Life on the other side: Melody Chia Makes Shoes
By Melody Chia
The sound of a hammer driving nails into a last, the quiet chug-chug-chug of a sewing machine, the silent cuts a sharp knife makes through leather… these have replaced the hustle and bustle of an ad agency these past five months.
I always wondered if I’d struggle working alone because I do enjoy being around people (to some extent), but I’ve really enjoyed my time alone. The quiet solitude of working on making a pair of shoes, where you’re left alone to work things out, plan next steps and then having the time to actually make what you set out to make is what so many people in Ad-land constantly yearn for. I’m not saying that this is every hour of every day, but this is a luxury I am now afforded more frequently than when I was a suit. #WorkAloneLessDistractions
This last year has definitely been one of discovery and somewhat painful honesty. I drifted into advertising after university, and it ended up being a career I stayed in and built over 10 years. For a long time, I thought that I was lucky to have found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life straight out of university, when I had no clue about life and what it had to offer.
To many of you reading this, the frustrations I started to experience with the industry may sound familiar.
The constant take, take, take, with no give or thanks, realising that all of your blood, sweat and tears are going towards putting out work you’re not entirely proud of into the market, because clients, and at the end of the day, you’re left feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled by something you’re spending a hell of a lot of time doing.
So burnout is real and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. Burnout for me looked like weekends on the couch in so much pain, not being able to move a muscle – I insisted that I was fine, not stressed, and still had work to do. It progressed to sleepless nights and struggling to drag myself out of bed to go to work in the mornings – I still insisted that I was fine, not stressed, and that I was just tired. It had me questioning everything I did, what I brought to the table, my ability to do my job, and my self-worth.
I continued to insist that I was still fine, not that stressed, and it was just a difficult time at work.
It then progressed to an inability to stop myself from bursting into tears at various points during the day, sobbing uncontrollably in the shower and crying myself to sleep most nights—at this point, after much prodding from my incredibly patient and supportive husband, I relented and only half-admitted to myself that maybe I was a little stressed. I coped. Kind of. Until it got too hard to cope and then I decided I didn’t want to just cope anymore.
I took my first shoemaking class in October last year. I’ve always enjoyed making things and I was looking to learn how to make something a little more tangible than a knitted scarf. After going down one of my usual rabbit holes that is a Google search, I was surprised to find that shoemaking is a thing, and that RMIT actually offered a short course in it.
Once a week, for 14 weeks, I went and learnt how to make my first pair of shoes. It was overwhelming at first, because I didn’t have any of the skills you need to make a pair of shoes. I didn’t know how to sew or use a sewing machine, I’d never worked with leather before, I didn’t know how to cut anything with a knife besides meat and vegetables, and I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how a shoe is put together, let alone two matching sides to make a pair. [Insert all of the emojis, because that was me in the first few weeks.]
I’d successfully made a pair of shoes after 14 weeks—just 42 hours of class time in total. I was proud of them for about 5 minutes and then began to get frustrated with all the things I’d messed up. I also wanted to start making another pair of shoes, but I didn’t feel like that was something I could realistically do on my own because I didn’t know enough about what I was doing and how to go about solving the problems I knew I was going to encounter.
I began to obsess over finding out as much information as I could about the shoemaking process. Hours and hours of research, drinking in whatever I could find on the internet; but I understood that for once, the internet alone wasn’t going to be enough. This newfound obsession served as the perfect distraction to the stress and burnout I was coping so well with. That’s if you consider a band-aid to be a legitimate solution.
I ended up spending 5 days with a shoemaker in Kyneton over the Christmas break where he taught me a different technique to what I’d learnt at RMIT. These 5 days in the workshop felt like I’d entered a whole new world, and made it very difficult to think about having to walk back into Ad-land the next week. It made me start to question if advertising is really something I can see myself doing for the next little while. The answer was obviously no, because burnout is real.
It didn’t just get to a point where I decided I didn’t just want to cope with it anymore. It got to a point where I couldn’t cope anymore. I’d hit rock bottom both mentally and physically.
You couldn’t jam this square peg into this round hole anymore, because one more push, and that square peg was going to shatter into a million pieces.
It turns out that quitting advertising was one of the best things I’ve ever done for me. It has opened up opportunities that I’d never imagined possible, and I’ve met some truly incredible people.
I spent 5 weeks Savannah, Georgia this July studying with master shoemaker, Marcell Mrsán. I was originally only going to go for 3 weeks, but when the opportunity presented itself for me to extend my stay, I was able to do so because I wasn’t bound by a job that I had to come home to. #SilverLining
Extending my stay allowed me to spend 2 more weeks stalking Marcell around his workshop and it bought me 2 more weeks of watching him make shoes. I used to spend hours on end watching his videos on Instagram and YouTube over and over again, so getting to see a master craftsman work and have him generously share his knowledge in person was nothing short of incredible. I also got to see the entire process, instead of just snippets of the process, which was for me, tricky to piece together in my head. I also didn’t just get to watch him work, he trusted me enough to let me work on his orders and projects, and I started to feel like I wasn’t completely useless again.
I also got involved with the Footwear Makers Guild and helped organise and run the Footwear Symposium (once a suit, always a suit), where I got to meet all of these highly skilled and accomplished shoe and bootmakers, and I feel like I’ve found my people. I have never ever been surrounded by so many people who want me to succeed, and are proactively supporting me on this new journey. The highly positive environment I’ve found myself in these past few months has been much needed and I’m very grateful for it.
This is only the beginning of it all, and I’m excited to see where this goes. I am going back to Savannah to continue my apprenticeship with Marcell in October, so follow along on Instagram @melodychia, if you’d like to see what we get up to!