Heart and sole

Shoemaking in New Zealand has a long and proud history, but these days only a few proponents remain. Rebekah White hunts out the last local shoemakers and asks, who’s making our shoes?

Spend a day wandering the streets of an unfamiliar city, or an evening dancing in toe-pinchers, and you’ll be reminded that shoes are profoundly connected to your sense of wellbeing. Some women are self-confessed shoeaholics – but whether you’re a secret Imelda Marcos or not, shoes can make or break your day, hobble you or heal you. Scuffed or buffed, they are a guide by which other people take your measure. Pulling on a trusty pair of boots can make you feel as though you can take on the world; of all the components of an outfit, it’s shoes which set your mood, your look, and the amount of confidence you project.

The word ‘shoemaker’ sounds old-fashioned today – it seems to belong more to a fairy tale or a Charles Dickens novel than to modern life. And fair enough, because the local shoemaker has almost completely become a thing of the past. New Zealand once had a prosperous throng of shoemakers, but this number has now dwindled to a handful. 

Buying shoes used to be a real event. Even as a small child, I knew shoes were a big deal and cost a lot of money – you had to choose carefully. Mum checked the seams and leather to make sure they was sturdy, and the sales assistant pressed around my toes to see if there was plenty of room to grow. They’d always be loose at first. 

But in the space of my lifetime shoes have moved from considered, occasional purchases to casual, disposable items you might pick up on a lunch break. After all, canvas sneakers now cost only $5 at Kmart.

Early steps

Men gluing soles to slippers at Buchanan & Edwards, 1960. 

A century ago, 74 New Zealand footwear factories produced 1.5 million pairs of shoes annually. In the 1930s, the government introduced tariffs on imported footwear in order to protect the burgeoning Kiwi shoe industry and until the late 1980s, about 95 percent of the footwear sold in New Zealand was made on our shores.

When cuts on tariffs began in 1991, the import tax on footwear was gradually reduced from 55 percent to 19 percent. It walloped the local shoe industry. Today, the tariff on footwear is 6.5 percent, and now the shoe is entirely on the other foot; more than 95 percent of the shoes currently sold in New Zealand are imported. 

All of which begs the question: if most of the shoes we’re buying today are mass-produced in some faraway place, how much do we know about them?

Take another look at the boots, sandals or jandals you’re wearing right now. Are they a quality product that will be kind to your feet and last the distance? Were they stitched with care by a skilled tradesperson – or glued together by a tired worker toiling overtime in a factory? 

Workers assemble plastic shoes at the Buchanan & Edwards shoe factory 

A load of old cobblers

When the Scotsman Robert McKinlay arrived in Dunedin in 1870, he had never before handled a piece of leather. But Robert was prepared “to do anything, as every person landing on these shores [should be] prepared to do”, so he got in touch with an old mate and landed a job cutting out soles at his shoe factory.

Robert “applied himself with utmost diligence to mastering the trade”, according to the Otago Daily Times, and in 1879, he branched out with his own footwear business, McKinlays.

More than 130 years later, McKinlays still makes shoes in Dunedin – between 130 and 160 pairs a day – and the business is now run by fifth-generation McKinlays, brothers Graeme and David. They’ve got customers in more than ten countries as well as at home, and they reckon the company’s longevity is due to the quality of their shoes – all of which can be sent back for resoling once they’re worn through.  

Up the other end of the country in Whangarei, Neville Brunker’s dad began making shoes more than 50 years ago under the brand Lastrite. The company has done a steady trade in forestry and farm boots ever since, selling direct to customers rather than through shops. Avoiding retailers is what kept Lastrite going when tariffs dropped, says Neville. They’ve now expanded into school shoes and women’s footwear, using leather supplied by Whanganui-based Tasman Tanning. Neville and his four staff make ten pairs per day for their 25-style range. Sticking to the same look means they haven’t had to continually update their machinery. “Traditionally we’ve tried to keep to men’s styles because women’s styles change so rapidly,” says Neville. “What’s changed in the industry is ways of construction – and we haven’t changed our ways of construction.”

Minx shoe designer Cushla Reed 

The newest kid on the block is Auckland-based, first-generation shoemaker Sandy Cooper. Sandy launched her brand, Minnie Cooper, in 1989, just as import tariffs were starting to fall. But her company has done a steady business since, as the only New Zealand-made brand to specialise in women’s shoes. Everything’s made in Sandy’s Onehunga factory – you can watch a video of the process at www.minniecooper.co.nz – and 24 years down the track, she’s not budging from there. “It hasn’t really appealed to me to get my shoes made offshore. I only want to do small runs and I have quite a particular style,” she says. 

Manufacturing locally also allows her to keep a close eye on the quality of each and every shoe. “It is skilled work – you can’t just pick someone off the street and have a great machinist on your hands, someone who knows those 1,000 things you need to know to become good at any industry.”

Offshore manufacture also hides the real cost of production, she says. “We would never bring a lot of Vietnamese over here, put them down in Taranaki and pay them
$2 a day – but that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s only okay because it’s in a different place.”

There’s also the question of what happens to shoes once they’re worn through, as Neville Brunker points out. “Every pair of shoes should have a barcode on them so when they go to the dump the manufacturer has to pay,” he says. “It’s New Zealanders who pay for the landfills – not manufacturers.”

Part of that is due to the disposable nature of today’s footwear. Neville says he’s frustrated with the quality he sees in imported shoes. “A lot of them are not leather, and they say ‘genuine leather’, but it’s a veneer PVC or PU colour on a suede split,” he says. “They’re not lasted correctly at the points where the eyelets and laces are. The sandals with no support in the arch – they’re going to wreck people’s feet in time.”

Made for walking

Whether your shoes are made locally or overseas, what matters is that they’re a quality product that will be kind to your feet and last the distance, and that they’ve been made in fair working conditions. 

The vast majority of shoes available in New Zealand were made by people who probably don’t speak the same language as you. One Kiwi who’s taken her manufacturing offshore is Cushla Reed, who moved production of her brand Minx to Fiji in 2005, then to China in 2007. 

Cushla and her sister Angela grew up working in their stepfather’s shoe factory in Waikanae – it once supplied footwear to familiar Kiwi retailers such as Ezibuy and The Shoe Bar (now the No. 1 Shoe Warehouse). And it was there that Cushla and Angela began making Minx shoes when they bought the factory in 1999.

But Cushla says the reduction of tariffs combined with increasing compliance costs meant the business was being run into the ground. “The government changed the rules and said, ‘We’re not going to protect manufacturers in New Zealand anymore, we’re going to level the playing field,’” she says.

An ageing factory was another challenge facing the sisters. “We needed to update our plant and equipment and we didn’t have the money for it. Our suppliers were disappearing – the infrastructure that supported the factory was slowly vanishing.”

Minx shoes are now made by seven factories in China that Cushla describes as “fair trading” (they aren’t eligible for Fairtrade certification as they’re not co-operatively owned). “I was so pro-New Zealand-made and made in the Pacific, it was really important to me that the factories were ethical,” Cushla says. She visits several times a year. “I literally work in the factories with them, and have lunch with them.”

Footwear components on display in China 

Cushla says her Chinese facilities are a vast improvement on the brand’s Waikanae roots. “Their factories – you could eat off the ground, they’re so clean and tidy and well presented. When I think back to our factory in Waikanae, it was third world: power cords strung up over the rafters! You do pay for what you get in China. I know the factories we work with 

are unionised, and they’re working from nine until five. It’s changed a lot in the past eight years – wages have increased, which impacts on price, but I think that’s progress.”

Moving production offshore has also allowed Cushla greater design freedom, as up-to-date equipment means she has a greater array of techniques and styles available to her. “It’s capital-intensive for all the equipment,” she points out. “New Zealanders can’t afford the new tools, there’s no one to supply them the materials to move to the next level.” While the machinery already in the country might last decades, investing in new shoemaking technology is a mammoth expense for small Kiwi businesses.

And if you’ve got especially wide, big or tiny feet, you’ll know that shopping for the right pair can be an exercise in frustration. Another local footwear brand Ziera – formerly known as Kumfs – was founded in 1946 by podiatrist brothers-in-law Mervyn Adams and David Robertson, who’d noticed that European shoes were too narrow for Kiwi feet, causing all kinds of podiatry ailments. Unable to find shoes to recommend to their clients, Mervyn and David decided to start from scratch, studying 10,000 women’s feet before creating new shoe moulds, or ‘lasts’ as they’re called. Shoes were manufactured in Auckland until 2009, when Ziera moved all production to China. Ziera says its factory “adheres to Chinese government regulations” and it keeps a staff of four in Guangdong to oversee production, according to its company website.

Good keen shoemakers

We’re all familiar with outsourcing: job losses in the headlines and an unfamiliar accent on the other end of the phone when calling a company’s helpline. But USA-based eco footwear brand KEEN is one company which has started ‘insourcing’. They’re trying to return shoemaking to America – which has, like New Zealand, largely transferred its manufacturing base to parts of the world where human time is valued at much cheaper rates.

In 2010, KEEN leased a factory in Portland, Oregon, bought a 25-year-old machine – “the best on the market” – from Germany and hired 16 staff. “There are no people in the USA who know how to make shoes,” said factory manager Tom Fitzgerald. “We had to train them in all steps of the operation.” The Portland factory now produces four styles. 

KEEN’s focus is on an innovative use of materials, with the least amount of waste. One machine makes 400 pairs a day in one eight-hour shift, although it’s capable of making up to 700 pairs. The direct-inject manufacturing process means everything happens in a mould – so fewer materials are required and there are no offcuts. Recyclable polyurethane is squirted into the gap between the sole and the upper, then layers are fused together at a high heat. “What makes KEEN
a good product is the quality of the components that we have,” explains Tom. 

The innovations at KEEN are part of a bigger trend that has sports and outdoor footwear companies driving improved manufacturing conditions. Once upon a time, brands such as Nike were synonymous with sweatshop scandals and allegations of child labour. But times are changing, and Nike, the target of a global boycott in the 1990s for failing to address factory conditions, now publishes details of its 777 factories which employ more than a million people. (Go to www.good.net.nz/nikemap to learn more.) Nike admits that less than five percent of its factories receive an A rating for conforming to its own policies, but the number of factories which weren’t audited or rated at all decreased from almost half to only four percent between 2009 and 2011. 

The improvements haven’t just been on matters of human rights. A big sustainability push resulted in Nike sending 70 percent less solid waste to landfill in 2011 than 2005, despite increasing production by 50 percent in that time. And the company’s ‘Reuse-a-Shoe’ program, which has been running since 1990, has recycled more than 25 million pairs into products such as carpet padding, synthetic turf, buttons, zippers and other components for the next generation
of shoes.

It’s all a testament to the power of angry consumers, and Nike isn’t the only company to have responded. Earlier this year, rival sports brand Puma launched InCycle, a ‘closed loop’ collection of footwear and clothing whose components are either biodegradable or recyclable, all certified by the Cradle to Cradle program. Puma also runs a program called ‘Bring Me Back’, which encourages customers to return garments and shoes for recycling or composting.

Ultimately the best shoes – for your wallet, your health, the planet and the lives of strangers in developing countries – are those which will last a really long time. It’s incompatible with our desire for newness and the frequency with which we’ve become accustomed to reinventing ourselves. But at the same time, it’d be an awful loss if the repairable shoe became an extinct creature – not to mention the cobblers and shoemakers whose art is in giving new life to old leather. 

Luckily Kiwi shoemakers aren’t giving up just yet. Neville Brunker has already got the third generation of his family involved in the business – and he’s still too fond of the process to throw in the towel just yet. “No piece of leather ever stretches the same as another piece of leather,” he explains. “It’s a challenge to get it right every time, to make a perfect product. Because we make quality – and it’s really hard to find quality shoes now.” 

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