When John Blundstone and his wife Eliza started a boot-making business in Hobart in the early 1870s, it was a question of necessity as much as anything else. A wild and rugged harbour town located on the forbidding edge of the already forbidding Australian frontier, Hobart demanded better footwear than could be reliably imported from the British homeland.
The early Blundstones were hardy, hobnailed things, designed to survive a life spent trudging through rocky and mud-strewn farmland. But their reputation for steadfastness saw the market expand northwards onto the Australian mainland. When Australia joined World War Two, it was Blundstone that was chosen to make the more than 500,000 pairs of boots required by the Army. (Rumour has it that American soldiers were so jealous of the durability and comfort of the Blundstones that a thriving black market grew up around them.)
But it was with the launch of the Blundstone #500 in 1969 that the company came into its own. “We realised pretty quickly we were onto something special,” says Adam Blake, Blundstone's global head of brand and design. “The design has been pretty much untouched for half a century now.” As Australian travellers crisscrossed the globe in their #500s, they became unwitting ambassadors for the boots. “We started seeing this spike in sales to places like Sweden, Canada, Italy and Israel,” Blake says. These days, Blundstone sells more than 2.4 million pairs of shoes every year, three-quarters of which end up overseas. You’ll find images of the boots on everyone from polished city-slickers to Tibetan monks. Blundstones have been huge in Israel since 1999, when a local film distributor began importing the shoe and selling them to people from kibbutzes. “In Israel, it's estimated that one in every four people owns a pair of Blundstones.”
More unexpected has been the #500’s transition from simple worker’s boot to an object of high couture – another example of fashion’s periodic obsession with working-class practicality. While the footwear has been a common sight on Hollywood backlots for years, somewhere along the line the stars started wearing them as well: Ellen Page, David Beckham and Paul Rudd have all been spotted in ‘Blunnies’. When the utilitarian footwear trend took off, luxury retailers began queuing up to stock the boots. Last year, Blundstone even fronted a New York Fashion Week runway from designer Sandy Liang. “As an Australian who's grown up with Blundstones, seeing a #500 sitting in Barney’s of New York or a high-end boutique in Rome does make you do a double-take,” Blake laughs. “But in other ways, it's a simple, high-quality shoe that looks great. Why shouldn't it be there?”
When it comes to the #500's success, though, Blake reckons it’s all about the emotional connection. “People take these boots with them wherever they go,” he says. “They become inextricably linked to the biggest adventures and journeys in their life. That's why so many people can’t bear to throw their old pairs out.” Some owners have gotten married in them, Blunnies tucked beneath a wedding dress. Others have converted their ageing Blundstones into flower pots and bird nests. “I love it,” Blake says. “You hear these stories and it really hits you: our humble boot is pretty special.”
This article was created in collaboration with Blundstone, one of the nifty brands featured in the mag as part of "The Company We Keep". Head over to Blundstone Australia to learn more, or pick up a copy of Smith Journal's latest issue here.