How unique design values are gaining a foothold in a prestige market

Wootten is a leather goods workshop in inner city Melbourne that produces bespoke shoes, bags and aprons using time-honoured methods and tools. What inspired founder Jess Cameron-Wootten to run an old-school business in the 21st century?

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Jess Cameron-Wootten, head cordwainer at the Melbourne-based custom leather goods business Wootten, grew up watching his father make shoes.

“Dad worked from home when I was growing up and from the age of three or four I remember sitting there watching him work,” he says.

For those who are wondering, a cordwainer is someone who makes new shoes from new leather; this is differentiated from a cobbler, who was only allowed to repair shoes.

It’s hard to imagine that there are many second-generation cordwainers still around. That, in part, is what motivated Jess to go into the business.

“I realised there weren’t going to be many [traditional shoemakers] left in the country, if not the world, so it seemed like an ideal time,” he says.

Despite growing up in the business, Cameron-Wootten didn’t step straight into it. Instead, he studied industrial design at university and ended up, as he puts it, “in search of a real job”. That real job was in the automotive design department at General Motors, where he worked for about two years, doing “all sorts of interesting things working on show cars and development of new materials”.

Although he found the work itself interesting, as he became more of a project manager than a designer or maker, Cameron-Wootten found himself hankering for something else.

“So I decided to make the move to get more hands-on,” he says; “I went back to study footwear production at RMIT, and then bought an existing business that had been running for about 20 years at the time. And that was about 10 years ago. That was my one moment of entrepreneurship.”

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In his father’s footsteps

Cameron-Wootten bought a bespoke shoe shop Custom Fit Australia from Peter and Sherrin Cordwell, who continued to work with him for the next four years before retiring. The workshop was in Moorabbin in a “funny little Victorian shopfront” on the Nepean Highway that he describes as being “pretty easily missed”.

Four years later, Cameron-Wootten moved the business to Prahran, in a big old red brick building just behind Chapel Street. That proved to be a turning point. Within a short time of the move, the business had grown quite significantly, to seven or eight people.

Around the same time, Wootten’s branding and website were redesigned to reflect its ethos. It combines technology with beautiful photography and engaging storytelling to create an experience that mirrors the care and service you find in-store.

But, even with a great location and skilful branding, how does a bespoke shoemaking business compete with mass produced footwear?

“I’m sitting here looking at numbers and wondering the same thing,” says Cameron-Wootten. “It’s difficult, it’s really difficult, it’s like any creative pursuit, there’s an element of extra work for no pay, and passion, that goes in there.”

But as he points out, it’s not comparing apples with apples.

“Some customers have no choice but to get shoes made by us, because if you can’t fit into regular shoes, you have to have them made,” he says. “We do a lot of orthopaedic footwear.”

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The sporting choice

Wootten also makes custom sports footwear. And then there are the people who choose to get their shoes made — because they can afford to, because they are interested in the process, and because they like to tell a story about their shoes.

It’s here that Cameron-Wootten has tapped into the zeitgeist, the move towards slower, more mindful and sustainable practices spearheaded by the ‘Slow Food’ movement and has since moved into design, travel and fashion.

“What it boils down to is that we offer our customers something that’s a little bit unique, it’s engagement in the process,” he says. “We’re so far removed from everything in the current environment, consumer-wise — so people are intrigued by that part of the process, to come in and meet the people who are making the product, and have an involvement in its creation.”

The growth of the business so far has been largely organic, but it has reached a point where they need to decide whether to seek further growth.

He’s upfront about the inherent dilemma: “It’s a difficult balance for me to strike personally. The reason I got into the business in the first place was to be a maker and hands-on with the process — I guess the bigger the business becomes, the more managerial my role becomes, and the less I get to achieve what I set out to achieve in the first place.”

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He concludes that Wootten’s focus for the future will be not growing, but diversifying, by trying new designs, new business strategies and collaboration with other creatives.

Hopefully, he hits the ground running.

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