The craft of boot making has undergone many changes over the 90 years Rossi Boots has been manufacturing footwear in Adelaide. But as David Bailey explains, there are some skills that remain timeless.
“I started back when I was 16 in 1979, out at Unley,” Bailey says. “I had no skills going in. I didn’t really like school, and my father asked a friend of his what a ‘clicker’ was – it was listed in the paper. It turned out he worked for Rossi Boots, Rossiter as it was then. I got a job, got out of school and ended up doing a four-year apprenticeship.”
A clicker, he explains, is responsible for cutting the leather into shapes to be formed, stitched and tacked together. Automation has meant that the old clicking presses are now handled by machines. But for Rossi products like the desert boot, Bailey’s chief domain, the high level of stitching and hands-on craftmanship required means there isn’t a single shoe that rolls off the line that he hasn’t worked on.
Working his way up from sewing and marking to the clicking and making rooms, Bailey eventually mastered every stage of the art of boot making. He is now one of 42 Rossi staff who put out 150,000 pairs of boots annually, continuing the business that Arthur Rossiter started in his back shed in 1908. That business now reaches as far as America, Japan, Chile and Europe, with Denmark its biggest overseas market.
But while many core parts of the manufacturing process are unchanged, the market for Rossi Boots has shifted over the years, as they cater to everyone from agriculture workers and tradies to chefs, footy players and hikers. “It used to be farmers who were the biggest market,” he says. “That’s changed around a lot – they’re wearing them for fashion these days.”
The result is a higher quality product, while still remaining as tough and reliable as a farmer’s work boots. “You have to take a bit more care,” he says of the more high-end dress boot favoured in small bars and festival scenes. “Whereas someone on a farm might not care if there’s a scar across the toe.”
As people become more disconnected from the source of the clothes they buy, and the people who make them, there’s a story to Rossi Boots that means a lot more than the click of an online order. “People that come in here they walk in to the front of the shop and say, ‘oh you’re still making them out the back?’ When you do have people out there, they’re amazed by how it’s done and what actually happens behind those doors.”
“There’s a lot of machinery involved but a lot of my work is hand skilled which is not, you know, ‘wack it on a machine on one end and it comes out the other’,” he says of the desert boot process. “I’ve got to literally take it through.”
“This is all I’ve done for 40 years,” he says. “I’m quite proud of what I put out.”
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