Lou Clifton’s fondest memories of being a teenager living on the west coast of the South Island are of tinkering in her dad’s workshop.

“I’d shut the door, turn on music and work on ridiculous crafts – ‘dorky’ things like models of villas from the gold rush era,” she says. “I’d keep myself entertained for hours and that’s where I was happiest.”

When Clifton turned 30, she was at a crossroads. A photography graduate, she knew she wanted a career using her hands in a workshop but couldn’t picture working in a darkroom full-time.

Ten years later, she’s now one of a handful of independent shoemakers in the country, a short list that includes Waiheke Island-based Sue Engels and Auckland-based Eugene Gordon of Gordon’s Footwear. Clifton brings the craft to life at her workshop and teaching space, Shoe School.

Situated in the Wellington suburb of Newtown, the white-painted workshop features two large tables, an abundance of plants, and smatterings of yellow detailing throughout. On one side of the room, you can see leather of all colours, neatly stacked shoe boxes and vintage tools on the wall.

“I didn’t want my workshop to be dirty or cramped as that’s what people traditionally think they’re like. It had to be contemporary, fresh and inspiring.”

At Shoe School, you can learn to make impeccably-finished slides, sandals and sneakers in one day – or in four days, you can walk away wearing a pair of sturdy boots, decorated to your tastes.

Shoemaking wasn’t always on the cards for Clifton as, despite “always being obsessed with shoes”, there was nowhere for her to study the skill in New Zealand back in 2009, when her ambitions were taking shape.

Shoemaking by hand had been declining since deregulation in the ’80s, when production was found to be more profitable offshore, she says.

“It’s sad that making shoes – something that’s so necessary and fundamental – isn’t accessible anymore. When production went overseas, the equipment, talent and supplies followed.”

Coincidentally, she had stumbled across a second-hand book on shoemaking for beginners that proved profoundly inspiring. After making her first pair of shoes – a pair of felt slippers – she emailed the author who said she should go to Hobart, Australia for a 10-day course under Luna Newby.

“I had no money, so I sold the most expensive thing I had at the time – a Nikon camera – and decided to use the money to pursue shoemaking. It was symbolic because I was actively deciding that I wouldn’t be a photographer anymore.”

Learning from Newby’s nurturing, kind and patient approach, Clifton says she was in her element. Teaching also appealed to her, as it meant she could meet new people while continuing to develop her skills – and she knew she didn’t want to start a shoe line, as it was “too expensive to do [in New Zealand]”.

Returning home to Dunedin, Clifton found machines for cheap from the Otago Polytechnic School of Design and shoe forms from the factory of now-defunct label Minnie Cooper. She would hunt for antique tools at second-hand markets.

In 2015, after she had been delivering workshops in Dunedin for two years around a full-time retail job, Clifton quit her day job to offer workshops around New Zealand.

She flew to Wellington on a whim two years later, to view a rental property that would later become Shoe School. The site was perfect, she says, with its elevated floors and big windows so people could see directly into the space from the street.

“I wanted to create a space that was like a gallery filled with shoemaking paraphernalia, because people don’t get to see shoemakers in action or how shoes are made.”

This year, Lou will celebrate Shoe School’s five-year anniversary in Wellington. With more than 8000 Instagram followers, and teaching up to 20 people a week, Clifton has lost count of the thousands of shoes she has helped make over the years.

“I’ve learned so much! I’ve finally gotten my business to the point where I imagined it [would be] when I turned 30. I originally started a workshop to build the business and upskill. Now I get to teach, experiment and work on creative projects.”

There have also been lowlights – she found the early days of the pandemic stressful and scary, as did many people.

“Once I worked through the terrifying reality that I might lose my business, I realised that all this work hasn’t been for nothing. I wouldn’t lose the skills I’d learned. I wasn’t in the same position as I was when I was 30 – I had built something,” she says.

“I’ve gotten to the stage where I can legitimately call myself a shoemaker. I’ve worked through my imposter syndrome, and now I feel a little more comfortable.”

Where to from here? The pandemic gave Lou the breathing space to dream up more workshops. “I want to get into high heels. Personally, I don’t wear them, but I have friends who do, and they look fabulous.”

Shoe School
247 Riddiford Street,
Newtown, Wellington