Profile: Phong Chi Lai, bespoke shoe designer

The Realise Your Dream finalist once swapped eating for designer shoes while studying in Paris. That's commitment to the cause!

Why shoes, Phong? Have they always been a passion of yours?
I haven’t always known that I wanted to become a shoe designer/maker. I actually wanted to be a farmer when I was a kid. The interest developed out of frustration when I was studying in Paris. I couldn’t afford to buy any of the interesting, avant-garde shoes that I coveted because they were too expensive. One time I did decide to forgo eating for a pair of Yohji Yamamoto shoes though. And it was worth it, until I lost them!
At the time I was also working one day a week at a design studio and when I was about to leave I was asked by the designer what I wanted to do when I got back to Australia. The first thing that came into my head was I wanted to make shoes for myself, and that was about seven years ago. The rest, as they say is history.

On average, how long does it take to design and create one pair of shoes?
The initial prototype takes the longest to make because it is an organic process. I will come up with an initial idea/sketch and start to formulate it into a 3D form. This means choosing a 'last' (a 3D representation of the foot which determines heel height and toe shape), cutting the patterns, and mocking up quick samples. At this stage you start to get a feeling for what works both aesthetically and technically. Sometimes I do four or five prototypes of the same shoe with different design lines to see which will work best. This can take anywhere from a week to three weeks for one design. Sometimes I get lucky and a design works immediately and the first prototype develops exactly how I imagine it to, then I can create it in a couple of days.

When the production commences, I value add my time by doing each process individually, not each shoe. So for example, I would click all the leather uppers and lining for all styles at the same time. This can take quite a bit of time because all the pattern pieces are cut by hand not machine. Then all the leather uppers and linings would be pieced together and stitched. Again this can take quite a bit of time depending on the complexity of the pattern and the trims that need to be attached. A few winters ago I made a long military boot that had three layers, one over lapping the other. Each layer had to be assembled individually first and then pieced together and stitched to the lining. The 22 eyelets were then attached.

I try to allow myself as much time as possible for production, this usually ends up being four to five months for a particular season which is not as quick a turn around time as the high street brands whose factories can produce thousands of units within a couple of months.

Where do you source your materials?
I source all my materials and components within Australia, although the choice is sometimes limiting. I enjoy experimenting with leather treatments as well, like washing or painting the leather to see what effect can be achieved. I am always on the search for something different and interesting, I would love to be able to source my materials from Europe where there is lots of choice.

What has been your inspiration for your latest line?
The inspiration for my latest collection SS12/13 (which will be in stores very soon) developed from the concept of concealing, or more to the point revealing certain parts of the foot. It challenges and plays on the traditional approach to revealing areas of the foot from a different perspective. For instance, a shoe that reveals and highlights all the toes apart from the big toe or a closed in ankle boot that exposes the delicate nature of the ankle and heel.

Each season is a continuation of the one before it. Details and nuances such as hand-stitching and strong design lines are a recurring theme. I don’t feel the need to go from one extreme to the next from season to season. I also remain partial to a neutral colour palette with black featuring heavily each season. The texture and tactility of the leather is more exciting than the colour. I also try to adhere to design longevity and timelessness with my collections.

I design with myself and close friends in mind. Androgyny features in my work because social norms should not dictate what we wear. I like the idea that when a woman wears my shoes, she highlights a slightly masculine allure and the opposite can be said when a man wears the exact same style.

Do you plan to continue to base your work in Melbourne? Are you looking at breaking into the overseas market?
Melbourne is definitely the base for the moment. I would love to get back to Europe, more so for the opportunity to build an international presence with my label, as any Australian designer would. Melbourne is great because there are so many creative’s doing their own thing and building a community of practice from varying disciplines.

Winning the British Council Realise Your Dream Award 2012, will give me the rare opportunity to build professional and creative networks internationally. These relationships and networks are a key ingredient to enhancing all aspects of my label creatively, technically and commercially. We’ll just have to wait to see what happens!

What are the most important factors for you when designing your shoes?
Comfort and fit are of utmost importance to me when I am designing shoes. It is for this reason that I design a lot of flat shoes. My samples are generally tested on friends numerous times before a design is finalised. Also using good quality components and materials along with intelligent design principles are important factors to my design process.

Hand-made shoes are increasingly hard to come by – do you find there is still a strong demand for them?
Traditional craft forms, such as hand-made shoes are regaining popularity nowadays both from the general public and people interested in studying the craft. I think this stems from the issue of sustainability and better access to information with regards to mass production. And also the unique nature of this niche craft form. Within my own community of practice I know quite a few shoe-makers, and this is great because the more people who practice it, the more importance it gains.

Hand-made shoes will remain a niche market but I think the demand is definitely on the increase. More people are interested in investing in good quality products rather than quantity. My clients like to know that their shoes have been made by hand in a small atelier and that no two pairs will ever be exactly the same.

Do you wear your own shoes?
I wear my own shoes all the time. My go-to boots at the moment is a pair of black matte zip ankle boots with Cuban heels from my collection last winter. I admire designers who retain artistic integrity within their chosen field. Designers such as Elena Dawson and Paul Harnden, English clothiers and shoemakers who take an avant-garde approach to footwear using traditional handcrafted techniques are people that I greatly admire. I also like footwear from intelligent labels such as Maison Martin Margiela and Guidi.

You launched your label in 2009; did it come as a surprise to you to receive the amount of success you have achieved in such a short amount of time?
It still comes as a lovely surprise to me when someone takes an interest in my work and label. Be it a new stockist who is interested in placing an order, an email from a student seeking advice, or the media. I have recently been selected as a finalist in the British Council 'Realise Your Dream Award 2012', which is rather amazing because I didn’t realise I would get this far. I have great belief in myself and what I do, but there is always a part of me that has self-doubt. All of my achievements thus far, creates a certainty in me that I am going down the right path.

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First published on 7 Aug 2012. Updated on 9 Apr 2014.

By Kellie George   |  
 

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