The Idiotic Narcissism of the Footwear Industry

They are just shoes — no one is going to die!

Photo credit Anouska

Well, that is what I thought anyway. 
How could I possibly know that when I packed in my mind-numbingly boring, shitty, sensible job and took myself back to college, then university with the somewhat misguided belief I was well on my way to transcending into this magical world of fashion and glamour?

My god, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Towards the end of my degree, I should have known that something wasn’t quite right. This dude came in from the London College of Fashion to ‘help’ us make beautiful portfolios, and at that moment, I should have realised. It’s all fucking smoke and mirrors. He was obnoxious, arrogant, self-assured, and yes, he had some great ideas, but I think anyone that had that amount of bolstering and fluffing would develop some good ideas. He was partially there to help us, partially to assess if there was anyone worthy he could recruit to go on to do the Masters at the LFC. He was fired eventually. He was poisonous.

The problem is whether or not you succeed in this industry is a mixture of being in the right place at the right time, determination, confidence and what school you went to. Even though I studied at what was meant to be the pinnacle of footwear design and manufacturing, the London College of Fashion will always look better on paper.

To make matters worse, what had been a thriving hub of footwear in my city had largely moved out to South East Asia with only remnants of what used to be struggling to live on. My timing was, as always, impeccably bad.

That awful man told me I would not get a First Class Degree.

I see you, and I raise you. I mean, it took me months to fully recover from the final slog, the show, that we as students put on independently in London. I was completely burnt out, and this was long before anyone used that term.

So my partner and I celebrated the end of this 4-year slog by going on holiday to New York. In hindsight, this was another terrible timing decision, and on my return, almost everyone in my class had got a job. I mean, none of them were particularly glamourous, and some did go on to the LCF to do the Masters, but regardless they were all set.

I continued to work in the Selfridges call centre where I had been part-time through my entire time at college and university; they kindly increased my hours whilst I looked for a footwear job.

I had worked at two placements whilst I was studying, a short one at Jimmy Choo where I met Tamara Melon (who was lovely). I couldn’t help but be totally starstruck, and a 6-month stint with Olivia Morris (also lovely and a little more down to earth) who took me to Paris for her show. I was already partially living this dream, the one I had imagined. So when I couldn’t get a job, when I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I started to wonder what on earth I had done. What was the point of these four years?

‘You should have done marketing — you would have been great at that’

Isn’t it helpful when people say this to you repeatedly in your final year of a footwear degree that has no marketing module? No, it is not.

‘or perhaps trend, your trend module is outstanding’

Well.. hmm, yes, ok, I will take that.

Don’t worry; I got a job in the end.

They were nice people, and they took pity on me, they took me on because they liked me, and I was a good fit. It was for a budget supplier, the kind that makes stuff for supermarket chains. They specialised in sporty products, which I had no experience of whatsoever, they didn’t care, they took a chance on me, and for that, I will be forever grateful. I think that in the 15 years plus I have worked in the industry, there have been maybe 3 or 4 companies that have not followed this unhinged belief that shoes are the single most important thing in the entire world, and this was one of them.

Oh, and I should mention at this point; I got my First Class Degree, it means nothing, but still, I did it!

I moved to London for that job; I lived first in a commune in a Victorian Mill in Hackney (that’s a whole other story); I then bought a narrowboat and lived on that for a year before moving back home to start one of the first true experiences of absolute Shoe Lunacy!

This man was batshit crazy. An alcoholic with a driver so he could drink as much as he wanted, he was racist, sexist, well put an ‘ist’ on the end, and he was it. He would hurl shoes at the staff, swear and call them names, give people days notice before they would be expected to get on a flight somewhere. I would spend 3 weeks in China travelling around these dodgy factories, working till the early hours, staying in brothel-hotels where I had to shove chairs under the door as they had no locks, being escorted to the atm by security carrying a gun because the area was so bad. It was exhausting, relentless, and I knew we would rip off these factories, and I didn’t want to be involved.

The amount of questionable situations I have been in because of this particular human, all in the name of shoes, is too long to list. Everyone knows everyone else in the industry and everyone knew him. I didn’t. He had already been bankrupt several times, and he was fiddling the books; it was a family endeavour, but not the nice kind. He was playing at this role, and he thought that everyone’s life should revolve around what he wanted; what he wanted, by the way, was odd, specific and without warning.

I managed a year; I left by drunk text message from the floor of a nightclub at 5 am on my boyfriends birthday because I didn’t want to go to Italy the next day. That’s how bad it was — imagine ever not wanting to go to Italy?

I had a couple of OK jobs in between, with normal-ish people, before moving on to team crazy. Nothing could have prepared me. The warning signs started right as I left the interview; they tried to hire me directly and cut out the agent. Obviously, I declined this; as I said, this industry is small. I accepted the job; it meant I could return home again; I had been working away up until this point.

It was a good salary, so I stuck it out to chip away at my student loan, but it was relentless. The boss was in his 70’s, Taiwanese, a self-made millionaire, and once again, shoes were his passion. A hobby. He didn’t need to work or earn this money; he had plenty, but he loved shoes and expected everyone to love them just as much.

I had never been to Taiwan before, so I was excited at this prospect, but when I arrived, I soon understood I was to be a prisoner, shipped back and forth from the hotel to the office to the sample room. Every single minute of every single day was accounted for, I was allowed no free time, and if there was any danger that I might go off and do something rebellious, it would be quickly filled with something, you know, in the name of the shoes.

He was a conundrum, on the one hand, a sweet old man, on the other a controlling maniac who was losing his memory and prone to bouts of mania.

‘write it down — you are not writing it down’

He would say whilst he drummed his fingers violently on the coffee table. I used to imagine that one day he would smash through that glass, or perhaps his fingers would snap right off.

He also liked to throw shoes at people, lasts at people (and lasts are heavy and they hurt) however long our trips were supposed to be, he would always try to manipulate them to be longer, because you know, the shoes.

I got it down to a fine art; in the end, I would run off and hide in the sample room with my assistant every day; we were safe there; he never went to the sample room. Everyone did this, they had all set up little goldfish tanks. He had no idea; it was kind of funny that this was their big act of rebellion, goldfish, but hey, each to their own.

I stayed in that job for a while, and off, footwear was still struggling in the UK, my options were limited. I never did get to see much of Taiwan, I befriended one of the door staff at the hotel, and he, along with my assistant, would help me to go out renegade to the night markets when I could, I would go to CrossFit at the crack of dawn, another little adventure to a different part of the city, I would use every trick in the book to get some time off, but he was a smart man and it wasn’t easy.

I will never forget my last day in Taipei. I received a job offer I had been waiting for, and that was it; I no longer cared. My assistant knew, and he drew me out a map, with instructions in Taiwanese so that I could go on a couple of little adventures on my last day and night, and finally, after all these years, get to see some of Taipei.

So was this a happy ending?

Not really. The next job was better in many ways; there were sensible managers, regulations, rules. But it was still ostentatious and a bit silly, and pretentious, ideas above their station, sometimes you could be confused for thinking I was working at Prada and not a well-known comfort shoe brand. It was cut-throat and brutal and not at all this nice family business, you might think.

They got this guy in to ‘shake things up’ paid him an exorbitant amount of money so he could strut around saying things like:

‘yah and I want devore, and chambray, wow that would look great with a glass heel’

He really said that. He was ridiculous. I won’t reveal what well-known brand this was, but I can tell you that is not the client demographic, and they didn’t need to get this total idiot in to shake up the company; everyone knew it needed to happen; they just always have to go above.

Why is that?

Why don’t they listen to what anyone is saying? Then this dude comes in and regurgitates what their staff have been stating for years, and everyone suddenly stops in their tracks, listens and thinks he is a genius?

I mean, the devore and glass heel was just plain stupid, but everything else he was saying, well, it was hardly new.

Of course, it didn’t work out; he got fired, the company made redundancy after redundancy and eventually filed for administration; it was very sad, and it sent shockwaves through the footwear industry.

It just makes me wonder what would happen if they just stopped for a second, listened and thought about the people a bit more, all the people, at every part of the process.

So many people I know have quit the industry altogether. My friends, who, like me, were passionate about shoes, isn’t that sad? They study for years, and they give up, and this is because the situations I have described, which are heavily edited, and watered down, are more common than not.

I used to post my adventures on Facebook, and people would always say it sounded insane and that I should write a book; perhaps I should, maybe I will. Once I am out of this industry altogether, and my partner, yup, my engineer boyfriend, is also now working in this madness. All my fault!

I could keep writing forever about all the awful manipulative behaviour, mental illness and stress. There has been barely one iota of glamour since my intern days, adventures, yes, my goodness, the stories I could tell you — but not fashion, not creativity, and for me, that’s what it was all about. The harsh reality is that only a very few people get to experience that, and those who do, often with even more severe, extreme toxic environments to battle through.

I don’t wear shoes very much anymore. I can’t say I like them that much, I live in Asia now, and there is no need. I am mostly barefoot or in sandals made of rope.

I am still working in the footwear industry for all of my sins, but on my terms, part-time, doing Art Direction, Trend Forecasting and guess what — Marketing! Hah!

If any shoe people read this, I just want to tell you that no one will die because of a pair of shoes. Let your staff go home, give them ample warning for trips, allow them a life outside of this silly footwear world because it’s not really that important; in fact, it’s frivolous. Don’t force them into the office or the factory in the midst of a pandemic lockdown; pay them a fair living wage, treat your team as equals, and listen, because they know your company better than anyone.

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