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Monday, June 24, 2013

Andrew McDonald - Bespoke Shoe Maker, Sydney

Andrew McDonald works from an atelier on the second floor of the Strand Arcade in Sydney’s CBD. The studio is part retail, part workroom with Andrew cutting leather with his assistant when I arrived. The store is rather dark and heavy and it completely corresponds to the personality of McDonald’s shoes which to my mind conjure up images of Mad Max and a young Mel Gibson. There is something very raw, and in some instances brutal, about McDonald’s creations and the essence of this personality translates to all the shoes.


A higher than usual pitch, a signature of Andrew McDonald
The first thing I had to ask Andrew was about the curve of his shoes. They always seemed to bend a lot in the front. He corrected me and said that it was known as the ‘pitch’ of the shoe and anecdotally he explained that his pitch was more in line with traditional shoe making from times when shoes were worn more for walking and less for aesthetics. 100 years ago people did far more walking on a daily level than they do today, with the greater pitch helping to roll the foot as you walked and giving you greater ‘toe spring’. This was the first little tid bit about shoe making I had not read about on another blog to date. Once I began thinking about the pitch of a shoe I realised that I was someone who preferred a flat pitch and had always enjoyed wearing loafers and slippers a lot more than a boot. When it came to boots, I had always preferred those without a pitch, such as the RM Williams chelseas I was wearing whilst in Andrew’s workshop.
McDonald’s business is made up of ready to wear (RTW) which is in store and then of course they have a custom order or bespoke programme. Whilst I know of a few shoe makers left in Sydney, I don’t know of any who create a last for their customers and this is perhaps one of the most unique parts of McDonald’s business. Depending on the measurements, the last process will take 8-20 hours and is done on site at the studio. Once the last is made, the final design is agreed upon and the work commences. The shoes are made in roughly six to eight weeks. McDonald says that whilst he has his own personal style, the studio will create whatever design takes the fancy of the customer. I asked as to whether this meant that he was able to create a shoe with no pitch and he responded that it wasn’t a problem. The McDonald shoe was made from raw, organic finishes and very rustic leathers, but there was not a problem with sourcing leathers of different kinds and they were able to apply finishes such as bleaching, patina, chalking, distressing and tie dye within a range of finishing techniques. In some circumstances, they were instructed by very specific clients merely to re-create their favourite shoe.
But whilst Andrew McDonald will take on this work, his own personality is important to note. Rather than having something that looks like any other shoe you can find in any other brand of shoe, McDonald prefers to use earthy rustic leathers and treat them in ways which are in many ways more 'ancien' (eg: tie-dye) but by today's standards are somewhat unconventional. Where a Corthay shoe was about bright reflective finishes and sleek pointed designs, McDonald’s shoes seem to be more in line with the Australian landscape. They are wider, solid shoes with finishes which seem to be inspired by naturally occurring processes. I had never seen tie-dyed leather, nor the chalking effect, all of which you could easily assume one might find naturally occurring in the Australian bush.
The leathers that McDonald uses come from a variety of countries. Some of the leather is sourced in Australia, leathers such as a vegetan kangaroo leather are sourced directly from Victoria, however, the vast majority of leather is sourced from Italy and the United States. McDonald explains that the reason that they must source the leather from overseas is very simple ‘ like anything, if you want the best, you have to go to where the best is coming from’.
“What about the English and the French?” I asked.

“Well, they do, they do make good leathers, but not the leathers that I like. The English are good at soleing materials, the Germans are good at soleing. The soleing comes from the butt of the animal. It has to do with the grain and the density of the leather. The belly, the shoulders, these areas are better for the upper area. The sole is not split, the upper leather is usually split. It could be up to 8m thick, so they split it. This is one of the key differences. With upper leathers you have two types, full grain leathers which is the top, and the lower split is called the corrected grain leather. For the upper you want the full grain leather. Full grain leather, the ones that I like, are from Italy and the USA.”
I asked McDonald why he was not that interested in the patina process which seems so popular at the moment. He explained it very simply. Having spent time at Berluti as an apprentice, he felt that the best shoe companies created their own look and feel. Andrew McDonald says that he wants to stay true to his own look and feel and I think he certainly does this. Every shoe in the McDonald studio is unmistakably from the same source. It was a pleasure to meet Andrew and I hope that in the future we will be able to work on something together.
Ready to wear shoes start from 800 to 1000AUD and bespoke shoes are from 2000AUD upwards. The average time for custom shoes is 6-8 weeks. For more information see http://andrewmcdonald.com.au/ .

An example of a chalked leather from Andrew McDonald, a boot with a high pitch and a distressed raw look evoking images of Mad Max and a young Mel Gibson.


Raw earthy tones are very Andrew McDonald
An example of a raw patina which McDonald uses from time to time.

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