In the salon of Johanna Preston, shoe designer and owner of PRESTON ZLY

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Preston Zly is a shoemaking atelier led by Johanna Preston and Peter Zly.

From the time l was a child l was obsessed with shoes – we travelled for 6 months as a family in Europe when l was 8 years old and some of the highlights of this trip were purchasing beautiful narrow (for my long feet) wedge heeled t bar shoes in Assisi, Italy, and clogs in Holland. It was so exciting as these shoe styles had high heels. My sister and l minced around in these shoes and just loved them.

Other childhood highlights are hand beaded Indian moccasins from the United States brought back by my uncle and gold teardrop glass beaded slippers from Singapore. When l was sixteen l attempted to make my first pair of shoes (by that stage l was already a reasonably accomplished dress maker having been given a sewing machine for my 9th birthday). The shoes were a disaster – but the seeds were sewn.

By the time l was 12 years old my feet had reached their full adult size 8.5 – 9 (but were ridiculously narrow ). My mother had grown up with terrible feet – awful inherited bunions her foot surgeon told her would absolutely make it down into the feet of a least one of her daughters. Due to this she was stickler for getting children’s shoes fitted correctly and our first port of call was Betsy Pryam’s in Bourke Road Camberwell. At this time the most fashionable style of shoe for girls was a boot with fur tuft up the front and a 10cm fur trim on  the top – l was desperate to have a pair and my mum patiently took me to every shoe shop in the entire city of Melbourne trying to find a pair to fit to no avail. l remember holding back tears as we were once again in Betsy Pryam’s and the only thing they could get to fit me was a pair a navy blue patent leather clogs (sounds cool but they definitely were not). To make matters worse, my school teacher relentlessly teased me for wearing those clogs for the rest of the school year – it was incredibly humiliating. But from here my passion was born.

When l started working part time jobs in my later years of high school every spare cent l had was spent on shoes. By the time l was 18 years old l was spending around $200 to $250 on incredible imported shoes (the kind that would be retailing for well above $800 are pair now) yet was constantly thinking of design improvements that could be made to all these styles. In fact my 21st birthday present from Petr was a pair of red nu buck Mary Janes from French company Freelance – l still have them in my wardrobe somewhere.

From here, l decide to learn how to make shoes and found a master shoemaker who was taking private courses in Adelaide – l did 3 intensive courses with him and also a last making course – as well as 3 certificates in orthopaedic and bespoke footwear from what is now RMIT Brunswick.

Petr, a trained sculptor, couldn’t keep his hands away from designing for long – it such a three dimensional field of design and the possibilities are so exciting – so slowly he became more and more involved in the business – fashioning our specific last and heel shapes and working out a technique for heel casting.

Our design inspiration is varied – we design like bower birds – collecting ideas from the most remote places – it can be a glimpse of some random shoe on a foot as l ride past on a motorbike – but we always strongly refer to the shoes of the past. The language of shoes is kind of universal and magical and because their form is so specific it is almost impossible not to refer in some way to what has gone before. This gives shoes their special romance.

We are not fashion followers – and don’t necessarily think of ourselves as trend setters either although we often fill this role by default. We like to refer to our own obsessions and body of work and really only look at what is happening now to increase our dictionary of details.

We like strong, simply forms – and unexpected uses of making techniques – like bringing the inside of the shoe to the outside using heavy sole stitching, hole punching and clinched tacs – so using the making techniques as decoration as well as for their intended function.

We like to make shoes that explore the masculine verses feminine- shoes that will make a women feel tough yet sexy – and we love heavier heels that are so much easier to wear. As we are real shoe makers we can make sure we get right so much more than what many people who are kind of styling shoes just miss – things like the right heel pitch, the balance of the heel and where your centre of gravity falls when you are wearing a Preston Zly shoe – that’s why our heels are so comfortable and easy to wear.

In terms of collaborations we have worked with Material By Product, Alexi Freeman Akira, Sonia Heap (who works with David Walsh of Mona in Tasmania fame) Vixen, TL Wood, Victoria Loftes. And of course Bakehouse for the Elvis room. Every collaboration is different – most requires you to get down to the nuts and bolts of what the designer is looking for in their shoes. Some people are very easy loose and let you have a free hand – and others are very specific.

The Elvis room is a design detour for us as we explore the surface and space of the area in a far more intellectual way than can be done via footwear – and allowed us to explore many more visual and technological techniques. The screen printed fabrics for the cushions and lights were great fun to create and we are looking at developing these further going forward.IMG_4861 IMG_3542IMG_3487IMG_3502 IMG_3636IMG_3493IMG_3600IMG_3486 IMG_3480IMG_3646


  1. Great story and just so talented Johanna! The background on your mother’s feet gave me an idea. I love your shoes as you well know, but at the moment with very bad feet I am restricted and forced out of my gorgeous shoes and into ‘comfortable and orthotic friendly’ footwear. – any chance that one day you’ll be able to inspire us with some orthotic friendly amazing shoes to relieve me of my woes?


  2. Hi Chistina, I usually wear orthotics myself, (although not in special occasion shoes) as I have a great painful bunion on my right foot which makes it a full size larger than my left-and the only shoes with heels that I can wear comfortably are the PrestonZly shoes I’ve bought over the years. I can walk the streets for hours shopping in their three inch heels, which is fo me~amazing! I’ve spent a lot of money on cute cheaper brands like Wittner for around the $200 mark -but I just can’t wear them. I’ve got so much wear out of the PrestonZly shoes I’ve bought over the last 3-4 years-which I’ve kept reheeled and weather proofed.They look pretty much like new and they don’t go out of fashion at all. Where-ever I go, people ask about my shoes. If you email them and explain your concerns, you will find they’ll know what is likely to suit you~ (that’s what I did)-and they do have all kinds of flats and so on that you could wear with orthotics I suppose.


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