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Head over heels for Jennifer Allison

April 14, 2015
By Violet MacLeod
Photography by Kareen Mallon

Her shoe designs have been worn by Rihanna, Blake Lively and Anne Hathaway. At 21 years old, her eveningwear designs were modelled by Coco Rocha, displayed at Toronto’s luxury department store Holt Renfrew and seen on the |FAT| Arts & Fashion Week runway. Now, Canadian shoe designer Jennifer Allison has opened Canada’s first and only shoemaking school, The Art and Sole Academy, where anyone can learn how to make a pair of cool kicks from scratch.

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Jennifer Allison, a shoe designer and entrepreneur, has recently opened up the only shoemaking academy in Canada, called The Art and Sole Academy.

After graduating from Ryerson University in Toronto, she unexpectedly “fell into” the shoe-design industry. Already building a reputation as a high-end eveningwear designer, Allison found herself accepting a job as a shoe illustrator at Aldo. “I was in the right place at the right time because [Aldo] was looking to expand their in-house design department, and they felt my experience in the apparel world would translate into the shoe world,” she explains.

At Aldo, Allison learned shoe design, working in Montreal and travelling to factories overseas. Two years later, she moved to New York City and accepted a job with luxury brand Pour la Victoire where she worked with the company’s creative designer and actress Cameron Diaz. “Working with her was a surreal experience, I was living in New York and working with Cameron Diaz, and I just never thought that would happen!” she tells us.

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Growing up, Allison didn’t dream of being a shoe designer, but thinking back, she says there were clues. “My favourite childhood movie was The Wizard of Oz, and I was obsessed with Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers—maybe that was the initial inspiration,” she says, adding that she is in the process of making herself the perfect pair of ruby slippers. “I finally found the perfect fabric! It’s definitely one of the next projects.”

The first time Allison made a pair of shoes from scratch was in New York. “I was designing shoes, and I was feeling a little bit insecure because I had never physically made a pair of shoes myself,” she says.

In New York, she found shoemakers who taught her the handmaking process, and the first shoes she ever made herself were a pair of tapestry, beaded pumps with a glitter heel. That was when she knew she was on the right career track: “It was the final piece of the puzzle that put everything together. I fell in love with working with leather and making things with my hands again. It triggered the idea of opening up [Art and Sole].”

Now, rushing around IKEA to buy tables, chairs and other studio supplies, Allison is busy setting up the new Art and Sole Academy in Leslieville, Toronto. She says there has been an overwhelming interest and enrollment in her classes, so the academy is moving into a permanent space instead of continuing to host guerilla classes in rented rooms.

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Allison made her first pair of shoes while living in New York City, working for Cameron Diaz. There, she learned from expert shoemakers and is now passing the craft on.

In the new space, the academy will be able to offer more classes, more often. All of them are introductory, and no shoemaking or sewing experience is required, so anyone can enroll. “We’ve had [anyone from] teachers, nurses and lawyers, all the way to design students, architects and graphic designers,” says Allison. “People are coming out for a variety of reasons, wether they are looking for a new creative outlet or are interested in starting their own shoe-design company.”

A typical class to make moccasins, kicks for kids or sandals takes from six to eight hours, whereas the more advanced classes, which can still be taken by beginners but are longer, range from 16 to 20 hours. During an advanced class, students can make a pair of classic flats, high heels or desert boots. At the moment, Allison offers only women’s and children’s shoemaking classes, but she has plans for men’s options too.

“The workshops are for everyone—people don’t have to feel intimidated,” Allison says. She encourages everyone to try out a class, whether you are a designer who is thinking about starting up a shoe brand, or someone who simply wants to find out how a pair of shoes are made. There is only one prerequisite: she recommends that students come to class with a design idea in mind.

Right away, students start designing their uppers, and they then transfer them onto a paper pattern, while also cutting out the leather and materials. They learn how to sew by hand as well as with a machine. Allison says the short of it is that students “walk in with [their] ideas and walk out with a pair of shoes on [their] feet.”

For those who aren’t sure if they want to take a full class there is Shoemaking 101, a two-hour information session that gives students a chance to explore the tools and machines.

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Right now, Allison’s full-time job is to expand the business: “I’m working to get the Art and Sole Academy off the ground, to expand and [to] let people know it exists.” She hopes to offer more workshops that teach handbag design, hatmaking and how to create a variety of other products that most people do not typically have the opportunity to learn how to make.

Art and Sole is more than an academy: it’s a creative community where like-minded people can come together to work and learn.

“After graduating from Ryerson, I felt like there was something missing, I didn’t have that creative support around me, I felt a bit isolated. I think the initial inspiration for Art and Sole was to bring people together again to share their experience and passion,” Allison concludes.

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