Judy puts ugg into boots

Judy Smyth at work. Picture: Martin Kennealey www.communitypix.com.au d404428
Judy Smyth at work. Picture: Martin Kennealey www.communitypix.com.au d404428

As owner Judy Smyth posed for the Gazette’s photographer, her small team was working flat out in the Queen Victoria Street shop in an effort to keep up with demand.

Charming and cheerful, Ms Smyth offers no indication of the steely determination that she must have had to develop her business from a tiny homemade- crafts outlet on her front verandah in Bindoon, to a near permanent fixture of the Fremantle retail landscape.

Having moved back to Fremantle in 1975, she leased her first shop in Fremantle Markets when they opened, stocking sheep wool toys and other products, as well as boots she bought from manufacturer West End Boots, which she later bought.

‘When I wanted to buy the business I went to the bank to borrow some money, about $8000,’ she said. ‘But they wouldn’t lend it to me because I was a single woman.

‘I carried on, the guy who was selling it supported the debt and I paid it off. You need to be able to take a risk in business. I just thought of it as supporting my kids.’

It’s the import market that really affects business these days, with China flooding the market with cheaper, lower-quality products.

Customers soon learn, turning back to locally made goods when they realise they’ll last longer.

And then there are the Americans.

Ms Smyth watched on as the Australian Sheep Skin Association led the charge to defend the word ‘ugg’ from the American company that bought the brand Ugg Australia. Now she is president of the association. Again, there is that determination and no small amount of courage.

‘It’s terribly hard to compete with the big Americans,’ she said. ‘But IP Australia ruled that ugg is a generic word, so we can use it. And we do.

‘I try to be very calm. I have nearly lost it on a few occasions.’

Having been in business in Fremantle for more than 35 years, the huge variety in products available has had one of the most dramatic effects on the retail sector, Ms Smyth says.

With celebrities from Cate Blanchett to Jamie Oliver wearing her boots and a stack of awards, Ms Smyth is a picture of humility, saying she misses the days when people handled more cash, saying electronic finance makes retail more impersonal. ‘It took me a while to adapt to paying wages into the bank via transfer,’ she said.

Rachel Watts