Melbourne designers of handmade shoes, Johanna Preston and Petr Zly founded their label Preston Zly in 1995. Their designs constantly push the boundaries of shoemaking, both in aesthetics and construction. In their recent collection, Detail to Whole (Autumn-Winter 2016), they challenged their shoemakers with the construction of the Babi Circle. In this, the leather upper is wrapped around an extended insole and hand-stitched to create a distinctive welt. Here the complicated stitching of the upper to the sole becomes a design feature.
When reading Ulinka Rublack's article "Matter in the material Renaissance" (Past and Present, no. 219, May 2013, 41-85) for the Textiles Reading Group at the University of Melbourne, I was struck by the similar material and design issues faced by shoemakers in the sixteenth century and those who hand make shoes today. The common challenges of designing a shoe that is fashionable and innovative, whilst remaining sympathetic to the material, is just as current as it was in Renaissance Europe when Hans Fugger, a wealthy German magnate, placed orders with his shoemaker in Antwerp.
Commenting on Fugger's request in 1568 for shoes made of soft leather, Johanna Preston observed, that, in asking for footwear to be made from what is essentially a fine glove making leather, Fugger was asking for an item which the shoemaker must have known would fall apart quickly with wear. Fugger's request creates a tension between design and construction, the aesthetic and the material. His desire for shoes that are not only made of the finest leather, but are weakened through the stamped and perforated decorative design he requests, destined them for early destruction. With this particular order, which included shoes of white leather, Fugger was not aiming for footwear that lasted. He was striving to achieve something which was both elegant and luxurious; an object that smacked of conspicuous consumption.
Fugger was aware that shoes with slashed designs weakened the leather and "looked bad" after a short period of wear. In this instance however, durability was not the aim. Rublack notes that, "Like other fashion items, perfect shoes of a particular kind constituted a visual act which showed off new technologies and transformed people's ideas about what was possible."
For the artisan, all materials present certain limitations and challenges. Leather comes in a range of qualities, and the knowledge and ability to work it into a fine pair of shoes which both fit and are innovative is the skill of the designer-shoemaker. The material and decorative aspects of Hans Fugger's stamped, pinked and perforated shoes and the textural lavishness of Preston Zly's interlaced leather uppers of Avignon Woven reveal that the Renaissance desire to create "things skilfully produced" (Rublack, 41) crosses centuries.
In the face of footwear mass-production, Preston Zly focus on small-scale, high-end handcrafted shoemaking. They produce a total of fifteen pairs (in two to four colours) per style, in sizes ranging from 37 to 42. Designing such limited runs pushes Johanna and Petr to be creative with the leather which is in supply each season. Stripping, re-colouring and distressing available leathers allow them to create a distinctive look, and when combined with elements such as hand-carved wooden heels, hammered tacks and welted stitching, harness what Rublack identifies as "the life and vibrancy of matter itself" (Rublack, 44).