Since all of Paris closes shop in August, I’ll be posting “by appointment” discoveries made during my summertime travels back home in the USA this month. Hope you enjoy this special summer edition with content from New York and Los Angeles.
Custom. Handmade. Shoes. Say those three words aloud and your mind hops a plane to the fashion capitals of Europe where couture cobbling has been celebrated for centuries. But don’t buy your brain’s tickets just so fast… The special new stomping ground for original, handcrafted shoes is neither in Paris, London or Milan, but in a back alley, by appointment shop in none other than Los Angeles!
Over the last fifteen years Southern California native Georges Esquivel—whose men’s and women’s shoe brand Esquivel Shoes was recently announced as one of the 2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists—has built a mini shoe empire to rival Europe’s leading luxury labels. The best part of all, it happened entirely by chance (ahh, you gotta love America!).
Years before “artisanal” became a marketing buzzword, Esquivel was reworking vintage clothes for his SoCal musician friends. An unexpected jaunt to a cobbler in Mexico spawned his first pair of custom shoes. His friends went wild and started clamoring for their own pairs. Before long Esquivel found a seasoned shoemaker in L.A. to build his designs. To cut costs, Esquivel offered to help out around the shop. “He said, ‘sure, take out the trash,’” recalls Esquivel with a chuckle. “So I went from taking out the trash to organizing the shop and cutting leather. Two-and-a-half years later I knew how to make a pair of shoes.”
That was somewhere in the mid-90s. Esquivel is kind of hazy with the dates (he wasn’t plotting a business, you see). Soon after he found himself an atelier where he could make shoes for himself, his friends and his wife (yes, I’m jealous.) Inspired by retro-fashion, punk rock music and the irreverent vibe of his city, Esquivel added it all to the mix. The result was an infectious, high-low blend of painstaking execution, classical cuts and kick-ass character. It wasn’t long before orders started coming in from all over the world. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, members of the band The Killers, and Diane Von Furstenberg, who recently went bonkers for the Monica boot, are just handful of his eclectic, well-heeled clients.
“There’s a new consumer and I’m the new brand for that consumer. What does everyone want these days? Individuality. That’s what I create.”
The secret to Esquivel’s success is the individualism and intimacy he offers his clients. “You go to any luxury brand and you don’t know who’s making your shoes, where they’re being made. I’m not about that,” says Esquivel, who still fits many of his full custom clients. After creating the prototype with his head craftsman, his team of artisans—using the finest hides, polishes and parts—makes every one of his shoe designs by hand. Because each shoe is crafted individually, there’s no upset to production or price point if the color of the leather, toe shape, insoles or linings are altered on the original design.
That means clients, including yours truly (my pair of all-nude Juliana hand-punched wing tips, above, are my new statement shoes for fall), can have their shoes custom-made easily and for little extra cost.
Q&A with Georges Esquivel, founder and owner of Esquivel Shoes
When an idea strikes, can you just create a new shoe?
Anytime I want. I conceive shoes everyday. Because I’ve been able to create this unique business with my own in-house shop, I’m spoiled: I can develop a new collection in a week. I can see what it’s going to look like without losing time between sketches, design assistants, production and sample makers. I can just talk to my pattern maker and tell him what I want and then have it in 2 days. The problem for most designers is that they have to go somewhere to get their ideas produced and are bound by all of the logistical restrictions. I don’t have any restrictions, which is really cool. I can literally do whatever I want.
Do you still make the shoes yourself?
My specialty is the burnishing, the leather treatment. I develop the first shoe and make it with our craftsmen and when it’s finished, it becomes our prototype sample. I’m involved in every step of the process.
California doesn’t have the handmade shoe reputation of a Paris, London or Milan. Has that been a handicap to you?
If it’s negative I don’t really engage. Listen, I have shoemakers that are 2nd and 3rd generation. Who’s to say that someone in London is a better shoemaker? We’re all people with skills; it’s just a matter of wanting to do something better or special. For the longest time I didn’t have access to the same materials, but now that I do, it’s a leveled playing field.
How do you feel your SoCal background has impacted your style?
I think that my upbringing brings a whole different sensibility to the shoes. In my opinion, the shoes from London all look the same. The shoes from Paris all look the same. My shoes, of course they’re mostly men’s shoes so you’re not going to be doing wacky, crazy stuff. It’s still a very recognizable silhouette or toe shape, but it has my rebelliousness in it and the SoCal punk influence, the rock n’roll, the music. It doesn’t have to be so dark and grey and dreary, it should be fun, it’s fashion.
Tell us about the different custom categories?
We have three tiers. First, is “full custom-made,” where I measure somebody and develop the last, the fit, and make a prototype. We adjust the last to their foot, made adjustments of the prototype. The starting price is $3000 but the skies the limit. If you wanted exotic skins or gold buckles, we can do it. Second is “made-to-order,” where you try a pair of shoes on tell us your size and you can pick your color, sole and upper design. They you have your “limited production” series that goes to retailers. But even the retailers can come in and pick out their leather or color. It’s very custom focus. Individuality is what we want to create with our brand.
Which models are you feeling right now?
One of my favorites is the Gaston boot. It starts off as nude leather from a beautiful tannery in Norway and we just rub in the colors. The boot is all one color with different shades of burgundy. I don’t like shoes to be so perfect and polished. That whole super sleek and clean thing just doesn’t attract me. I like more texture in my leathers. I’ve always wanted my shoes to look broken in and older, it adds character.
Where do your skins come from?
My skins are mainly European hides, from Norway, Italy, France and Spain. There’s a tannery in Norway that we use called Borge Garveri, that’s just beautiful. It’s a colder climate so the cows don’t have as many marks on them. They were just nominated as one of the top ten tanneries in Europe.
When did you venture into women’s shoes?
About two years ago my design assistant had me make a pair of shoes for her. They were basically masculine shoes, which I’ve been doing for my wife for a long time, and they looked really cool. So then I started researching and developing a little more to adapt our process to make women’s shoes. The toe shape, the heel height, and the weight of the leather— the construction is very different for women so we had to fine-tune that. It took two years, so this year, ’09, was our first to have a true women’s collection.
Number of toe shapes: 13
Model variations: 100+
Phone orders: Absolutely, most orders are conducted by phone.
Delivery time: Depending on complexity and client location, between 1-3 months.
Appointments: email@example.com, or call 714-670-2200
Prices:Full Custom ($3000 and up); Made-to-Measure or Ready-to-Wear ($550-$1000)
2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winner announcement: November 16, 2009