In a world that is constantly moving, there is something to be said for staying put. Ask Monica Schnieper, who is celebrating 25 years at her William St business, Pelle Shoes.
“I hear so many good stories now,” she says, referring to customers who pop in to tell her how many times they’ve resoled a beloved pair of shoes they bought from her. “You can only hear those stories after so many years in one place. Five years into a business — that doesn’t happen.”
Schnieper opened her recycled designer shoe and accessories shop on her birthday, a Saturday morning in late March 1996, after a chance encounter at Bondi Markets with another William St retailer alerted her to the empty premises with an apartment on top.
In the early days of Pelle Shoes the shelves were sparsely stocked, and though William St was more residential than commercial, it was already known for its boutiques. Collette Dinnigan had set up shop nearby and Jiva and Di Nuovo had already moved in.
The charming terrace-lined street reminded Schnieper of the side streets she loved back home in Zurich and also reflected her preference for roads less travelled.
“People who come to a side street have different personalities,” she says. “They want the quirkiness. They want the different experience of what little shops have to offer.”
Keeping a small business afloat for 25 years amid recessions, online disruption and a pandemic is an incredible feat for any bricks and mortar store, but to retail recycled designer shoes years before sustainable fashion was on anyone’s radar has required a single-minded focus and determination. The challenge with being ahead of the curve is that you have to wait for the world to catch up.
Schnieper’s passion for recycling first sparked when she was eight, as she accompanied her grandmother to a flea market in Zurich to visit her aunt’s stall.
“I remember vividly falling in love with a green beret my aunt was selling,” she says. “This incident opened my eyes to this amazing world of bygone eras.”
Her grandmother was an avid recycler. As a survivor of two world wars, her mindset was shaped by the scarcity of basic food and clothing during wartimes and the Great Depression in between. Schnieper noticed the way her grandmother held on to things and repurposed them instead of throwing them away and this became a guiding influence throughout her life.
When it came time to choose a career, Schnieper trained as a shoemaker in Zurich, completing part of her education as a shoe repairer with Bally which gave her a deep knowledge of shoes and a good eye for choosing them.
“When you take something apart to repair it, you understand it from a different angle,” she explains.
But it wasn’t until she turned 30 that Schnieper realised the potential of combining her technical experience in shoe repair with her passion for recycling.
The epiphany came while working in a shoe shop in Double Bay. Surprised by the volume of shoes women purchased, she become curious about what happened to all the designer heels once women grew tired of wearing them.
Pictures: Kevin Best
Five years later, after another stint working in Zurich and inspired by the consignment model of retail there, Schnieper returned to Australia and Pelle Shoes opened its doors.
Reflecting on what has motivated her to show up to work at the same store, on the same street, week after week for two and a half decades, she credits her love of recycling, her customers and the local community for keeping her going.
“I couldn’t have done it without exterior help,” she says, praising her landlord as one person who has been instrumental to her business success. “He taught me that everything is negotiable and I think that’s really interesting. I’ve been with him for 25 years and he’s been absolutely wonderful.”
Despite the thrill that comes with being a ‘new kid on the block’, Schnieper relishes her position as an established Paddington business. She believes that legacy businesses such as hers are part of the glue that can hold a community together and they also provide a valuable benchmark for people who leave the suburb and come back again to see what has changed and what has remained the same.
“As you grow older and stay longer, it’s like a tree with lots of roots. It makes me happy and proud to still be here. It has been rocky many times and as much as I’ve given the community, the community gives to me. Coming to work has a different depth to it now,” Schnieper says.