These boots are made for Bradley
In many ways, it's a natural fit that Hemi Pou has launched a boot and clothing brand that has caught the attention of Hollywood. Even though there's nothing flash-bang about this low-key, former rugby player, he's most likely to be found in a pair of well-crafted jeans atop hand-made boots. And standing 1.88 metres (6ft 2in) tall, Pou is passionate about his vision to sell his New Zealand-made boots to the world and he's getting that message across from behind the counter of the menswear store he set up seven years ago.
Next week, he'll leave the store, Wakefield Hotel, to hand-deliver three pairs of boots that he designed and had made here to the A-list actor, Bradley Cooper. While Cooper won't receive them personally, they were ordered by Cooper's stylist, Ilaria Urbanati. "She has been kind enough to invite me to her styling studio which is a real honour because this is the busy awards period leading up to the Oscars. This could lead to all sorts of opportunities," he says.
Cooper had already seen and liked Pou's handmade, leather belts and ordered a couple via his stylist. But to make the boots for the Hangover and American Hustle star, Pou did his research. He found out that Cooper is 1.85m (6ft 1in) tall, wears a US 13 to 14 boot, and rides motorbikes.
"Ilaria loves dressing him in a boot because he has a very masculine, rugged style.
"I looked at as many images of him as I could find to get a feel for his style. I make one type of boot but use a number of different sole and leather options to achieve different looks and functions. I could see he wears a lot of Iron Rangers which are similar boots but made using quite different methods so I put together three boots that I think will suit his needs."
A chance meeting with a movie mogul, Blake Stuerman, assistant to a Hollywood director, led to this latest opportunity. Stuerman was taking time out in Wellington when he stumbled on Pou's store, thumbing through the racks and buying a few things. Popping in every couple of days while in Wellington, and chatting to the father of two about his Last & Loom boot, Stuerman returned to Hollywood and told Urbanati she had to work with him.
Says Pou: "He connected with me and my journey. Then he rang me out of the blue and said the meeting was memorable and he loved my boots and that Ilaria had loved them. She loved my boots and the philosophy of what I was trying to achieve. The idea that I want to provide local employment and inspiration and a vehicle to tell our stories overseas.
"Hollywood is very open to that story."
He lovingly strokes a boot, a replica that he'll hand-deliver to Hollywood next week. It was handmade by a craftsman, Neville Brunker, a second- generation bootmaker in Whangarei, on a machine that was used to make boots in Leicester in the 1800s. Since he started his own manufacturing about a year ago, he's made about 100 made-to-order pairs of the $490-to-$550-a-pair boots. To get to this point, Pou drove up and down the country hunting for leather to make his boots, and factories to get them made in. "I've sat in sheds with John in Whanganui and Bob in Taihape. You don't google these guys - you have to shake a hand," he says.
"The products we're producing are rare - we're using leathers from North Island farms that are being tanned in our last tannery in Australasia, in Whanganui. We're probably one of three brands worldwide still able to do this."
Pou has also connected with brands and a retailer in the United Kingdom and Japan, and sees big opportunities overseas. He also makes denim jeans and cotton socks as part of his brand, along with leather belts, wallets and cardholders. Part of Pou's motivation is that he fears these craft skills are in danger of being lost.
"The market is being flooded with cheap imports. It's a wonderful way to connect these local craftspeople and their talents with the international community. "
Eventually, though, Pou would like to have his own factory employing local workers and craftspeople. "I want the money to stay in New Zealand, to support what we have here, but it's always been a goal to export, and to tell our stories overseas."
The 42-year-old's passion for authenticity, for hand-crafted, well-made, functional items with little fuss, harks back to his time growing up in Wellington's western suburbs in the 70s. Born to a Maori father and European mother, Pou recalls the hangi pit that was always in the front yard, and the converted fridge used to smoke eels caught with his dad.
Pou learned to appreciate "simple honest skills born out of necessity" - hunting for wild pigs, diving for seafood, growing vegetables, stopping to pick puha. "Since then, I've always been interested in how things are done and about craftsmanship."
Growing up, he was inspired by many things. The Hollywood cowboy films he watched when he wasn't helping his dad inspired the look he has now - well-crafted, hard-wearing denim jeans and always a pair of boots.
"I've always gone back to my style - the classic Maori cowboy in jeans and a white T-shirt, which grew into my obsession with denim and craft goods that continues today."
Pou - who was a loose forward for the Wellington Lions until 2004, also playing with the Hurricanes development side and the New Zealand Maori team - laughs that he doesn't want to be lumped in with other fashion designers. "I don't have flash parties and I'm not designing things on my Apple computer. I had no formal training. I sit down with a pen and paper at the dining table and I design boots and jeans."
The Dominion Post