Updated: Dec 22, 2020
Adriana has worked for some of the most prestigious shoemakers and fashion houses.
Now that she runs her own leather goods business, I ask about her history in the trade and how shoemaking compares to her current business designing and making leather bags and accessories.
Hello Adriana, first of all, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I would like to start from the very beginning before we move on to your journey.
Where are you originally from?
Thank you for your interest in my journey, and offering me the opportunity to open the doors to my experiences.
I was born in a small Romanian town, to a big family. We were very lucky in many respects to have parents who loved culture and nurtured us to be strong individuals with unique characters.
We cry and end up laughing at funerals. We love and fight with passion.
My mother would take us to see the masterpieces of world cinema at her work, almost illegal at the time. She was a film distributor in my hometown, sending out films to small cinema across our region.
Just to give you a little bit of context, when I was growing up, television and any form of media was heavily censored. We had two hours of TV every evening, and weekends we had a few more. The movies we saw had always a communist manifesto and were not at all inspiring.
But the films my mother would show us were an escapist window into another world and illustrated a freedom of expression we did not have in our own lives. Looking back now, I believe this is what made me want find a way to express myself in an honest and artistic form.
Did you speak English fluently at the time, or did you learn after moving here? Tell us a little about what is was like after arriving in London.
We were lucky to be taught English and French in communist schools. I graduated with a degree in Film Production Design and worked as an art director for film and TV productions. I had to quickly brush up on my language skills; I was working on American and English films.
After seven years of film making, hoping for a better future for my little girl and a new career for my self I arrived in London in 2003.
Moving to London was one of my bravest moves ever.
After completing your masters degree in footwear design at the London College of Fashion, did you know who you wanted to work for or what you wanted to achieve afterwards?
I was already working at Fosters and Sons at the time and yes, I wanted desperately to set up my own brand.
'Another strong influence was Mrs. Emiko Matsuda, one of the most significant women shoemakers in London today.'
It was a fantastic learning experience, passionately delving into their heritage, spending a lot of time in the Foster and Sons archives. I also was privileged to be talent spotted by the extraordinary last-maker Terry Moore. A legend in the world of bespoke shoes. Another strong influence was Mrs. Emiko Matsuda, one of the most significant women shoemakers in London today.
I designed a collection of shoes based on their heritage, hoping I could be the one of the first designer reinterpreting classic design for women, for a historic brand.
What was it that captivated you about shoes and working with leather? Was it an experience you had or something that always interested you?
I think my fascination goes right back to the glamour and panache of Hollywood, Italian and French cinema revealed by my mother, it’s sophistication educated my eye.
'Golden lit displays inside of old wood cabinets, patina on their walls, I could sit, look and imagine the world inside.'
I loved London style from the minute I arrived. I remember walking for hours and hours, late in the evening, finding myself in the quiet streets of St. James. The shop windows tell a lot of fascinating stories in the autumn light.
Golden lit displays inside of old wood cabinets, patina on their walls, I could sit, look and imagine the world inside. I remember seeing shoes, riding boots, travel cases, details and shapes so elegant and beautiful; I was mesmerised.
Seeing those shoes in the window of John Lobb, reminded me of my love for a world I only saw on the screen. But it was also a revelation in what it represented. It represented a reality; customers who bought and wore these shoes were not just characters on screen, they existed in real life and I wanted to be part of that magic.
John Lobb is world renowned for being one of the finest true bespoke shoe makers.
What was it like working in such a traditional business? Tell us a bit about your first few months working there and what it felt like.
John Lobb Bootmakers is an institution so special to me. They will always be in my heart. Their values, the way the business is run, is unique and truly endearing.
I am an astute researcher, and before I went there for an initial meeting, I read their book, their incredible history. “The last shall be first: The colourful story of John Lobb the St. James’s bootmakers” by Brian Dobbs.
When I went to John Lobb I was ready. I had less of a designer ego and was humbled by my own experiences. At JL, I found myself humbled once more by the family of craftsman and craftswomen working there, their dedication to the craft and to the company.
I remember going in early each morning, walking through Green Park, the sharp fresh air; the warmth as you come through the door. The team arriving, changing into crisp shirts and ties, the aprons go on.
Gentle voices mixed with the sounds of the filing rasps over wooden lasts as the day begins. I was so happy to able to work there, the atmosphere is wonderful.
If you have not experienced the world of John Lobb, try and pay them a visit. The
shop is an open workshop and a display of their skills and heritage.
'Clients are welcomed into this rich theatre of craft'
John Lobb has the biggest number of last makers employed by any traditional shoemaker, and they all work within the shop premises.
Clients are welcomed into this rich theatre of craft. I had the privilege to have my workbench on the shop floor; it was fascinating to listen to the inviting questions, guessing sometimes what the clients do for living, and sometimes witnessing the incoming requests from Buckingham Palace.
Was there ever a moment during your training where you doubted yourself or felt low on confidence? Tell us how you broke through this and kept progressing.
Of course there were. I am still in training, it never ends.
The breakthrough was a shoe design competition I was taking part of at London College of Fashion.
It launched by the massive high street retailer, New Look. The design I created had a “designer” look and was tailored for a low-cost production. I was shortlisted.
Part of the competition was also the execution of the design idea. LCF had organised their technical support team to help all the competitors with their patterns and shoemaking, for a unified, professional look. Just before the deadline I found out that the support team were very behind with cutting the patterns and making! They were so
behind, that they did not have any mental space for creative pattern cutting.
My design was a deceivingly simple classic evening pump. It featured some details that elevated the product to a designer shoe.
These very details had to be executed accurately and required fine luxury goods shoemaking knowledge. It was those details that the technical team at LCF had no time for. My design was at risk to be misinterpreted by execution, due to poor time management.
My shoemaking skills were good, but not good enough to achieve the result I wanted, I was panicking.
I pulled myself together.
'Even when your confidence is low, find the courage to focus on your dream. Find your voice and your message'
The design was strong, so I had to have the courage to strive for the best case scenario. I pulled everything from my teachers. Somehow I found a pattern cutter.
England and London are a great source of shoemakers for mens shoes but shoemakers for luxury women shoes are almost extinct.
Working closely with him, sweating the details, the project went from a near disaster to absolute triumph. I had the courage to admit my limitations and seek help.
The courage to get out of the limits of a school and go and find my own resources. Ultimately risking to upset the very institution who gave me my Masters scholarship.
In the end, myself and two other colleagues won the competition. Our shoes went into production and were in New Look stores a few months later...and sold out in less then ten days!
My lesson: To keep progressing! Even when your confidence is low, find the courage to focus on your dream. Find your voice and your message. What you really want to say with your work.
What was the greatest lesson you learnt from a shoe making mentor that still resonates with you today?
There were many. Find your own method and be consistent. Keep it simple. Feel the fear but do it anyway.
What do you believe sets apart a truly bespoke shoe from a ready to wear? Is it true that once you go bespoke you’ll never go back?
Haha!! I don’t know if we have time here. But I will do my best to sketch out a good answer.
First, I like to distinguish between bespoke shoes for men and bespoke shoes for women, who are two very different chapters in shoemaking. Sharing similar techniques, they require a different set of skills and eyes. Within women’s bespoke knowledge, there are many subdivisions.
Master Lastmaker Neil McLaren. Over thirty five years of experience in lastmaking for John Lobb. Demonstrating lastmaking
The making of a pair of bespoke shoes is a lengthy process that starts with a very detailed conversation. A good starting point is talking analytically first. About body shape, height, weight, walking style and all so many other possible and important considerations.
Where the shoes are intended to be worn? Fields? Office? Walking over wet London pavements or strolling on a dry, sun-kissed Italian cobbled road. Marbled floors, carpeted floors, wooden floors...dance floors?! All details inform the sole choices, sole thicknesses, sole finishings.
'A symphony of skill follows. Craftsman work together, their refined hands and eyes navigating the two hundred steps of the making process'
Only then, the conversation about the style of the shoe and the fitting can begin.
Suitable leathers for the style and the chosen construction are discussed and chosen. All the details, from the inside to the outside.
Then, the shoemaking magic can start. A team of shoemakers turn a dream into a masterpiece: a unique reality you don’t want to step out of.
Starting with the chart for the journey, the unique measurements of one’s feet, a symphony of skill follows. Craftsman work together, their refined hands and eyes navigating the two hundred steps of the making processes with great éclat. The conductor for this symphony is the lastmaker.
Historically, lastmakers were the biggest names in the world of shoes, people would buy shoes on their name alone. They were what designer brands are today.
Why? Because, they’re the architects of the shoe. They’re artists, engineers and craftsman all in one. Engineering the last, they interpret our feet into gracious shapes, and they can make us walk happy. Today they’re the quiet and unknown artists of the modern world of shoes.
Now, knowing all of this, imagine there are very few people in the entire world that can make a last and finish a good fitting pair of shoes from start to finish.
For mens shoes there are a few such extraordinary people.
For women shoes; even less.
The bespoke shoemaking process is incomparable to manufactured, ready to wear shoes. It’s a different industry. Rushed factory shoes cannot be made to respond to your unique anatomy and needs.
They are averaged and averaged making comes with an average fit.
Working for shoe makers where a single pair can run into the thousands of pounds, what is a typical client (if there is such a thing) and what is it that makes someone want to spend that much on a leather product.
The typical client? Interesting question. It fascinates me and it will always will. I have always been fascinated by stories, and people buying bespoke shoes have lots of stories to tell. People who make things, have lots of stories to tell. There’s an attraction.
What do they all have in common? It’s a deep understanding of quality.
There are a couple of categories of clients. You have the big clients category, Presidents of States, Royals of the world. Then you have customers that aspire to a royal fit. Successful business people, the traditional vocations like barristers and bankers.
'Price is irrelevant when you buy a piece of heritage, when you become part of a rarefied world. Money cannot buy time'
Many gentlemen I have met and fitted shoes for, like to be discreet and elegant, without too much fuss. They go for plain Oxford style, nothing too daring. Some men like to buy something that their fathers bought and know it works. They are creatures of habit; generations of it.
You have the fathers who bring their sons in for a first fitting, opening them up to a world of finery.
You have the actors and directors, celebrities of the times who can afford such luxuries.
You also have people with problematic feet.
What makes them spend so much?
Price is irrelevant when you buy a piece of heritage, when you become part of a rarefied world. Money cannot buy time.
Can you recall a funny story or experience as a leatherworker? Perhaps an unusual client request or a workshop mishap?
I do remember the request to make a pair of shoes for a dog. A client at John Lobb, had a dog with an injured leg. Michael, one of the lastmakers, made a last for this poor dog, and suddenly, my job did not seem so difficult. We put our heads together, me and Charlotte, the pattern cutter, and we were able to design, and finalise a prototype. To this day, it’s displayed at John Lobb’s little museum case on the shop floor.
How did working for Fosters and Sons compare with working for John Lobb? What were the main things your learnt from each?
At Fosters I started by selling shoes, creating window displays. I could not stay away from the workshop and Terry took pity on me.
I soon had the greatest chance of learning last making from Terry Moore. I was then trusted by Emiko, to do small repairs and take client measurements. I was very ambitious and wanted so much to learn.
Terry, Emiko and I are still close to this day.
'I was also given the opportunity to repair and restore luxury handbags, travel cases and small leather goods from Hermes to YSL. Treasured knowledge I still rely on'
At John Lobb I was made part of the family and challenged to deliver.
I entered as a shoe repairer. I have been told that this is traditionally how you start at
John Lobb. A repairer at John Lobb is a combination between a leather conservationist and a creative shoemaker who must know traditional shoemaking processes. You also need courage, courage to restore shoes worth thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of pounds.
I was also given the opportunity to repair and restore luxury handbags, travel cases and small leather goods from Hermes to YSL. Treasured knowledge I still rely on.
My experiences are different from one to the other, I cherish them differently. I am very grateful to both.
What do you regard as the most important skills that a leatherworker needs to develop?
Curiosity, focus, consistency and patience.
What technique that you learnt as a shoe maker has helped you the most when making bags, wallets and accessories?
Its actually cross pollination, if I can make this analogy.
From shoes into handbags, it’s easier to understand patterns. I think in layers anyway, and see them.
The techniques are very similar, for example in polishing edges, dyeing, sanding. Blocking leather on the last uses the same principles as moulding leather on any shape, for handbags, too.
Saddle stitching technique is used in welting shoes as well. They are similar principals, but details are very different obviously.
When coming up with your own designs, where do you draw the most inspiration from?
I love to look at art, bauhaus, deco, ceramics, architecture and the decorative arts. My ideas usually come when I listen to music from artists that touch me. I also have lots of ideas from other fields of craft and design, like fine jewellery.
I am inspired by film costumes and interesting characters in real life or fiction. I would love to create something inspired by Bruce Springsteen and his last documentary. I find real characters and extraordinary people very inspirational.
I also am an avid gardener and bonsai artist. The Zen philosophy of Japan, the bonsai world, and the Japanese aesthetic are exhilarating and inform my own design aesthetic and my everyday life. My bonsai's are a valued source of inspiration.
What one crafts person has influenced you the most or helped you to become who you are today?
My journey has been influenced by exceptional people. I’m lucky to have more than one hero!
My dear colleagues, my everyday heroes, my fellow craftswomen, Charlotte, Akie, Emiko and Andreea. Their open minds and camaraderie has made me a more solid and accomplished designer. We still help and support each other in any way possible.
'Without their insight and open minds I would have certainly had another story to tell'
Charlotte Wainwright, designer/pattern cutter at John Lobb, here with my new born baby, Stella in 2017. Akie and me discussing patterns and making, techniques. I have learned so much from Akie! She and I would often decide solutions for repairs. Her knowledge and expertise are extraordinary. Andreea and Corvin Matei in Bucharest, Romania. In their couture and bespoke atelier, we have spend many days and nights working together. They would host me and Stella, and constantly inspired me and helped me. My family!
Mr. Jonathan Lobb let me fly. Mr. Neil MacLaren, Master lastmaker at John Lobb, has shown me that lastmaking process can be navigated with grace and patience. Mr. Corvin Matei, my dear Romanian friend, shoe artist and craftsman, has taught me to trust my own creativity and experiment more.
They have each, encouraged me by passing down to me something precious. Tools! Mind tools, and rare, tried and tested hand tools to deepend my knowledge.
Without their insight and open minds I would have certainly had another story to tell.
What do you see as the main difference between working for a company as a crafts person and starting your own brand? What would you say are the benefits as well as the drawbacks?
The benefits working for a company as a crafts person are first a sense of security and stability. However, big and very big companies have collapsed and dismissed their teams of craftsmen in the recent past, so this might not be such a benefit, unless working for large luxury brands such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton.
The drawbacks working for a large company I think are personal. Every situation has
positives and negatives. Drawbacks can be the impossibility of choosing who is part of your team, the people you are sharing the work and your time, your bench. If they are sad or happy, or grumpy, it totally counts.
The positives can be: If you can grow in a company, if you develop professionally, meeting and working with interesting people, working on fascinating projects.
It all depends, isn’t it?
Starting your own brand on another hand is another story. The benefits are that you can take control, you command your trajectory. You and your family can enjoy the rewards of your work. Hard work as well as enjoying juicy rewards.
The drawback for me, is how resilient one has to be to go through the first five years of business. Refining it’s strategy. Connect and build a strong team. It’s quite an insular endeavour, solitary at times.
Digital resources have taken the place of old school social interaction and access to team exchanges on technical solutions. Marketing knowledge, social media time and modern day business knowledge are also a challenge.
The times are promising, changing and challenging in equal measure for the modern day artisan.
If you could be involved in a ‘once in a lifetime’ leathercraft project, disregarding time or costs, what would you create?
The first that comes to mind is an old story. I designed a collection inspired by Elsa Schiaparellis’ life; the celebration of the Day of the Dead and the illustrations of the Mexican artist Posada. The Calaveras. It is a collection that celebrates life, our lives, the good and the bad, while being ironic in the same time. A memento mori.
It is a one of a kind small collection of artefacts. A pair of shoes, a handbag and a pair of gloves; accessories for a night to remember or be remembered by.
The more work I do with leather and my hands, the more possible I can see it becoming a reality.
The design was shortlisted for a global competition by the Italian shoe manufacturers in collaboration with Another magazine. It was judged by a panel of British designers. I was very proud to be shortlisted, however, to this day, the project has not been executed.
As you now have your own studio, how have you juggled maintaining a business with family life?
I work extremely hard and I love it! I love all the aspects of making and prototyping.
I do work around my family needs.
'The journey always transforms us towards the successes we aspire to'
As a craft and business women, wife and mother, it is a challenging time. However, I live to have the great satisfactions and joy inspiring my daughters to work hard to fulfil their dreams.
I also see it as a form of independence and freedom.
The journey always transforms us towards the successes we aspire to.
20 quick fire questions:
A day in the city or a day in the country? - The city
Shoe making or bag making? -Bags and Shoes
Cocktails or wine? -Champagne please!
Bucharest or London? - London
A day at the beach or a day in the mountains? - Beach
Pattern making or hand stitching? - Handstitching is more relaxing. I like pattern making too. I love to see the ideas taking shape.
Cats or dogs? - Can’t really choose. Love cats and dogs. I also had a chicken as a pet, and orphan I found on the street in my childhood. My lovely Coco.
Boots or shoes? - Boots definitely
Vintage or modern leather goods? -Modern with vintage references.
Fine dining or fast food? - Fine dining
Tea or coffee? - Tea now..
Last book you read? - “The Body. A guide to it’s inhabitants” by Bill Bryson . it’s fascinating!
Favourite meal? - Chicken with quince, the Romanians take on Duck a L’orange
Best show on TV? - Breaking Bad
What time do you wake up? - 5 am and I love it. I always want to sleep less..
Funniest thing Romanians think about the British that isn’t true? - I don’t think I know! Cute question, I wish I knew a funny one.
Favourite colour on leather? - Burgundy
Favourite music to work to? - Depends on the project or phase in the making. Tom Waits, Argentinian Milonga tango music, and focus playlist for pattern cutting.
Thank you Adriana for sharing your inspiring journey with us and your extraordinary experiences within some of the most renowned bespoke boot and shoemakers.
Follow Adriana on Instagram: @atelier_dickson
All photos owned by Adriana Dickson.