The woody leather scent and the old, enormously high windows of Bernadette’s workshop in WUK create part of an atmosphere which is impossible to ignore as you enter. Here you’re standing at the hub of her and her craft folk’s creative output, where a passion, that goes far deeper than the central theme of shoemaking, is shared.
S: The shoe – how does that fit into your biography?
“I liken shoes to a ship – a means of transport that took my soul to there where my talents lie”. I could have chosen a completely different path to that of shoe designer, but the core things that interest me the most would have remained – people and their well – being, plants and their interrelation to us, the natures core power influencing humanity and above all being a pillar of support in people’s most powerful quality, our imagination and creativity.
That said, the shoe is particularly special in its cultural significance. It has always been an important piece of clothing. A brief glimpse into pre-historic times and its significance becomes clear: if your feet were no longer able to carry you, you were as good as dead, depending on how long your tribe were willing to carry you. Uninjured feet were fundamentally important for the nomads. Feet and footwear were of crucial importance from very early on, remaining so to this day – always there, carrying us, taking us on new paths.
S: So what message is the shoe hiding?
The shoe – and of course fashion in general – transports a message. It makes a statement, personal, political and social. Clarks was there during the 60s to accompany the appearance of the mini-skirt with their Desert Boots, and were discovered by the reggae community in the form the Wallabees. The Waldviertler shoe is forever still an expression of a whole way of life.
Shoes are time and again associated with thoughts of freedom.
However, I want to use these qualities of the shoe not for its iconic status, a carrier of meaning in that sense, but as a form of economical self-empowerment, if you will. The financial crisis hits – we’ll still be able to make our own shoes. This is a way of thinking that easily transfers to many areas where we can rely on ourselves more. It seems perfectly fitting that it is the shoe that has taken me to the place where I can transport this message, since the shoe itself transports so much, even if I didn’t consciously choose it that way.
S: How did the journey begin? Where did your feet lead you?
With a suitcase and white T-Bar Pumps, having just finished my final exams at the college of applied arts, I left for Graz, a vibrant student city, south of Austrians scenic hills. They were very unusual shoes, 20s style, strongly reflecting the themes of freedom and breaking out of the traditions of society. With their creamy patent leather I just had to have them. Wearing these and the wrap-top I had made myself out of curtain material, I wrote my parents a farewell letter and headed off. Indeed, aside from visits, I didn’t return for the next 9 years. It was my artist ego and freedom seeking spirit that took off back then.
Through my first shoe design job, which was based in London and Southwest Somerset, England, I found myself in Glastonbury, the spiritual Mecca of the country. Later it became clear to me that I can do as good as whatever I want and I will always end up wherever it is I should be.
S: For the last 7 years or so you’ve been leading workshops centered around the making of shoes. What effect does the practicing of this handcraft have on the people?
The thing I like seeing the most is what happens to the initial shyness/apprehensiveness towards each other, the material and the not knowing what is to come. By the end this has completely transformed. The tasks they are led through step by step are very simple, and through this simplicity a freedom and confidence of action very quickly develops. The highs and lows of the whole experience, from euphoric bouts of creative energy to post-lunch, lethargic, falling asleep over the hole-punch machine moments, culminates in the enthusiastic finale of trying the shoes on .. and finding out they really fit!!
This process has a habit of producing many of those moments of clarity that are so precious in life. The choices that you have to make along the way – like what the shoe should look like, which material to use, which colour, what touches shall I add as extras/design details etc – all serve to get you in touch with a very basic need of all humans … to be in touch with ourselves. The resulting shoe is also therefore not just iconic st
S: You’ve made it your path to research into archaic/very traditional shoe handcraft, and this directly from those who still have working knowledge of these these techniques. What potential do you see in your role as explorer of old traditions?
Most recently I’ve been spending time in Wales (UK) with clog-maker Trefor Owen. This is one example of how I have to really be there to see how someone has manifested the skills and knowledge into their way of life and also into their bodies. Only there in the misty, rainy landscape of Wales could I fully understand what he was doing. 40 years long Trefor has been working with a special set of tools to make the clogs in the same way as they always had been, thereby keeping alive the traditional clog dancing that they serve their purpose to. Through the one-sided strain on his body, and the resulting physical changes, the knowledge and ideology of a unique culture is transported. I want to bring back with me an awareness of this which I can spread to those who are far away from there, giving them access to this.
Often those who have kept alive or rejuvenated old wisdom have had to fight against the odds to do so – against the strong flow of modern times, modern ways, newer faster etc .. at best. At worst against active repression of certain cultures following, for example, conquering of land. England’s banning of the Welsh language/teachings in schools, for example, is a far from uncommon trend across the continent of Europe throughout history, such cultural prohibitions so often accompanying and therefore negatively affecting an otherwise rich variety of handcraft techniques. Every time a tradition, old wisdom or skill dies out, a piece of humanity dies with it. Seeing a way to help stop this is a great motivation for me.
S: In what form do you spread the knowledge you’ve gained, and what meaning do you think doing this has for society?
Workshops help a lot with this. Physically doing the work makes it immediately tangible. And storytelling along side this brings to life how deep the cultural roots go. Having access to and a feeling for these roots can bring about a sense of stability in society.