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The art of shoemaking: Bespoke shoes defined

This post is about the art – or craft, depending on whom you ask – of shoemaking. If you’ve ever wanted to design your own shoes, or order a pair of bespoke shoes, this post is for you. FYI,”bespoke” refers to a garment or pair of shoes that are made to a customer’s individual measurements and taste. The item is literally custom made just for you.

 

I love to try new things. Given a choice I will always opt for the food, place, activity or route I’ve never experienced before. Sometimes I regret it: I still feel squeamish when I think about trying roasted scorpion-on-a-stick in Beijing, for example. But for the most part, my relentless pursuit of the unfamiliar has contributed to an incredibly diverse and interesting life.

So I have no idea why it was so hard to convince myself to attend a bespoke shoemakers’ conference in Ashland, Oregon. I wanted to go, but didn’t feel deserving. I’m not a shoemaker. Heck, I don’t even own a pair of bespoke shoes. I kept asking myself what business a cube-dwelling worker bee has at a conference of fine craftsmen. Perhaps the hardest box to break free of is the one we’ve built for ourselves.

I finally registered and bought a plane ticket, and any residual doubts soon dissipated. I hadn’t even arrived at the conference yet when I met my first shoemaker. I spotted a pair of brilliantly modified sneakers in the San Francisco airport while waiting to board the last leg of my flight. It was 2 a.m. my time and I was in a Dramamine-induced fog, but I tapped the wearer on the shoulder. Not only was Kieran Ionescu on his way to Ashland, he lived just 15 miles from me.

Marcell Mrsan studies a pair of bespoke shoes at Footwear Symposium 2015

Master craftsman Marcell Mrsan sizes up student Terri Malerbi’s shoe

The entire weekend unfolded with similar ease. Nothing felt forced or exclusive. Everyone was happy to share their knowledge, experience and contacts. I met shoemakers aged 18 to 80 from both coasts and everywhere in between. Also bootmakers, leather goods crafters, designers, teachers, vendors, a podiatrist and tool makers. And if I hadn’t finally given myself permission to experience it, I would have missed all those connections and stories and experiences. Below are three things I learned at Footwear Symposium 2015.

1. The production pendulum is slowly swinging back towards the U.S.

According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, 98% of shoes sold in the U.S. are imported, most of them from China. But I spoke with one designer, Qiana Markham, who recently launched a line of shoes for actress Kate Bosworth. The shoes were made at a factory in L.A.! Several other industry professionals mentioned that demand for U.S. shoe manufacturing and suppliers is growing, as is consumer demand for high-quality domestic footwear. If you’d like to support the effort to bring back U.S. shoe manufacturing, consider contributing to the Nicora Johns Gofundme campaign.

2. You can try this at home, or hire a professional

Wholecut bespoke shoes by Rick Roman

Wholecut bespoke shoes by Rick Roman

You don’t have to have a bunch of fancy equipment to make a pair of shoes. You need the appropriate materials and a few small hand tools. Your first pair may not be very pretty  people work for years to perfect their shoemaking techniques  but they’ll be wearable. There are videos on the Internet that show you how, or you can take a class with one of the teachers below. And if you want a pair of handmade shoes but don’t want to make them yourself, any one of the shoemakers in the list below would be happy to design and build you your own own pair of bespoke shoes or boots.

3. If one can, all can

This phrase from Bill Shanor’s presentation resonated with me. I’m not sure if “all” is accurate, but I do believe that everyone has inherent potential for excelling at ordinary and extraordinary things. All it takes is the desire and time. From our collective DNA springs a synergy formed over eons’ worth of trial and error, failure and triumph.

And we tap into it every time we try something new.

Footwear Symposium 2015 wasn't just for makers of bespoke shoes

Shoemaker Julie Bonney Shanor and Wingtip Women blogger Leslie Myers

Here are some of the people I met at Footwear Symposium 2015. More pictures are available on the wingtipwomen Facebook page, and @wingtipwomen or #footwearsymposium on Instagram.

Teachers

  • Marcell Mrsan, master shoemaker;  professor at Savannah College of Art and Design
  • Rick Roman Romango Shoes; offers individual instruction in shoemaking and bootmaking
  • Bill Shanor, master shoemaker, and Julie Bonney Shanor, co-founder of Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking and Design
  • Lisa Sorrell, master bootmaker; cowboy bootmaking and leather inlay/overlay

Shoemakers and designers

  • Tom Carbone  Coalminer Shoes – Shoes and sandals
  • Candi Downey Gentry Downey – Shoes
  • Kieran Ionescu – Shoes
  • Paul Krause PK Bootmaker – Western boots and leather art
  • Renee’ Macdonald Westerly Handmade Shoes – Shoes and boots
  • Qiana Markham – Designer, footwear services such as sourcing and development
  • Georgene McKim Shoedo – Shoes, lasts, and shoe components
  • Raul Ojeda Don Ville Shoes – Shoes and shoe repair
  • Jay Paul – Custom orthotic shoes <custombespokeshoes@gmail.com>
  • Michelle Quick – Accessory designer, product developer
  • Eustace Robinson – Shoes and handbags, pattern making <eustacer@me.com>
  • Rick Roman Romango Shoes – Shoes and boots, dance shoes
  • Lisa Sorrell Sorrell Custom Boots and Sorrell Notions & Findings – Cowboy boots, leather supplies and tools
  • Paige Sorrell – Women’s shoes
  • Larry Waller Walrus Shoe and Leather – Period and theatrical footwear
  • Tom Wandall Berkeley Resole – Leather sandals, shoe recrafting/resoling

If I missed you, use the contact form on this website to be added to the list above.



'The art of shoemaking: Bespoke shoes defined' have 9 comments

  1. July 8, 2015 @ 5:02 pm Clint H.

    This gathering of wonderful and talented people was one of the highlights of our year. We at Mark Staton Co. are honored to have been a part of it. Thank you for capturing so many of the leaders and speakers and putting this out for us all to see.

    Reply

  2. July 1, 2015 @ 1:55 am Susan Pahl-Gutfriend

    Hi Leslie,
    Great to meet you at the Symposium! It was awesome to see my Safari boots and also my Sugar Skull boots on your blog.Enjoyed your comments. Keep up the interesting work!
    Susan Pahl-Gutfriend
    Alberta, Canada.

    Reply

    • July 1, 2015 @ 11:06 am Wingtip Women

      Susan, great meeting you (and your boots!) Your boots have a ton of likes on the wingtipwomen Instagram feed! Thanks so much for sharing.

      Reply

  3. June 29, 2015 @ 11:25 pm Terri M

    Hi Leslie! What a great blog!! Thank you for being there and allowing us to “pull you in”, much like all of us have been! It was a surprise to see my shoe with Marcel in your pictures! Thanks for including me!! Hope to see you next year after you’ve taken your first class!!

    Reply

    • June 30, 2015 @ 9:07 pm Wingtip Women

      I am looking forward to Footwear Symposium 2016 and am lobbying for it to be held on the East Coast! So great meeting you, and thanks for the kind words about my blog! Please share with anyone who is interested in fine shoes for women.

      Reply

  4. June 29, 2015 @ 3:39 am SunnyJim (Jamie)

    So nice to meet you at the symposium! Great video, too. 🙂

    Reply

    • June 29, 2015 @ 3:45 am Wingtip Women

      Thanks, Jamie!! Let me know when you’re ready to hang out your shingle – you have such an interesting business proposition! I know you’re going to succeed.

      Reply

  5. June 29, 2015 @ 1:12 am Lisa Sorrell

    Leslie,
    Great video! It was wonderful to meet you and I’m so glad you chose to attend.

    Reply

    • June 29, 2015 @ 3:34 am Wingtip Women

      Thanks, Lisa! Thoroughly enjoyed meeting you and your family. And LOVED seeing your amazing boots!!!

      Reply


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