Coming after his Dad, industrial designer Jess became a shoemaker and leather-craftsman. Establishing his label WOOTTEN inside a beautiful old warehouse in Melbourne, he especially enjoys creating shoes from scratch together with his customers. I visited him one sunny winter morning.
Janis: What is the neighbourhood like, you work in?
Jess: Prahran has changed a lot over the last two years or so, I would say, becoming more and more creative, especially on Greville Street. It's a cute little street, one of these retail strips slightly off the beaten track where a few interesting shops and creative initiatives are opening up, so hopefully that keeps on happening.
Do you know many people in the area?
I don't! (laughing) I tend to spend my time either at home or at the workshop, I've just been too busy. We had an opening here about a month ago, where we invited some of the local store holders and that was the first time I've met them!
So this shop is fairly new?
No, we've been here for four and a half years. Dad started making shoes in 1975.
I bought an existing business in 2006, merged the two together and spent some time working out what direction to take. In 2012 we then moved the business here and did the rebrand. So the business has been evolving over the past ten years.
Did your father encourage you to follow in his footsteps?
Not specifically, no. Dad passed away when I was still young. He was a real craftsman and I spent a lot of time in his workshop as a little kid. He built our house, up in New South Wales, a little stone cottage, and he was a woodworker and leather-craftsman, always working with his hands. I suppose, growing up with that, made me want to follow in his footsteps.
What did you do before 2006?
After high school I went to university to study Industrial Design and then worked at General Motors as a designer for a couple of years - bad idea (smiling). But it was a good experience to have, because it really certified the fact, that I don't want to do that. Afterwards I decided to try running my own business.
What triggered your interest in Slow Fashion?
Well, growing up without a lot of material possessions got me thinking later, that it's all about connections, rather than living with excess. It is important to value the things we have and not just be surrounded by disposable, incidental things in our lives.
If you can get something easily, it's just as easy to get rid of it. But if you invest in the process of creating it, you're more likely to cherish it and take care of it.
Your advice to me, if I wanted to start a small business?
Plan, plan and plan. Very important! I was pretty naïve and fool-hardy, when I started. It is tricky to grind out a market for yourself, and to be competitive within an import driven economy. Everything is so cheap and easily attainable, so when you take time to hand-make something, it's difficult to convey to people the value in those things.
It is hard work and you need a lot of dedication.
How big is your team?
There are five of us, including me. About six years ago it was only me, so it has grown quite a lot in that time.
Are your customers mainly from around here?
Most of our customers are locals, but you don't necessarily need to try on a bag to decide that you like it (smiling), so we are sending things all over the world now. But I would say about 80% of our orders come from Melbourne.
Have you sometimes been surprised by the kind of customers you have?
Yes, I have been! The types of people that come in really varies, but it seems like we have picked up a whole bunch of people between the ages of 20 and 40! They come with the desire or the income to invest in something like we produce. It shows, that there's a shift in people's values.
Do you think that may just be a trend?
The thought has crossed my mind, definitely, but there's a difference between what I would call a cycle of fashion, and long term fashion trends. I think it has been in the background for a long time. We've seen the allure of the cheap and shiny and been sucked into that for a long period of time, and now we are shifting back towards what my grandparents were all about.
Where do you source your materials from?
All over the world. Our leather bags are made from locally produced leathers that come from cows in Ballarat, but we also import leather from America, the UK and Italy.
What made you choose them?
It's really down to what we can source, because there is very little industry in Australia and our production is quite small, so we are limited in our choices, as to what tanneries will deal with us.
Your shop is open three days a week, do you get much downtime?
Not much of it at all, no. I used to work six or seven days a week and have managed to pair that back to five, but we've been working ten or fifteen hours a day. So we are still working 50 or 60 hours a week, in those five days. Then, it's good to have a couple of days out of the workshop to keep a balance.
I guess it takes your work-time and your hobby-time and becomes one big thing, but I never really feel like it's hard work. Even though it requires a lot of my time and energy, I wouldn't do anything else, that's for sure.
What is your vision for the business?
As far as size is concerned, the business is exactly where I'd like it to be. I enjoy most being on the tools and making things, so if we get too big, my job becomes a manager of people and that's not what I want to do.
As far as the creative side of things, the vision is to keep being innovative and challenging ourselves, coming up with new products, trying new techniques and diversifying. Having studied design, I really love furniture and product design and I could see us doing more collaborative work with furniture makers in the future. You learn a lot from collaborating with people doing similar things.
Thank you Jess Cameron–Wootten for the interview! To find out more about his work visit his website here.
photography, interview & text: Janis Manini Claudia Kanga