One to Watch: Westerly Handmade Shoes
If the shoe fits… Renée Macdonald probably made it.
Renée Macdonald never expected to become a part of Vancouver’s fashion scene. “I don’t follow any trends and I don’t pay much attention to magazines,” she laughs, “I started making shoes when I’d just had enough of the administrative work I was doing.”
What began as simple escape, however, quickly turned into a passion. Macdonald took a five-day shoemaking course in 2008 and spent the better part of a year working from her dining room table. She then worked as a retailer and cobbler, gaining what information she could about the relationship people have with their shoes. The rest, as they say, is history: she now designs made-to-order leather boots, loafers and sandals from her Strathcona workshop as Westerly Handmade Shoes.
Aside from getting a shoe that fits (“You’d be amazed at the number of people walking around in shoes that don’t,” she says), Macdonald’s clients get the exact design they want: they can select colour, laces, treads—even the sewing technique used for the seams. Although most clients will customize one of Macdonald’s base designs, some will come forward with a style that’s all their own. “I’m always surprised when clients come in with a combination of ideas that would have never occurred to me,” she says. “I’m hesitant to make them, but then I’m amazed at how they turn out.”
Opting for custom-made shoes versus off-the-shelf models also adds the element of connecting the artisan directly with the end user, one of Macdonald’s favourite parts of the bespoke process. “Clients feel involved in the process and end up having something they love and want to take care of,” she says.
Each pair takes Macdonald approximately 20 hours to complete. She does everything: measuring, pattern making, gluing, sewing and lasting (the process of securing leather uppers to the soles). “I love all sorts of things about shoemaking, but the most rewarding thing is when someone comes in and puts their shoes on for the first time,” she says. “Shoes, when they’re on the shelves, are inanimate objects, but as soon as you put them on someone’s feet they become so much more than that—I really do love that part of it.”
Macdonald’s designs, which earned her a spot as a finalist in Western Living’s 2015 Designers of the Year Awards, are handcrafted from supple leather and durable rubber soles. Being an avid cyclist (”I bike pretty much everywhere I go,” she says) means Macdonald has witnessed firsthand the damage bike pedals and less-than-ideal weather conditions can cause. “I try to be realistic about what shoes will endure,” she says, which means designing for functionality as well as style.
“Comfort, reliability and beauty”—that’s what makes a good shoe, she says. Her most popular design, the Rogue ankle boot, embodies each of these qualities (and was what encouraged her to finally open Westerly Handmade Shoes). “I consider my shoes to be quite utilitarian with a sort of timeless quality,” she says. “I like to make things that have long-term wearability while also ensuring that the aesthetic and style is appealing for several years—I haven’t worn out a pair yet.”
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