Interview · Jess Cameron-Wootten

Lucy Feagins
Lucy Feagins
28th of September 2012
Leather craftsman and shoemaker Jess Cameron-Wootten of Wootten. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, art direction – Guvnor.

Jess Cameron-Wootten of Wootten selecting leather. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, styling – Glen Proebstel.
Jess’ workshop details. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, styling – Glen Proebstel.

Wootten workshop. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, styling – Glen Proebstel.
 Ladies shoes by Jess Cameron-Wootten of Wootten. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, art direction – Guvnor.

It is a little known fact that I studied shoemaking from the age of 19 ’til about 21.  Back then it took quite a bit of detective work to even find a tertiary shoemaking course – I was one of about 6 kids (seriously) in the whole state enrolled in what was at the time the only footwear production course in Melbourne.  I carpooled to Pascoe Vale once a week to go to an old, forgotten NMIT campus, to learn the basics of this age-old craft – taught in the most endearingly haphazard way by a couple of lovely old blokes covered in fading tattoos from their days in the navy (I am not making this up).  They were ‘cobblers’ rather than designers, but it was ace fun.

How times have changed!  These days shoemaking is having a bit of a renaissance in Melbourne. It’s now offered as a much more comprehensive and design-oriented tertiary course at RMIT, and inevitably, interest in bespoke shoemaking has skyrocketed, giving this specialist craft serious hipster appeal.  There are now a handful of super talented young designers in Melbourne making a living as custom shoemakers, giving fashion forward Melbournians the opportunity to commission truly bespoke, locally crafted footwear.

One of the very BEST places you can go for small-run and bespoke contemporary footwear in Melbourne is Wootten – the studio and retail shop of second-generation footwear designer Jess Cameron-Wootten.

Jess is an interesting character with an impressive design pedigree, having graduated in industrial design and worked in the automotive field, before returning to study shoemaking at RMIT.

Jess has a measured, old school approach to his work – he’s interested in the idea of ‘slow fashion’, of creating pieces with integrity and timeless appeal.  He also imparts a real sense of being wise beyond his years.  During his time at RMIT, Jess caught wind of a ‘dinky little shoe shop’ that specialised in bespoke footwear, which had come up for sale in Moorabbin.  Whilst still studying, he purchased this family operated business – and folded it into his own fledging footwear studio, now known as Wootten.  Wootten still employs Peter Cordwell and his wife Sherrin, who started the business almost 25 years ago, alongside two new graduates from RMIT.

After a few years trading in partnership as part of A Shop called Milton on Greville street, this year Jess has opened his very own dedicated retail space in a historic red-brick building on Grattan street in Prahran.  The space is truly BEAUTIFUL, and whilst it’s open mainly by appointment, Jess and his team can often be spotted working inside on their latest creations – do stick your nose in when next in the area!

In October Wootten is also set to launch a super slick new online presence, designed by clever Tassie-based design studio Guvnor.  The website is almost complete but not 100% finished for today (doh!) – do bookmark and check back again soon for a peek at Wootten’s new branding, beautiful product photography and of course a stunning range of seriously sexy handcrafted shoes!

39 Bridge Road
Richmond, Victoria 3122

Ph. (03) 9510 6503

Shop open Fridays 10.00am – 5.00pm, Saturdays 10.00am – 4.00pm

Tell us a little bit about your background – where did you grow up, what did you study, what were you doing before launching Wootten Shoes and what spurred you to open your new store this year?

I was born in the Adelaide Hills (Birdwood), but my family relocated to northern NSW when I was a little older than one, where we lived in the Thora Valley, which is about an hour inland from Coffs Harbour. We lived on a multiple occupancy title named Bundilla, referred to (often tongue-in-cheek) as a ‘hippie commune’ by friends of mine. Basically it was a property of nearly 200 acres surrounded by world heritage listed national park in the Dorrigo/Belliger River area. The property had five shareholders, each with small plots (2-3 acres) of their own land. For the first few years we lived in makeshift accommodation (a caravan and a shed), while my father set about building a stone cottage that was to become his workshop and our house.

We left Northern NSW and headed for Melbourne when I was 11 and have lived here ever since. I grew up in a Robin Boyd designed house in Studley Park. I’m not 100% sure how we managed to stumble into that place, as my parents were by no means wealthy, they just happened to be in the right place at the right auction. This environment really planted the seed for my appreciation and interest in mid century design, and the thinking behind this aesthetic.

After completing high school in Kew, I studied Industrial Design at Monash where I undertook design subjects in product, furniture, jewellery, and transport design studios. This education was really vital in giving me a great broad understanding of many different disciplines. I think of industrial design, good industrial design, not as a discipline that makes object more beautiful, but as a problem solving discipline, a way to really enhance the experience of the user in all facets of how we interact with our built environment.

During my Final years of design school I worked at General Motors Holden in Port Melbourne in the Advanced Design Colour and Trim Department. Here I worked on designing and developing new materials and finishes along side other designers in the automotive field. It was this experience in a BIG corporate environment that really highlighted to me that I wanted to work more directly with the materials and product that I was designing. Put simply, I wasn’t cut out to be a designer in a chain of designers, sitting at a desk, with little contact with the actual product that we were creating. I needed to work with my hands.

I left GM and started the footwear production course at RMIT. It was during this study that Custom Fit Australia came up for sale. Custom Fit is the previous incarnation of the business now known as Wootten. It was a dinky little shoe shop out on the Nepean Highway in Moorrabbin. It was family operated and had a long history of making very well finished bespoke footwear to the local market.

We relocated in July of 2011 to our new premises at 20 Grattan Stret, Prahran and have been working along side the crew from Guvnor (an amazing creative team from Tassie) on rebranding and developing our new identity. We’re just about due to relaunch the whole kit and caboodle in October, its very exciting!  The work that Tom Fitzgerald and Beth Emily-Gregory have done with Sean Fennessy is really beautiful stuff and I can’t wait to be able to reveal it to everyone.

Rumour has it you are a second generation shoe maker, which means, lets face it, you have just a smidgen more cred than the average uni graduate! How has your old man influenced your practice – did you always want to follow in his footsteps?

My Dad, Ross Wootten, passed away when I was nearly eight. Growing up in his workshop and being surrounded by the smells and the tools of the funny old trade certainly influenced my desire to learn as much as I could about the craft. I remember sitting in the corner of the workshop watching dad toil away for hours, he was a true artisan, a real perfectionist.

I inherited all of Dad’s tools and reference books and charts and had been tinkering with them for a number of years before deciding to really get stuck into finding out how to use them properly. Some of his techniques we use, and some have been adapted to suit our production techniques and the way we construct our shoes. Simply though, I wouldn’t be a shoe maker if it wasn’t for my early childhood experiences in my Dad’s workshop.

Shoe lasts in the Wootten workshop. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, art direction – Guvnor.
Wootten Shoes offers a unique retail experience to its customers selling a specialised range of footwear designed and made by yourself. You also custom design shoes upon customers request. Impressive! How would you describe Wootten’s trademark style, and what makes you different from other artisan shoemakers?

Our philosophy is really about creating sustainable design, not in the usual saving the environment way, but more in a slow fashion, timeless design and quality approach to consumers’ needs. We always focus on designing footwear that is not in fashion, we don’t want to be influenced by trends, but rather look at what is a practical and timeless adaption of a classic form.

A design is often born out of a functional necessity or a new production technique. I originally designed the Venice boot as a single piece of leather, folded and molded in certain ways to create the form of a side lace boot. Therefore the design of that particular piece was determined by practical production techniques.

We feel that if the shoe reflects your personality and is honest in its design, it will have a much greater life. If we can create objects that somehow impart a sense of true value with their owner, then they are more likely to be looked after and will be around for a lot longer. I’d like to think that people will love our shoes, not lust after them. We want them to be a long lasting friend, not a one night stand, if you get my drift!

Handcrafted mens shoes by Wootten. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, art direction – Guvnor.
Can you give us a little insight into the inner workings of your business? Do you employ anyone? Do you outsource any significant tasks, or is this a Jess Wootten one-man-show?

We have recently gone through some significant changes with regards to the inner workings of our workshop. We now have four casual staff, not including myself of course – Peter Cordwell and his wife Sherrin, who started the business almost 25 years ago still works with me. However, he has recently reduced the amount he is in, so we have been able to employ a couple of lovely young lasses. Both Abby and Claire have studied footwear production at RMIT. Having some young energy around the place has really livened up the workshop. It’s silly that I say young lasses as they are actually both a little older than me, I guess I just see myself as an old shoe maker, part of the woodwork.

What does a typical day involve for you?

I live quite close to work, so typically I take Billie my bluey pup for a short stroll around the streets of Prahran on the way in to work. We hang out for a while trying to organise the day’s work before any staff arrive. Generally things are quite slow paced in a shoe maker’s workshop. Unfortunately a lot of the processes are quite laborious, I’ve given up trying to hurry things through. So we settle in to try and work our way through what is normally a small mountain of jobs. Sometimes we are distracted by a customer or two, but as with most things in the workshop this isn’t generally fast paced or high volume.

Wootten work in progress. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, art direction – Guvnor.
Can you name for us 5 resources across any media (i.e. 5 specific journals, magazines, websites, blogs or other) which you visit regularly for a bolt of creative inspiration, or just to be kept in the loop!?

Smith Journal, The Crispin Colloquy (a boot and shoemaking forum), and Inside Out and the like for some interiors and a little bit of dreaming. I follow the work of some creative friends and colleagues, but I actually get most inspiration from experimenting and from areas entirely unrelated to footwear such as architecture and our environment, in the city and out.

What are you most proud of professionally?

Until now I think the shop that we’ve managed to put together. However the work we have been doing with Guvnor is set to trump that!  It’s been a real eyeopener to have some amazingly talented creative in and around the place.

Aside from all of that, the sheer fact that we are still in business is something to be proud of. There is a reason why there aren’t many bespoke footwear makers left and it’s a testament to the few that are that we are a determined and dedicated bunch!

What would be your dream creative project?

I’m working on it at the moment. We’ve been working towards designing a classic collection of footwear and designing a brand around that for some years now. Let’s hope it all comes together!

What are you looking forward to?

The launch of our new website and the marketing shenanigans to follow. After all of that maybe a very small holiday and the sun!

Melbourne Questions

Your favourite local neighbourhood and why?

I really love Abbotsford for the convent and the children’s farm. As a country boy at heart it’s the nearest thing without having to leave the city.

Where / what was the last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

I would have to say, and I’m a little biased, but the most enjoyable meal I have had recently would have to have been at our now closed café, Milton. Marty Beck (previously of Movida) is one of the greatest gentlemen I have ever had the pleasure of having cook for me. I’m planning a trip at the moment to visit his new digs in Castlemaine, it’s definitely worth the drive!

Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?

Unfortunately the answer to that would be work. However, on Sunday I’m normally walking the dog, at the Camberwell market or recovering from playing football on Saturday arvo (I’m sure I’m too old for that caper now).

Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Wootten of course!

The finished product. Photos –  Sean Fennessy, art direction – Guvnor.

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