Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
It is fitting that our first M/A/P pair interview make objects that come in twos. Lucy and Ollie are the couple behind Ottowin Footwear. They work alongside a collective of artist friends in a space called ‘The Loft’, which they all built together, one hot summer, with a lot of sweating and fun. Ottowin shoes are made with high-quality materials from the U.K and Lucy and Ollie aim to promote sustainable slow fashion that lasts and looks good. This young, exciting company only started in 2016. Lucy’s classical shoe-design training coupled with Ollie’s fine-arts background means that, whilst the pair are following the footsteps of traditional techniques, they are doing so in their own way. They tell us about a bottle of wine on a cliff-top in Spain, the joy of being able to cycle to suppliers, and why they have everything they need right under their feet.
How would you describe yourselves as makers?
Lucy: We make timeless, yet contemporary unisex footwear. We see the shoemaking process through from start to finish. This includes design, pattern cutting, closing, lasting and soling. We craft highly personal pieces of footwear, which are sustainably made in our studio in Bristol, U.K.
Ollie: We use lots of traditional techniques. This is primarily because we don’t have high-end machinery, but it is also because we love the craft and skill involved in this way of making. We’re very grassroots in that way and have had to make our own path. There’s a lot of creative problem solving involved but that’s what we enjoy.
What inspired you to start making shoes?
Lucy: My mum is super creative. She can turn her hand to any craft; whether that’s carpentry, pottery, ceramics or building. When I first started walking my feet were too small to get hard-soled shoes. So my mum made me my first pair of shoes with instructions from an old book.
Years later, she helped me make moccasin patterns. That set me off. I visited a handmade shoe shop called Conkers in Totnes where they gave me lots of advice. At seventeen, I sold my shoes at a little market. I just really loved it.
Ollie: I’m from a very creative background also, though not shoes. My Dad designs cars and it’s weird because footwear is sometimes coupled with car design. It must be the shapes. I grew up drawing lots of cars but I never really followed the shoe path until I met Lucy. It all happened quickly after that.
Lucy: We were just trying things and it was working. It was like: wow, this is a really expensive hobby. So we decided to just do it and start the company.
You’re a very young company and only started in 2016. Have you got a process yet?
Lucy: We’re only our second season in so we’re always practising and learning new techniques. We’re planning for the next spring/summer collection at the moment. The most sensible thing to do would be to use the same designs, but we love making new stuff so I already know we’ll end up sampling about six new styles.
In my old job, I used to draw hundreds of shoes a week and then pick between styles with minute differences. Now we decide what the style is, then make it and design around that. It’s sort of like non-rapid prototyping.It’s expensive, but that’s the fun part.
Ollie: Making early in the process is important to us. We’re both very tactile people so we like to get the design from 2D to 3D as soon as possible. I think that’s important for footwear as it’s not a conceptual idea, it is an object that’s used every day – and that’s what we like about it – it has a purpose and use.
Do you have formal training in shoemaking?
Lucy: I studied footwear at Cordwainers, London. Then I had a job with the footwear company F-Troupe. I did design and factory management with them for a few years. It was an amazing experience, but I was working from the other end of the process. I wasn’t involved in the actual making so it could feel quite detached. I was managing the process rather than being part of it.
I feel so much happier now I’m back to the actual making. In bigger companies, you’re designing two seasons ahead and things are coming from all over the world. It’s fantastic to be able to pull the whole process back to just Ollie and I, in this one place. We’re in total control. Ol doesn’t have the same background as me and that’s great because it means he’s able to think differently and challenge me on how something has to be done.
Ollie: Lucy has this vast knowledge of the technical and traditional ways of making but I’m coming from a fine art background. The main thing I learnt was creative problem solving and thinking laterally about how to get from A to B by some mad, new route. This has been very useful as when we come across problems because we don’t have the right machinery, I can think of ways around these and ensure we still come out with high-quality products.
Is there a philosophy to how you make and what you make?
Lucy: We’re trying to be as sustainable as possible and keep things local. We want to make high-quality shoes that last a long time. But we don’t want our shoes to look handmade. Sometimes eco fashion can look so dated and that’s not helping the cause at all. We want our shoes to look smart so that sustainable fashion will be taken seriously.
In the next few months, we’re running a footwear course to pass on our knowledge. Eventually, we’d love to have a small factory where we could teach people so they can experience the satisfaction we feel from making and keep the craft of shoemaking alive.
Where do you get your materials from?
Lucy: We cycle to two of our main suppliers in Bristol. Thomas Ware & Sons is one of the only remaining vegetable tanneries in the U.K. and they’re a ten-minute cycle away. Going in there is like stepping back in time. It’s this red brick, old-fashioned factory that hasn’t changed in 200 years. It’s still got all the pits where they dunk the leathers and smells revolting, but it looks amazing.
There’s another supplier that’s a cobbler in Brislington. We’ve got a really nice relationship with both of them and it’s fantastic to be able to cycle there.
Ollie: Sometimes we do have to go a bit further. We get all the upper leather we use from Northampton so we go on little holidays up there. It’s like a shoe pilgrimage as Northampton is the home of footwear in the U.K. There are still three or four small-scale footwear factories. We get design inspiration from going up there.
What’s great about handmade shoes?
Ollie: There’s definitely something great about going from a raw material to an object. I think that process really needs to be encouraged so that people go back to appreciating the craft and skill involved in making everyday objects. I think if people valued that more it would be a really positive thing for the economy and everyone’s well-being.
Our customers can have a relationship with us. They can come round and see our workshop, have a conversation. They can have things custom made in the colours they want. A lot of our customers enjoy knowing that there are people out there pursuing a craft and trying to keep that industry going.
Why do you think it is important to create?
Lucy: Personally, I feel happier when I’m creating.I think many people feel that when they create or have something created for them by someone else. You don’t have to be a maker; being creative can be just mean a different way of thinking. It helps across the board, in anything you do.
We are moving away from people knowing how to make things. It’s quite shocking how surprised some people are that we make shoes. Fifty years ago that wouldn’t have been weird at all, now everyone finds it odd! But everyone wears shoes! And life is always better when you’ve got good shoes on your feet.
What sort of place would you like to make the world?
Ollie: We’d like to spread the appreciation of craft and handmade products. We’d like to get people thinking locally and purchasing high-quality products that last a long time and aren’t part of our throwaway culture. I think that is already happening but we’d love that trend to keep increasing.
Lucy: It would be great because it would create more quality jobs for people. There are so many creative people that haven’t got creative jobs even though that is the way their mind is. Lots of our friends are creative people but pretty much all have to have to have other jobs to support their work.
What places have inspired you and why?
Ollie: Coming and studying fine art in Bristol really pushed me forwards. It’s where Lucy and I met and I have a great circle of friends here who are really supportive. Without meeting the people I did I wouldn’t have started the Loft. These people push us and give us ideas all the time.
Lucy: Two years ago, we were cycling around Europe and ended up rough camping on a cliff top just north of Tossa de Mar in Spain. We were so tired and getting a bit grouchy then Ollie found this camping spot in the woods. We set up our tent and cooked dinner looking out over the sea. It was beautiful.
Ollie: Yes, the place is very special because we had one of those moments where we realised that we had everything we needed with us: our bikes, the shoes on our feet, our pannier bags and each other.
We’ve been back since. My sister got married in North Spain in an old monastery run by a dance collective. Half the building wasn’t used and we cleaned everything up and turned a semi-derelict old monastery into a wedding venue. The wedding lasted a week with people arriving constantly like a mini festival.
Afterwards, my sister gave us a bottle of wine to thank us for our help. We went back to that spot on Tossa de Mar, drank the bottle and ended up carving the cork into a heart and left it there, hung in a little bag on a tree branch. It’s super cheesy. But after Lucy’s brother went to try and find it and he did. Maybe in a few years we’ll go back to look for it.
It’s amazing to know that the Loft was built by Lucy and Ollie and their friends. There are a kitchen and several working units, which range from desk spaces to mini workshops. Lucy and Ollie have one of the workshops crammed full of their leathers and tools. A mezzanine has been recently added to the space, and there’s a fabrication area, where ‘you can get really messy!’ Lucy tells us gleefully. It’s obvious that the space is full of artists and the walls are crammed with colour. There’s a co-operative feel and something really comfortable about it. Lucy and Ollie often call the Loft their second home because they end up spending so much time here.
How did you end up here in The Loft?
Ollie: My friendship group at University was really close and, at the end of our degree, none of us wanted to give up having somewhere outside of home to work. So we got a lease on this building and we’ve been running it as an artist-led studio. At the beginning, there were ten of us but now we’re renting spaces to twenty-four people. It’s really flourished. We have regular art events and an exhibition on tonight. The space is holding its own.
We never got any funding, so it was all done off our own backs. Everything is cobbled together and comes through donations from friends. I think it’s amazing that the space is still here three-and-a-half years later!
And you made this space yourself?
Lucy: Yes, when we came here it was nothing like this. It had a huge dividing wall down the middle and was falling apart. The building had gone through many transformations already. There were people squatting before we moved in and before that it was a bouncy castle textile factory and a malthouse.
Ollie: We spent four months ripping everything out and then completely rebuilt the space. None of us had any experience building and it was a crazy hot summer so we were sweating a lot but we had so much fun. We made the space we make in, which is cool to think about. We’re always adding new things and the skills we picked up have been great. I now work part-time for music studios doing on-site carpentry!
Ollie: I wore this hat when I cycled in this morning. Lucy’s mum made the hat for me for Christmas last year. I think that, as an object, it sums up our ethos. The wool was shorn from Lucy’s Grandma’s sheep, then spun into wool by Lucy’s mum, made into a hat, and dyed with woad that she grew in her own garden! That’s a proper Lloyd family hat, and one of the best objects I own because it has that story to go with it. It just feels wholesome. And it also looks good.
Lucy: That’s what we’d like people to feel about our footwear. That lineage and story gives an object another dimension - a bit of magic. It’s not just an inert thing anymore. It’s the same feeling you get from eating home-grown vegetables. Someone made this from. There’s an appreciation of the effort involved and it’s more valuable because of that.
Lucy: It’s essential to have really sharp knife all the time in shoe-making. It’s a really important tool. I’ve had this one eight years and I change the blade every so often. It has a bent blade, which isn’t used in any other industry.
We are passionate about cycling and for one trip around Europe, we wanted a really good touring pannier that we could take off and carry. So we made our own pannier bag that turned into a rucksack. We made it in crazy, bright colours because we wanted it to be practical but also fun.
We’ve made a few bags for people since and are thinking of making more in the future, although we’ve still got a bit of tweaking to do to make sure it works well for both purposes. It’s exciting to explore new things and we’re looking forward to seeing where Ottowin goes. It’s changing all the time, but that’s why it’s fun!
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.