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November 23, 2017
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The Shoe Gallery at the Australian Shoe Fair. Photography by Steven Phillips.

There has always been something enchanting about the perfect shoe. Whether you consider yourself Cinderella or Carrie Bradshaw, it's hard to resist the magical quality of handmade luxury goods. A pantheon of "once upon a time" princesses have made history gracing fairytale adventures in glittering footwear, and with the creation of the stiletto heel in 1954 by Roger Vivier, the collective fascination with footwear became inexhaustible. It is because of this that many Louboutin-clad shoe aficionados found themselves at Australia's largest buying and networking footwear trade event in Melbourne last month - despite government statistics reporting a drop in retail spending across the country. 

Shoe Fair Australia
A photo from the Shoe Gallery featuring designs
of Phong Chi Lai (handmade in Melbourne).
Photograph by Albert Comper.

The biannual Australian Shoe Fair offered audiences a preview of upcoming seasonal trends from industry favourites whilst also providing a platform for local artisans to debut their skills and engage with a larger global audience. The fair is part of the Fashion Exposed trade event, which also visits Sydney every February.

Since beginning in 2006, the notable shoe fair has become an invaluable tool for both buyers and distributors, offering many opportunities to forge business connections as well as engage in industry-specific educational seminars. Offering the latest styles, brands and business directives for the upcoming fashion season, the event attracted more than 1,500 local and international brands this year, as well as buyers from as far afield as New Zealand, India and Europe. 

The fair was first created out of a desire to showcase the variety, depth and capabilities of the Australian footwear industry. As Elissa Duke, exhibition director of fashion of Australian Exhibitions & Conferences told The Genteel, "There was a call from the footwear industry at the time [during 2006] to deliver a holistic trade event that not only showcased next season collections for a dedicated audience, but also aimed to highlight and support the industry from shoe manufacturers, makers, buyers and distributors. The Australian Shoe Fair effectively filled that need." 

However, the fair has had to successfully establish itself within a tough economic climate in which many key sectors are reporting losses. In July, official government figures reported a 0.8 per cent drop in Australian retail spending for the month of July and only last week, the country's fiscal struggles were made glaringly apparent when Australian department stores posted a fall of 10.2 per cent in monthly turnover. There was, however, a reported growth of 0.5 per cent in expected figures for annual profit from July 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, within the clothing, footwear and accessories sectors, indicating that there remains a demand across Australia for both fashion and footwear.

Multi-channel retailing is a must if retailers want to survive in the future. Savvy retailers realise they have to reach their customers in the spaces they're in - these include online shopping, social networking...

Many industry specialists are now suggesting that the key to success lies in a more modern, convergent approach throughout the industry to combat such unpredictable sales figures. As Duke explains, "There's no doubt the retail industry is going through hard times at the moment but there are retailers out there searching for answers in how they can improve business." Rather than turning away from the shoe fair, it seems likely that an increasing number of brands will rely upon it more thanks to the brand support and exposure that it offers. 

Duke suggests one solution to surviving this economic downturn could be to embrace the potential of new retail spaces. "Multi-channel retailing is a must if retailers want to survive in the future. Savvy retailers realise they have to reach their customers in the spaces they're in - these include online shopping, social networking, mobile commerce and through your [brand's] website. Of course, in-store is still a key part of the mix, but the challenge is for all of those channels to work seamlessly together to offer an awesome customer experience wherever they choose to be." Throughout the fair, advice such as this was imparted at numerous business seminars and training sessions, provided by the Australian Retailers Association, aiming to educate patrons on how to navigate the changing retail terrain and improve the customer experience.

Melbourne shoemaker and artisan, Steven Phillips believes the fair is also instrumental in empowering local creatives by highlighting the skills and artistry that underpin the industry. As the footwear designer told The Genteel, "I think it [the fair] gives new designers a chance to see a variety of real world styles and trends, as online imagery is often skewed towards runway and high fashion shoes which aren't what the general public are buying on a daily basis."

In a retail industry which boasts an annual revenue stream of around A$3 billion, the artisanal skill required to construct each pair of shoes can often be overshadowed by the commercial influence upon fast fashion. Rather than endorse this mainstream trend, the fair has instead shone a light on the intricacies of the art form behind footwear with the inclusion of Shoe Gallery, a photographic exhibition exploring both the complexity and craftsmanship of shoe design.

Curated by Phillips, Shoe Gallery juxtaposed the beauty of designs from well-known brands such as Givenchy and local designers such as Emma Greenwood, against the raw functionality of the tools and materials necessary to the manufacturing process. Phillips claims, "I thought it would be a good opportunity to bring some attention to what goes on behind the scenes and relate it visually to some cool and outrageous shoes." Phillips, who is also a co-founder of the Dead & Buried creative workshop, goes on to mention that, "Through satellite events like the Shoe Gallery and the mini-seminars, it also gives local artists access to inspiration and ideas that may not come from working in isolation." 

Shoe Fair Australia
Melbourne artisan Emma Greenwood's hand-
made designs featured in the Shoe Gallery.
Photography by Albert Comper.

There is a clear diversity found within the designs and demographics on show at the fair. As shoe demi-god Christian Louboutin postulated in a profile interview with The New Yorker last year, "The shoe is very much an x-ray of social comportment." No other platform in the Australian footwear industry provides such a holistic view of the Aussie shoe market and its global influences. When asked what differentiates the Sydney shoe audience from the Melbourne market, Duke informed The Genteel, "The weather plays a big part on the shoe market. Sydney is more about colour, sandals and open toe and the statement shoe. In Melbourne you will see more boots, sneakers, clogs and classic pieces."

However, there are a few promising brands that Duke suggests keeping an eye out for in the future, regardless of location or trend. "Look out for fun footwear brand Pastry fusing fashion with practicality; Billini shoes is a glamorous footwear brand that offer the latest on-trend designs at the right price; and Muski is a great new men's shoe line offering high quality Italian styling for the Australian man." With such a wealth of shoe craftsmanship on display, no doubt many a weary searcher will have found shoe solace at the Australian Shoe Fair.

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