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Will the shoes fit for a new wave of shoe design and production in Norwich?

PUBLISHED: 12:00 11 April 2013

Third year fashion students the Norwich University of Arts Leanne ( coral dress ) and Helen Rix with Claire Farmer of Van Dal. Photo: Steve Adams

Third year fashion students the Norwich University of Arts Leanne ( coral dress ) and Helen Rix with Claire Farmer of Van Dal. Photo: Steve Adams

Shoe design and manufacturing could have a future in Norwich thanks to an initiative from Van Dal and the Norwich University of the Arts, as EMMA HARROWING discovers.

Made in Norwich was a world recognised symbol of quality footwear. These days the phrase is being used as a collective term for the fashion and textiles that are increasingly being made in Norwich by independent designers and makers.

Shoe manufacturing it seems has taken a back seat in this fashion revolution and yet it wasn’t that long ago that Norwich was the home to some of the most highly respected manufacturers in the world.

Start-rite shoes, worn by the Royal family and distributed around the world, was started in Norwich. Founder and shoe maker James Smith set up one of the first off-the-peg footwear shops in 1792 that offered shoes that people could afford. James Southall & Co were based on the Market Place which is now covered by City Hall before moving to Crome Road. As the business expanded, factories were set up to manufacture the shoes to meet demand.

Norwich turned into a shoe making city with a plethora of shoe makers that read like an A to Z, from Andrew Heels on Mile Cross Lane to Wyatts on Magpie Road. The more notable being Start-rite, Bally, Bowhill & Elliott and Van Dal.

The latter celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2011 and the Van Dal factory and showroom on Dibden Road is still going strong. For most of the other shoe businesses, their demise came in the 1970s when cheap imports forced their closure. For Van Dal, the business still designs and manufactures it’s shoes in Norwich, with part of its manufacturing operation taking place in India where production costs are low enough to keep the company competitive.

Now Van Dal is attempting to ensure the future of shoe design in Norwich by encouraging next generation fashion designers to develop a passion for designing shoes made in Norwich. The company launched a competition for fashion degree students at the Norwich University of the Arts towards the end of last year where students were asked to come up with a shoe design that could be made in Norwich for their Spring and Summer 2014 collection.

“The brief is to design a shoe that not only works with current trends it should also fit with Van Dal’s portfolio of products,” says Claire Farmer head of product at Van Dal. “It’s the chance for a young designer to get involved with the whole production process in a commercial environment from initial prototype through to final production.”

After several deliberations, two students’ designs were chosen as the winners of the competition - Leanne Hindle’s loafer design and Helen Rix’s court shoe design. Both are third year fashion degree students who will graduate this year.

“My design is inspired by getting back to nature with floral detailing on the toe of the court shoe,” says Helen.

“At the moment we are working on developing our concepts before they are briefed to the factory. The process is an evolving one, Van Dal has given us a vac form (a moulding of a shoe) for us to draw the details of our designs to scale. We then need to select materials and colours from Van Dal’s swatches, plus we need to give clear instructions on how we would like our design to be executed.”

Both designs are already causing much discussion. Helen is having difficulty finding a material and a technique for attaching the floral detail on her court shoe that gives a neat 3D effect and doesn’t impinge on production time, while Leanne’s ambitious lemon coloured suede loafer is not part of the colour choices from Van Dal at the moment.

“I like the idea of a yellow loafer as it is a great colour for Spring and Summer,” says Leanne. “It also pushes the boundaries of design. Already the loafer has brogue detailing, a stacked heel and a long tongue which makes this a contemporary looking shoe that adhere’s to Van Dal’s comfort specification.”

Head of product at Van Dal, Claire Farmer explains that they are restricted to the colours they use due to market research and production.

“The problem with pastel colours like the lemon Leanne has chosen in her design is that these can be filthy by the time they leave the factory,” says Claire. “Lemon is also a risky colour to take to market as many people buy black, tan or navy shoes. We do have a selection of more fashion orientated colours but unfortunately yellow is not one of them.”

In situations such as this the problem goes back to the designer, in this case Leanne, to discuss ways in which the design can be developed to meet production and market demands. Claire shows Leanne colour swatches of the colours Van Dal has available and Leanne compromises with a Fuchsia pink suede. She does however stand by her long tongue design which is a modification to Van Dal’s current pattern.

Leanne says: “It’s a shame that my design cannot be made in a lemon suede but the bright pink is a good compromise - and of course the shoe can also be made in tan or black to offer consumers a choice.”

The next step in the design process is to design and produce a prototype of each shoe that will be pitched alongside other designs in a bid to make it into the 2014 collection.

Claire comments: “There are no guarantees that the winning design will make it to the final cut and be available to buy, but the winning student will have their design made into a pair of shoes they can keep and they will get valuable work experience. It will be interesting to see how they get on adapting their designs to fit with commercial and production limitations.”

Your Evening News will be following the design and production process of both shoes over the next few months when we will discover if either of the shoes will make it to the final collection.

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