The man who is putting sole into the Marble City
A flair for fabulous footwear is in the family for the man behind the Shoe Box, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
Putting your best foot forward is an old adage, which is very appropriate in these times but, when you do, it also needs to be well shod!
Paul O'Connor certainly took heed of this advice when he set up the Shoe Box boutique in Ormonde Street in Kilkenny. It has become a destination for ladies from all over the country who love cool shoes from studs to velvet, boots to wedges, stilettoes to loafers – all, of course, in wonderful colours and designs, but also at really good prices.
An avid tweeter with a big following, Paul has not only increased his circle of friends, but his business, using this medium to such effect in promoting the Shoe Box. He has now just launched his own website www.theshoebox.ie, selling shoes online.
Paul's father was one of the best-known shoe manufacturers and wholesalers in Ireland for many years, starting out in the Fifties.
"My dad, Terry O'Connor, went to work in O'Dea's shoes in Basin Lane when he was just 16, with no idea that he would eventually be highly successful and have his own shoe factory back in the same location.
"After three years he moved to a company called Festival Footwear as manager where he also began designing shoes. Because of this flair for design, he was sent by the company to Paris, Milan, and to Lake Garda in particular, which had a great influence on him, to see what the designers were doing over there. He would bring back the ideas and then the company would manufacture them here," says Paul.
One of Terry O'Connor's designs in the Seventies was such a big hit that it featured in the newspapers. It was a cork wedge shoe with a hole in the heel section supported by a piece of Wavin piping.
"He had seen the cork wedges in Lake Garda and got the idea of putting the Wavin pipe feature to create a see-through detail – it was a real flower power thing."
Terry O'Connor then moved on to open his own small factory, Matchwell Footwear in Drogheda. As that expanded, and began importing shoes from China, and beyond, it became Senator shoes selling footwear all over Ireland and to the UK. Eventually it relocated to a big premises on Ardee Street from where the company operated for many years.
Paul recalls how he and his three brothers and one sister all worked in the business during the summer holidays.
"As a child, I have a very clear recollection of the smell in the tanneries, I was probably only three or four years old, the first time I was in one,
but it stuck in my head because it was such a strong different smell," he says.
Paul says his mother, Madeline, was a real driver in the business. "Sadly she died a couple of years ago, but if dad was going off to the tanneries, which were in Portlaw and Dungarvan, we would all be piled in the car to go off with him for the day and give her a bit of peace!"
Two of Paul's brothers also went into the shoe business. "At weekends and school holidays, we were all dragged into the business. The importance of work, and knowing how to do things, was ingrained into us from an early age by my parents.
"We might have to print labels for shoeboxes, or stickers for the soles. If dad was under pressure with a massive order maybe for a chain, he would bring work home, and we might be 'buckling shoes' in front of the TV, getting things ready to go back to the factory and be sewn on.
"My mother and sister had a room in the house dedicated to shoes – they got everything – they loved it."
Paul went into the shoe business with his brothers before setting up the Shoe Box in Kilkenny in 2007.
"I wanted to do glamorous, affordable shoes, always being conscious of and ahead of the trends, and providing an alternative to the very high end shoes going into the stores, which are not accessible to a lot of people."
He has a fab selection of fun and funky shoes, but also very wearable shoes and boots.
"I don't think gorgeous shoes should be restricted to particular age groups. I love nothing more than a woman, who has brought her children up, and when they are all going out in their glamorous shoes, that she too can go out in her glamorous shoes."
Paul says that platforms nowadays make wearing high heels a lot easier. "Studs are the trend for the season – rock chick – and nude shoes. The Kate Middleton patent nude shoe is a huge seller."
Amongst other labels, the Shoe Box stocks Lacey's of London leather boots, €125 to €175, the VT Collection which are around €60, and Iron Fist, at around €95. The new spring collection at the Shoe Box will include the cult label Fly London, and El Naturalista, a Spanish brand.
Travelling is Paul's other passion in life and the family frequently travels together on holidays.
"When I was about 20, I went to Thailand with some friends. I could not believe the country, it was out of this world. When I came home, I told all the family how amazing it was and dad splashed out and we all went to the Aman Puri Hotel in Phuket. It was absolutely wonderful," he recalls.
Paul also loves Kilkenny. "It's a beautiful city, and a great business city. It's full of small boutiques and businesses, whose owners are in their shops every day running them. The customers know they can trust you, and they get a great service."
Kilkenny produces more than hurlers!
The Shoe Box, 6 Ormonde St, Kilkenny, tel: (056) 775-6111, or see www.theshoebox.ie