world, but we will always call Melbourne home. I only hope we can fit it all in!


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