I spend a lot of time searching for shoemakers. Handcrafting shoes is a beautiful art, and I've always wanted to observe the craft for myself. My searches always come up short, but a couple months ago I discovered a gem of a shoemaker and to my surprise, he lives in Hamilton. This weekend I had the pleasure of meeting Chris Poirier, a new leather goods maker with some traditional values. Chris just launched Peartree Leather Co. and is also the craftsman behind Poirier Shoes. In today's disposable society, it's encouraging to see a resurgence in handmade goods and local industries. I've been reading a book titled Craft Capitalism: Craftsworkers and Early Industrialization in Hamilton, Ontario. While it focuses on the impacts of early industrialization on craftsmakers, it also paints a portrait of the early enterprises in Hamilton -- small artisan shops valuing handcrafted production. Back in the 19th century, every village in Ontario had a shoemaker and a cobbler. The 1851 Canada Census shows that Hamilton had at least four boot and shoe establishments (Robert Nisbet and John McPherson & Company to name a few), one clothing manufacturer and one hat factory alongside other small artisans in town. It's interesting to see a return to our roots, with more and more craftsmakers starting businesses that take pride in artisanship, traditional skills and using their craft in a contemporary way. I sat down with Chris to talk bespoke shoemaking, starting a small business and the emerging maker movement.
"There is a saying in the shoe world that you can build a pair of shoes with a spoon, knife, and a fork. I use some of the simplest tools to do my work."
When and how did you get started making leather goods?
I got started with leather when I wanted to take up building shoes as a hobby. Since most hand-made shoemaking happens in Europe, I had to teach my self. I watched videos from YouTube, I printed off shoe building books from the early 1900's and I problem solved. A lot of my learning came from simply building the shoes, making mistakes and taking note of what needed to be changed to build a better shoe. As I starting building shoes I realized that it was my dream work. It offers the perfect balance of attention to detail, muscle-work, simplicity, and complexity. The summer after my graduation I came to the conclusion that this is what I wanted to do.
What was the initial learning curve like and how are you perfecting your craft?
Since there are not a lot of resources available, I simply had to take steps forward in shoe construction and spend time thinking about what to do next and how. I find shoemaking has the same kind of simple complexity that construction does. You start off with a daunting task, but there are simple steps to take to get there. I'm spending time building for friends and family (this is originally how shoemaking apprenticeships were done). This allows me to go through the entire process with someone who is openminded about any mistakes made. I'm still in the training stages of building shoes. Since I have the resources and skills to work with leather, I decided to open up Peartree Leather Co. offering high-quality leather goods at an affordable price.
One size doesn't fit all. What are the benefits of made-to-measure or bespoke shoes?
The biggest advantage to bespoke shoes vs. ready-to-wear, is that the shoe and the foot are not in conflict with one another. When you buy a ready-to-wear shoe, the fit is never going to be perfect. For this reason your foot has to compensate, which is bad for the health of the foot and the spine. Ready-to-wear shoes are usually packed with chemicals that are used in the tanning process of the leather, the glues that hold the shoe together, and the fabrics and plastics that can be found between the liner and upper of the shoe. This leads to sweating of the foot, odours and other health issues.
When a bespoke shoe is built, there is a tremendous amount of pride involved in building a shoe that will last for decades. For this reason, the builder will be using a last (shoe form) that has been custom built to fit the wearer perfectly. They also make sure that the materials being used are of the best quality and tanned naturally. This means there are no toxins seeping in to your feet while you walk, the leather moulds to fit even better than it did before, etc...
What is the basis for your designs?
Men's shoes only come in a few classic styles. I've been trying to keep with classic styles of men's shoes. Eventually I'd like to move towards some rugged, timeless boots. The styles I create will last throughout the wearer's lifetime, since the shoes can last that long. The pieces for Peartree Leather Co. are timeless and functional. The beautiful thing about leather is that it takes on the character of it's owner. As it is worn and used, it moulds to serve it's function better.
"There is beauty in simplicity; especially when there is workmanship involved, rather than machines."
What has been the most challenging aspect of establishing your leather goods businesses?
We've been deeply persuaded as consumers to believe that it is reasonable to buy things of good quality for very little cost. The truth is that when we are buying things for cheap we are either receiving products of inferior quality to that advertised, or the cost difference is being paid for by other people's exploitation. I'm trying to find a way to show people that quality goods are not something that simply happen and can be mass produced for cheap. If someone wants to own something of good quality they will have to pay a fair price for it.
Over the past few years it seems there is a renewed interest in craftsmanship and quality of goods. Do you feel the fashion and retail industry is changing?
We are starting to see a change in people's interest in how products are made. There is definitely a romanticization of work nowadays. People love to see things being done in an old fashioned way. I don't know if consumers are ready to support small emerging businesses on a large scale. Small businesses that are making quality goods can only produce so much of their product per year. This means that it can't catch on in the same way as with coveted large-scale businesses. For craftsmanship to truly catch on in the fashion and retail industry there needs to be a change of heart in the consumer, where we can sacrifice having the next popular coveted item for a quality item instead. It's a hard thing to change, but I think we're moving towards it.
"I'm noticing huge leaps and bounds from pair to pair in the quality that I can produce. And I know that by the time I start taking orders I will be able to build something of superior quality."
Peartree Leather Co. is live. What's the next step for Poirier Shoes? When do you expect to launch?
Now that Peartree Leather Co. has launched I'm starting to re-focus on Poirier Shoes. I have two pairs of shoes due in June and July for some friends of mine and shortly after that I will be ready to take on some orders. With bespoke shoes, customers can expect to be put on to a waiting list since the work is so time consuming. My hope is to be building shoes for new customers as soon as the end of this coming summer.