Why McKinlay Shoes Have Stood the Test of Time

A photo of Graeme McKinlay smiling.

Graeme McKinlay

Lots of Kiwis grew up wearing McKinlays shoes to school and many now take their children and grandchildren in for new pairs as they grow. The business has been operating in Dunedin since 1879.

Words by: Olivia Sisson
Photos by: Nancy Zhou

Robert McKinlay immigrated to New Zealand from Scotland in 1870 and as a perfectionist and true craftsman, built his shoe business, McInlays, to last. And last it has. We caught up with his great great grandson, Graeme McKinlay, to learn more about how these shoes have stood the test of five generations.

There’s not much shoe manufacturing in New Zealand anymore, how does McKinlays stay current?

We’re virtually it but we have our niche and the way we make shoes is very different to how most footwear is made. There are some small hobbyist operations here and there, but we are 15 employees and at the moment we make about 110 to 120 pairs a day. We do use machines but there is a lot of handwork involved in the making of each shoe. We do very small runs of each style and can make them very quickly.

What we make today will be boxed and sent out next week. We use the stitch down method to make our shoes, whereas most shoes are cement lasted. The leather on our shoes goes all the way to the edge and we stitch through that to the sole which gives you a solid surface and a nice flexible shoe. They’re made to last.

How has business been since the COVID-19 lockdown?

It’s been so busy since lockdown. Things are only starting to quiet down now and we’re several months out from lockdown. We’re still catching up and the orders are rolling in. What people appreciate about our shoes is how long they last.

Our men’s and women’s shoes are very easy to re-sole so if you look after them, they’ll really last. We get people coming in to have shoes re-soled that they bought from us ten years ago. People see the value in that and come back. The shoes we make never really go out of style either, they’re pretty classic. Some are almost identical to how they were 20 or more years ago. If you go back 25 years many of the shoe manufacturers in New Zealand were style driven and changing the shoes each season is very expensive. Once mass produced footwear arrived in NZ, those manufacturers couldn’t keep up.

Who makes McKinlay’s shoes and who do you sell them to?

Many of our staff members have been here for years, some even up to thirty. We have a very stable workforce and that's another huge advantage of our model. We still offer a Monday to Friday job and we close for holidays. We’ve got our market and we know what they want and how to get it to them. We’re very happy with that.

Where do you source the materials?

We source almost all of our raw materials right here. All of the leather is from Tasman Tanning in Whanganui. The items we can’t get in New Zealand like eyelets and buckles, we get from small manufacturers that we know and visit every year in Milan. All of our rubber soling is made in Christchurch.

Can you make shoes?

The only thing I can’t do is sew but I’ve done basically everything here. We fix all our own machinery too. Some of the machines we work with, we’ve had for over 40 years.  No one else uses those machines anymore, or knows how to fix them, so we do the maintenance ourselves.