As a fourth generation shoemaker, Melbournian creative, Brian Lester is a rare breed.
With over 50 years experience in the footwear industry, Brian spent two years in research and planning to launch his own manufacturing business specialising in handmade and bespoke men’s leather footwear, made in Melbourne Australia.
Using traditional European shoe-making methods, Brian crafts each pair lovingly by hand, a process rarely seen in Australia today.
In a recent Herald Sun article Brian spoke of his pledge to fight back and reinvigorate the Australian manufacturing industry, or risk `losing all the skills and infrastructure’ offshore.
We spoke to the craftsman recently from his Preston studio to discover more about his unique childhood working closely with his footwear artisan father; the pros and cons of catering to a niche market in a challenging sector; his design process; and his advice for future footwear designers.
Why did you first start Lester Shoes?
It was established to make us self sufficient, for me to enjoy my passion in my post-employment years and to leave a tangible business to the next generation to continue. Every day, I cannot wait to get to work. I love doing my job so much.
You’re a fourth generation shoemaker – what was it like as a child growing up in that environment?
My father was foreman for the Winsome Shoe Company, which was a small shoe factory in Clifton Hill that made ladie’s pumps and as a young boy, I would love helping him in the factory on Saturday mornings, doing small tasks like sorting out size runs of lasts, marking stitch marks on the uppers for the machinists, etc.
Mum worked at Aquila Shoes as the Company Secretary for about 25 years during their huge growth in the 60s and 70s and every evening, if us kids wanted to join in on our parent’s conversation at the tea table we would just talk shoes, as this was always the subject at hand. How much has changed since then? Back then, there was a flourishing shoe industry with literally scores of factories in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, especially in the “Golden Mile “ precinct, which was located in Collingwood and Fitzroy, bordered by Victoria Pde, Hoddle St, Alexander Pde and Nicholson St. I was told that the shoe industry then employed some 7,000 workers, clicking and machining uppers, and producing footwear for an Australian population of 12 to 15 million people.
I vividly recall visiting the British United Shoe Machinery premises, located on Alexander Pde Fitzroy, which took up an entire block and is still standing today, but only as a storage facility. In the Halcyon days, all four floors of this building were filled with machines and components to service the domestic shoe factories. Up to a dozen reps were then employed by B.U.S.M.
Our footwear manufacturing industry back then was protected from cheap imports by means of a tariff system which worked well to protect our own. I remember duty rates of up to 20% applied to imported footwear, until successive Governments since then, in their `wisdom’ succeeded to wipe out the duty rates over a few decades, to achieve our current footwear consumption situation of 97% imported V’s 3% of domestically manufactured products.
What do you love so much about the craft of shoe-making that makes you continue even in a challenging market?
I just love to create the finished product meticulously out of raw materials like leather, and the various components to achieve the end result of placing a pair of shoes into a shoebox that I personally nurtured specifically for a customer.
Can you explain your process of design? from choosing the leather, to sketching the style and how you craft it by hand.
Locating the right upper leather for the shoes is my biggest challenge, as the local suppliers that are left no longer have a market to sell it to, so when I find a one off bundle of leather that is suitable, I buy up. At present, I am looking into importing leather myself.
Spending virtually a lifetime in the footwear industry, over the years I have several classic styles in my mind that are evergreens in terms of their popularity and I simply apply new-look materials and finishes that make them adapt to current fashion trends.
I then make a rough sketch and fine tune the pattern in conjunction with pattern makers before having it graded into the various sizes that are required for my last. Then I hand cut the upper and lining pieces from the patterns before handing them to the machinist for assembly into a finished, stitched upper that is ready for lasting.
Next I attach the pre-cut leather insole to the last bottom and after preparing the upper by attaching heel counters and toe puffs, gluing the linings, etc., I carefully pull the upper over the last, rough the bottom of the lasted upper and apply two coats of special adhesive to both the lasted upper and the leather sole. Then I attach the sole to the upper, remove the last and finish off by meticulously detailing the finished shoe, before packing it into it’s shoebox.
How long does it take to make a pair of shoes?
In my case, it is a process of approximately 2 to 3 weeks from start to finish.
In a recent Herald Sun interview you spoke of your personal protest against all Australian manufacturing going offshore. Do you still believe that the manufacturing industry can be saved here? What can be done to resurrect it?
Yes I believe that it can be saved, but only with an about turn on governmental policies and encouragement of a “Buy Australian” theme to the population, as is the case in countries like the U.S. and England. There they have finally discovered that they can only become prosperous if they look after their own and bring back manufacturing to their shores to create real wealth and employment.
And so I ask the question : “What have we done to and what will we leave our children if Australia has no manufacturing industries for real employment opportunities and we’ve sold off our assets, including our own land, to overseas consortiums to profit from?
Our current policies of an artificially propped up economy verses a record national debt makes no sense to me at all and scares the living daylights out of me for the sake of our future generations.
Your shoes are for a niche market with an average price of $400, but do you think this has worked in your favour?
Yes. While my shoes may not be for the bulk of the Australian population, I offer a unique product and service, so as not to compete with cheap imported shoes. If my customer needs a bunion accommodated for in their shoes or has odd sized feet, I can make shoes to fit them. Try and get that from a mass-produced, imported brand of shoe.
I should also point out that because of current domestic policies and wage conditions, Australian manufacturers are actually penalised by having to pay excessive prices for raw components, plus taxation rates, hence our products are more expensive to produce than those imported from third world countries.
What’s been the response? I have been trying to market my brand via my website, but must confess that I am not receiving anywhere near the amount of support for an Australian-made shoe that I had anticipated. However, the people that have bought my shoes are very happy with them and ordering more pairs, plus they are spreading the word with their friends, so it is building slowly but surely.
Besides the man hours of the handmade process, what else are you paying for when you buy a Lester Shoe at $400?
Each pair of Lester Shoes is personally made by me after I have noted the customer’s specific requirements, so I am meticulous about creating their individual pair of shoes. As the foot is encased entirely in premium grade leather, it breathes and expels perspiration much better than synthetic materials.
The leather sole is easily repairable, which makes the shoes last longer and because of the quality leathers that we use, they maintain their shape.
What message do you hope to send to young designers in Australia? How can they break it in the industry today?
While it is possible to achieve a small business these days in Australian Footwear Manufacturing, be prepared to smash through a lot of brick walls that will come your way in the process of building, as resources have largely all dried up. You will need to import several components and the infrastructure to make up your shoes.
If you are determined to become a shoemaker, believe and back yourself to the nth degree and enjoy the long journey. I would start with contacting your local Tafe college for guidance on any courses that exist at present.
For more information on Brian Lester and his marvelous creations, visit LesterShoes.com.au