Nothing in Peter Feeney's professional background foreshadowed his current, rather arcane occupation: traditionally trained maker of bespoke leather shoes. Before decamping to Italy three years ago to learn the trade with a Florentine shoemaker, the admitted footwear fanatic was a media professional in Toronto.
"My line of work before Italy was in the entertainment, advertising and promotions industry," says the 29-year-old, who recently returned to Canada after completing his apprenticeship with the traditional shoemaker Mannina, an outfit he joined without any experience or fluency in Italian. "I felt the need to do something that I could feel and see."
He isn't alone. In British Columbia, 40-year-old Ken Diamond traded in jobs in film-set decorating and furniture upholstery to create hand-cut and -stitched wallets, bags and belts that are now stocked by shops such as Mr. Lee's General Store & Haberdashery in Vancouver and Still Life Boutique in Victoria. Diamond founded his eponymous firm in 2004 and is entirely self-taught. His inspiration was and remains the resurgent Japanese interest in craft, which has led a generation of young Japanese novices to workshops across Europe to learn leather working.
"Their attention to detail is incredible," he says. "They also have such appreciation for craft in their culture."
Indeed, that appreciation appears to be catching - not only among young Canadians seeking their bliss through leather, but also in the new breed of retailers eager to showcase their wares. In Toronto, for instance, the funky men's clothing and accessories shop Nomad carries handmade belts, bags and jewellery by local designers such as Stars & Perfect Tens, which is run by 38-year-old Joey Tanner, a one-man artisanal studio, alongside cutting-edge international brands. The store is also in talks with Feeney about offering his bespoke services to its customers. Completely handmade, Feeney's shoes cost upward of $650 a pair and take about 10 hours to create.
"There is a story and interest in these old arts that aren't present in the goods made today," says Nomad's 36-year-old creative director, Jesar Gabino. "And there is a pocket of younger people who are interested in locally made, quality goods that evoke old world skill, craftsmanship and tradition. The element of customization and personalization appeals to my generation, which grew up on cultures that are staked in individuality."
Such talk is music to the ears of 70-year-old master shoemaker John Lobb, London-based grandson of the original bootmaker who started John Lobb Ltd. in 1849.
"When I joined [in 1958] there were perhaps 30 [shoemaking]firms around the West End," Lobb recalls amid the aged wood panelling and smell of old leather in his firm's Mayfair premises. "Now there are two and a half. "
Changes in manufacturing practices and the recent appetite for fast fashion have resulted in fewer customers for Lobb's shoes, which start at £2,500 a pair and take six months or more to create. But the fact that a new generation of leather workers is coming through and is finding a receptive audience is heartening, Lobb says.
Today, many of those apprentices are more likely to be from Eastern Europe and Asia than the sons of English- and Irishmen already in the trade, but they likely share a similar personality and drive, he adds.
"Some people are attracted to shoes and some people are attracted to working with leather and their hands," Lobb says. "They don't want to work with computers, and they derive, as in any of the crafts, whether it's woodworking or stonemasonry, a certain satisfaction."
This was certainly the case for Canadians Feeney and Diamond. And it's also the case for Toronto's Ken Chow, whose contemporary men's wear brand Kane combines old-school techniques with industrial, military and work wear influences.
Now selling at Barney's in New York and Isetan in Tokyo, Chow's modern takes on classic bags and jackets can take a full day to make and cost between $500 and $1,500.
Although the impact of fast-fashion retailers has been seismic in his trade, he says, "the only thing they can't compete with are the attention to the little things, the handiwork that goes into my product."
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