Jess Cameron-Wootten and Krystina Menegazzo are keeping the traditional craft of shoe-making alive by making it a viable business and relevant to customers today.
The creative couple behind bespoke shoe and handmade leather product business Wootten has now brought their passion and craft to Ballarat.
They set up in a small factory space in Delacombe in September as part of their transition from Wootten's long-established Prahran store.
Many in Ballarat backing the city's creative sector and lovers of bespoke handcrafted products are rejoicing at their arrival.
THE WOOTTEN STORY
Mr Cameron-Wootten is one of few young cordwainers and leather craftsman practicing in Australia at a time where many small scale shoe-making factories have shut their doors and more customers are turning to cheap big name brands.
He has been making shoes for almost 13 years. It is a rare skill he first began learning from his father as a young child.
"Dad trained as a shoe-maker in Adelaide. Then we moved as a family to northern New South Wales. My mum and dad bought a share on a 200 acre bit of rainforest," he said.
"Dad built the workshop, a stone cottage on the side of the hill. The intention was for him to build the house and then move into the house but he got sick and we never ended up building the house. So we basically lived in his workshop for five years.
"Growing up machines were in the corner of the room. It was pretty immersive.
"Then dad passed away and we moved down to Melbourne."
After his father's death, Mr Cameron-Wootten's inherited his shoe-making tools and machinery.
But it wasn't until 2007 that he went into shoe-making as business.
"I would have never decided to do shoe-making if it wasn’t for dad. It is a bit of a strange thing to do," he laughed.
"I think you would have to be a bit insane to choose it as a career path without any connection like that. It is a hard way to make a living."
The man Mr Cameron-Wootten bought his business off continued working for him for another five years. As the business owner, Mr Cameron-Wotten was also its apprentice.
Now he has been making shoes for more than 12 years and has built a loyal customer base that love the quality, handcrafted design. Many rely on the custom service for comfort and the perfect fit.
FROM PRAHRAN TO BALLARAT
The decade-long era of Wootten's presence in Prahran is coming to an end as Mr Cameron-Wootten and Ms Menegazzo prepare to move their shopfront to Ballarat.
In November 2017 the couple received notice they would need to find a Wootten a new home as the building they were in was to be developed.
After around six months of looking for a new factory and shop space in Melbourne they switched their search to Ballarat.
"We found nothing we could afford," Ms Menegazzo said.
"You are not competing with the manufacturer you are competing with developers."
"Either that or the rents were really short term because they were going to be developed at some point. So we looked further afield and Ballarat was a pretty obvious one being so close," Mr Cameron-Wotten said.
The couple live in Gordon, so the move to Ballarat is beneficial for business running costs as well as a lifestyle change with less driving.
"We had seen this building (Delacombe factory) three years ago. Jess had seen it on real estate before a developer bought it and subdivided it. We walked past it and thought isn’t this amazing but it was twice the size and too big for us," Ms Menegazzo said.
"It was fortunate timing really. We got a bit sick of looking at all the expensive places in Melbourne, swapped the search over to Ballarat and this came up again," Mr Cameron-Wootten said.
The Prahran shopfront will remain open for another few months to continue servicing long-time customers until, Mr Cameron-Wotten says, 'the bulldozer drives through the front door'.
"We can’t expect everyone to be able to come to Ballarat just yet. Long term it would be awesome if we could. At the moment it is just open two days a week," Ms Menegazzo said.
The arrival of Wootten in Ballarat has helped continue the city's long history of shoe-making.
Oliver Footwear's Ballarat factory shut down operations last year. Long-time Olivers employee Leanne Jeffrey is now working as one of two other staff at Wootten. She had worked in the factory for 29 years.
Glenlyon metal worker and armour maker Sam Bloomfield has also joined the Wootten team.
Mr Cameron-Wotten said he was lucky to have Mr Bloomfield and Ms Jeffrey on board as it could be difficult to find staff with relevant skills.
"It is not exactly a job you can advertise and a whole bunch of people walk through the door," Ms Menegazzo said.
"There is a real gap between previous production - real production facilities that did the whole job from start to finish ceased to be in the 80s. There has been 30 or 40 years of a gap of knowledge," Mr Cameron-Wotten said.
"All of those people who did have those jobs back then are now in their 70s and 80s, so it is very hard to find people who have experience. We are lucky some people who know how to do things turn up. But it is a process to train people.
There has been 30 or 40 years of a gap of knowledge.Jess Cameron-Wootten
"Dad did his apprenticeship when it was officially a thing you could do. You can’t do an apprenticeship anymore in shoe-making. That was in the mid 70s and it was about an eight year process. So it is a pretty long road to go from a little bit of leather knowledge to being a master craftsman.
"Not many people have that kind of commitment."
ADAPTING AN OLD PROCESS FOR MODERN VIABILITY
Mr Cameron-Wotten said the process of creating Wootten shoes was a mix between traditional handmade old craft and modern techniques that 'make it happen a bit quicker'.
"We try to marry the two together where we don’t compromise on the end result. Traditionally you would sew the sole on by hand - it is a whole day of work to do that - whereas this machine will do it in two minutes," he said.
We are trying to keep it alive by keeping it relevant.Jess Cameron-Wootten
"We are trying to keep it relevant. Especially talking about the lost trades, there is certainly a place for the entirely handmade master craftsmen, but you couldn’t produce enough shoes to make it a viable thing at a price people are willing to pay.
"It takes someone who is really dedicated to that type of craft to keep it alive. But it is not necessarily relevant from a consumers perspective it is more an art or museum thing.
"We are trying to keep it alive by keeping it relevant.
"We sit in the middle I guess between someone like Duncan McHarg (who does everything by hand) and a production facility like RM that are making 1500 pair of shoes a day.
"One pair of their shoes takes an hour and a half to two hours to make, whereas for us it is more like a day over a number of weeks."
"We want to make our shoes achievable for people too. We want people to be wearing our shoes and boots, so let’s try to do it as best as we can as affordable or aspirational for people as possible," Ms Menegazzo said.
Mr Cameron-Wootten said keeping the traditional craft of shoe-making alive was one of the reasons for their move to Ballarat.
"We saw the way things were going in Melbourne to be forcing us to run an unsustainable business from a number of standpoints.
"If we were to pay what we were being asked to pay for the floor spaces in Melbourne our prices would have gone up and that would make the shoes less accessible to people and our margins would be tightened making it harder for us to pay a living wage.
"It didn’t seem sustainable for us or our customers or our staff," he said.
"There are probably only two ways a craft can stay alive. One is a craftsman or a museum who decides it is an important thing to preserve, or you evolve to try to make it become relevant to the people who are going to be buying.
"We are doing the latter whilst really trying not go to the fast manufacturing route."
Wootten will be at the Lost Trades Fair in Kyneton this weekend.
Visit wootten.com.au for more or the Ballarat store at 20 Elizabeth Street Delacombe on a Thursday or Friday.
The Courier's new innovation series
Last fortnight The Courier launched its new series Ballarat Innovation; a feature of stories each week that showcase and celebrate industry, business, innovation and entrepreneurship in Ballarat.
The new series comes as part two of the More than Gold series that told the stories of Ballarat's diverse community members last year.
This new branch continues the aim of More than Gold to create a sense of pride in Ballarat's achievements and celebrate the fantastic people that make this city great.
In partnership with Committee for Ballarat, we hope these stories help create a sense of aspiration, a sense of excitement at the possibilities of what can be achieved in Ballarat, and a sense of confidence to take a risk.
We want to move past the buzz word idea of innovation and instead celebrate the diversity the word offers by telling the stories of new startups, long established businesses that are innovatively responding to change and challenges, and experimentation with technology.
As we tell the stories of Ballarat's innovators, we will also be asking the harder questions: what is needed to support and promote growth in industry in Ballarat?; how does Ballarat address the skills shortages that are holding so many business back?; how do we create the estimated 15,000 new jobs that are needed in the region by 2030 to support the projected population increase?; how do we ensure our education offerings are prepared for the changing nature of jobs; and how do we create more high level career pathways for Ballarat's youth?.
We hope you enjoy the journey, as we explore and celebrate innovation in Ballarat each Saturday.
OTHER STORIES IN THE BALLARAT INNOVATION SERIES: