Based on a shoe story

Shoe story: Dunedin desert boots, made under the fashion radar.
Shoe story: Dunedin desert boots, made under the fashion radar.

I bought the first pair - black - a couple of years ago,and went back straight away for the mauve ones. How comfortable. How cheap. How clever I wasto make this discovery.

This year I bought the deep yellow pair, but what I'd really like is all the colours, lined up neatly in my wardrobe. That would not be the point, of course, as the suede desert boots, which are under $200, are only value for money if you buy one pair at a time.

When I wear them I channel my teens. I wore something like them to school then, one of my many acts of defiance against school uniforms. McKinlays have been making them steadily for years, and they'll probably be making them for many more years yet, just under the fashion radar.

This year there's purple, as opposed to my mauve, for example. There used to be a bolder green.The wonder of it is, they're made in Dunedin. The only other hands-on shoemakers left in this country since deregulation are Last Rite (workboots), Minnie Cooper (trendy, cute ads), Sole Shoes (cheap) and Paraflex (industrial work boots).

It's not a big factory; nor is it flash, but McKinlays turns out 40-50,000 pairs of shoes a year here, Graham McKinlay tells me, some of them green blokey boots for the Australian defense force. The biggest sellers are a jodhpur boot called Hunter. They've been making 3000 pairs of those every year for the past 25 years.

My shoes have been in production even longer, since the 1960s. Though they're probably made on a different last today, the crepe sole, says McKinlay, is probably the same. And here's the thing - I can get to wear a half-size in McKinlays, rather than having to buy a half size up all the time in my posher shoes. My feet get to feel just that bit smaller.

All McKinlays shoes are made from cowhide.They're turned out on old-style factory equipment which is now irreplaceable; the new equivalents, Italian-made, inevitably, are only good for huge production runs for huge markets. That's no good for a business that, beside its usual production runs, makes shoes for people with problem feet, one pair at a time - as well as shoes for hobbits, on request.

The weathered old gear has been going since 1939, when it was in different premises; the family sold the old building a few years ago to fund Graham McKinlay's father's retirement.

Graham and his brother (who's currently at the Milan shoe fair; one or other of them goes every year) are the fifth generation of the family to run the business, and Graham reckons he can probably do the 50-60 steps involved in making a shoe himself if he has to, or has to teach a new employee.

There was a time, when he left school, when he thought he'd go farming, but he soon saw how easily you can not make money that way. He'd worked in the family factory in school holidays, and then in an Australian shoe factory, which turned out to be a step back toward the inevitable. He has to know how to maintain the machines because the cost of new ones is so prohibitive, and besides,if he can't service them, who can?

The first McKinlays factory was set up in Dunedin in 1879; the patriarch, William Robert, came from Kilmarnock in Scotland. McKinlays kept it going until the Depression of the 1930s, when the business, along with so many others, went bankrupt. They started up again in 1939, and now they've outlasted almost every New Zealand shoe factory that was going back then.

How have they done it? My guess is they've stuck to what they know; basically making sensible shoes that make no great attempt at following fashion, but may almost accidentally veer towards it. They sell into a small chain of stores in Japan, but otherwise have a store of their own in Dunedin, and two more of them in Southland.

Parents will know the cute elastic-sidedboots they make in a range of colours for children, which sell throughout the country. Parents will find McKinlays shoes for themselves in regular, family-style shoe stores, not posh shops full of expensive imports.

Graham knows he should have made a rich royal blue desert boot this year, for all that he keeps under the radar. He's working out how to get that colour. I kind of want to suggest that he go in for coloured crepe soles, like a rich red, maybe, because I'd like that. But I suspect the McKinlays don't need any advice from me, thanks very much.

They've been in shoes longer than I have. 

Hand made: McKinlays' old-style factory gear has been going since 1939.
Hand made: McKinlays' old-style factory gear has been going since 1939.

Sunday Magazine