Friday 6 November 2009

Introducing... Phong Chi Lai

Following on from Wednesday's post about Phong's studio space, today get acquainted with the lovely man himself!

After finishing his studies in 2001, Phong lived and worked in London for 2 years. In 2003 he moved to move to Paris, and what was meant to be a short sojourn ended up being a one-and-a-half year stay. While there, Phong studied French and through close friends started to assist in the Atelier of LouLou de la Falaise (the personal Muse of Yves Saint Laurent). It was at the end of his tenure that Phong decided to embark upon a new direction and explore the craft of shoemaking.

Upon his return to Adelaide in 2005, Phong enrolled in a shoemaking course and what started out as a whim has now evolved into a full-time career. After graduating Phong moved to Melbourne and started work for renowned Melbourne shoemakers, PrestonZly. Building upon experience gathered during this time, the rest, as they say, is history!

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, where you grew up, what you studied at school?
My family moved to Australia when I was 4 from Vietnam. We settled in Adelaide where I grew up and studied. My parents are in the clothing manufacturing industry and have a factory in Adelaide. So I have always been surrounded by people who make things and from early on I played around with making things as well. I guess it was from this innate feeling of thinking I could make most things myself that I eventually started making shoes. I completed a degree in marketing and then headed overseas to work, travel and live for a while. The idea of shoemaking surfaced after many years of living and working in London and Paris where I landed a job assisting a French designer. Just before leaving Paris I was asked what I ultimately wanted to do with my life and the first thing that came to my head was shoemaking. So I came home and enrolled in a course and from that began my shoemaking journey. I have been practicing the craft for the past three years and have my own business wholesaling handmade shoes.

A pair of Phong's shoes from Shoe Show

You completed a degree in Marketing, followed by a French course and then a certificate in Custom-made Footwear, three areas that don’t immediately share common ground. How has your educational background influenced the way you approach shoemaking, if at all?
Although the three courses do not have a direct correlation to one another, I believe that learning and trying new things is an invaluable experience because you never know what you will do in the future and when it might come in handy. Marketing is an integral part of everyday life. It influences my approach to shoemaking by way of my product presentation, the actual shoes that I produce, and the kind of aesthetics I want to achieve for my business and how my shoes are sold. Knowing another language is always an advantage in my opinion in no matter what industry you may find yourself in. I love France and hope to be living and working there again one day within the shoe industry in some capacity.

During your travels you did some fashion-related work experience. What made you decide not to continue with this and move into shoes instead?
I was young, completely untrained but had the opportunity to work in the fashion industry overseas. Who would say no? All I wanted to do was meet interesting people and have some fun. Fashion is a competitive industry and the competition overseas was incredible. I didn’t want to continue or commit to something that I was still unsure of. It was a very daunting and humbling experience as well. The decision to study shoemaking came at a point when I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, it was not something I had always intended to do. The idea had been floating in the back of my mind, but it wasn’t until I was asked (before leaving Paris) what I wanted to do with my life that I verbalised it; I said shoemaking purely for selfish reasons. Once I started telling people that that was what I wanted to do, I knew that it was right.

You mentioned that your decision to make shoes was based on “selfish reasons”. Could you please tell us more about this spontaneous decision? Was it because you were dissatisfied with the state of shoes at the time or was it something else?
It came spontaneously out of my mouth, but I had been thinking about it for a bit and just the thought of making shoes for myself was very enticing. It wasn’t that I was dissatisfied with the state of shoes at the time; it was more to do with the fact that I was dissatisfied with the state of my financial situation when I was overseas. The interesting shoes were generally the expensive shoes and I was continuously broke, hence my desire to make my own.

Phong with studio buddy and fellow Shoe Show exhibitor Emma Shirgwin

Since taking up shoemaking, what are some of the challenges you faced that you didn’t expect?
There have been and I am guessing will be many challenges that I and my fellow colleagues face within the shoemaking industry. Due to off shore manufacturing, the shoe industry in Australia has died and so the sourcing of materials and components is a difficult one. There are limited suppliers for the shoe industry within Australia and what there is cannot compete either in quality or price with the European or Asian market. We have to compromise nearly every step of the way when we design and construct a pair of shoes in terms of the materials, the type of heels and the lasts available to us. However, having said this, the challenge also makes us more adaptable and resourceful in our shoemaking techniques.

Of all the other exhibiting artists at Shoe Show, you are the only shoemaker who is able to be supported by your practice, which is so incredible! What plans do you have your label and where do you hope to take it in the future?
At the moment I am concentrating on my shoes as a full time business and I realise that I am very fortunate to be able to do this, it is a very tough industry. I am a one-man show which means I do the designing, sampling, sourcing, manufacturing and administration all by myself, which does get tiring. I still want to keep the label small and niche, but for a business to grow, operations need to expand. My plan for the future is to have a small production team so that I have more time to concentrate on designing and other projects. Building and nurturing the business is the most important to me right now, especially because it is in its infancy. Who knows what will happen in the future? I would love to have an atelier in Paris or Barcelona, but we’ll see.

And finally, “If I were a shoe I’d be…
…a pair of old op-shop boots.

1 comment:

Graceful Taylor said...

Wow, thanks for the inspirational post - love it!