Olivia Pudelko, the 26-year-old behind cult-favourite footwear brand Western Affair, wasn’t always planning to work in fashion. Before gaining an online following for her playful shoes, she studied fine art, and she admits that fashion is something she “just fell into.”
“I always painted, always made sculptures. So it was natural to go and study art,” she reveals over a Zoom call, which she joined after coming in from a hike. “I think the way I make shoes, I still kind of make them like I would make sculptures.”
Pudelko, who works between Poland and London, first started making footwear in 2017, during her final year at the University of Westminster. At the time, and for about three years after that, she was making every pair by hand using upcycled materials. Now, she works with a small production team to bring her unique, sustainably focused designs to life.
So far, she’s managed to turn those ideas into viral sensations. Among her most notable designs are her carpet mules, made with plush floral rugs that evoke childhood memories of your grandmother’s house; her sheep fur heels, made with sheepskins sourced from the mountains in Poland and Slovakia; and her mismatched tie heels, which give a second life to vintage silk ties.
The use of these upcycled textiles has become a hallmark of Western Affair, and Pudelko wouldn’t have it any other way. In art school, she says, teachers would encourage students to go through discarded materials and look for found objects to use in their work. “For me, it was only natural to make wearable pieces that way,” she says, adding (quite enthusiastically), “I hate going into a fabric store. I hate it so much!”
Instead, she prefers perusing vintage stores and antique shops, though she’s also open to more unconventional avenues. Many of the ties she used in her last collection came from a woman in Slovenia who reached out on Instagram asking to trade raw materials for a pair of custom shoes.
Pudelko says she lets her intuition guide her when she’s looking for materials. “It’s so much more fun than going to a fabric store and just picking, you know? And then you see someone else making something else from the same fabric. I don’t want that.”
Using second-hand materials adds depth to her work and makes the whole creative process more interesting, she explains. While working through the COVID-19 pandemic, she realized how important that was to her.
“What I learned recently is that I’m only doing this for myself,” she notes, adding that she feels lucky to not have to answer to investors or other outside pressures. “I’m just taking my joy where I can find it and really doing it the way that has meaning to me, and to the people who wear my brand.” Once she settles on a design she’s happy with, she adapts it for everyone else.
When I ask how she wants people to feel when they wear a pair of Western Affair shoes, she says she wants “everyone to feel special and confident and however they want to show themselves.”
She’s well aware that her shoes are made to stand out, and perhaps even prompt conversations with strangers—something that might actually prove helpful as we get ready to step into a post-pandemic world.
“That’s one message I always get: ‘Oh my god! I wore your shoes last night and everyone was stopping me!’ I love that,” Pudelko says. “If you’re shy, just wear a pair of my shoes and you’ll make friends so fast because you’ll just be talking to everyone.”