Cobbling together: the Brooklynites who gather to make handcrafted shoes

Former corporate fashion designers get ‘close to the product’ at Brooklyn Shoe Space, a shoemaking collective focused on sharing the ‘addicting’ trade

It turns out that there are a lot of heels in the shoe business. “You would be surprised how much [shoe design] in the corporate world is just copied! I was a little nobody and I wanted to say this isn’t right to the director of Topshop,” Elizabeth Dunn, a bespoke shoemaker and London transplant, tells me, her voice rising with emotion.

At Brooklyn Shoe Space, a professional shoemaker co-working space and collective that also offers classes for the public on how to make everything from simple moccasins to stitched oxfords and high heels, former employees of Big Shoe are hoping they can change the industry, one step at a time.

Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space in Williamsburg, New York City
Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space in Williamsburg. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian

As Keiko Hirosue, the founder, talks, three other shoemakers in the collective have made their way to the children’s table where we are sitting, sharing their stories of leaving the corporate design world to strike out for themselves.

The toddler-height table was added at the shoe collective when one of the members, Ritika Wahal, a designer of children’s shoes, asked Hirosue if she could bring her son, then only 18 months old, to the workshop with her. Hirosue responded by getting small furniture and toys to keep the boy occupied while his mother worked on her shoe line at the wooden worktable two feet away. These days, Wahal’s son continues to visit the shoe collective, where his mother makes him shoes in everything from fine crocodile skin to novelty leather which he picks out himself.

Brooklyn Shoe Space taps into so many aspects of the current zeitgeist – it’s a shared working space, part of the maker movement and marks a return to locally made, bespoke products while serving as a place for women’s empowerment and support – that it seems remarkable that independent shoe collectives are not popping up wherever young urbanites congregate. Yet.

All the women at the collective left corporate jobs in fashion design because they missed being “close to the product”, finding their own design inspiration and working with their hands, which they are eager to show me are calloused and abused from hours spent stretching leather over shoe lasts and hammering nails.

“My fiance says I have the hands of a 60-year-old,” Rebecca Heykes, a young shoemaker in a mod dress and boots of her own design tells me with a laugh. All around the workspace are in-process shoes, with hundreds of thin nails holding the leather in place, a testament to the hand-destroying work.

Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space in Williamsburg, New York City
Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian

While all the shoemakers can talk endlessly about the joy of designing and painstakingly creating a prototype, none of them want to spend weeks making 30 identical pairs. So recently Heykes and Hirosue banded together with several investors to open their own manufacturing facility, renting space near their collective in the increasingly upscale neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In keeping with the spirit of their collective, they hired their two factory employees through a program that pairs recent immigrant women with meaningful work.

The two factory employees, who had no background in shoemaking, were taught the craft and now make about 50 pairs of handmade shoes a month for independent shoe lines.

There is no room for fast fashion at the collective, where weeks can sometimes be spent on creating a custom shoe for an individual client. Hirosue and the other women are big proponents of American-made shoes, on a small enough scale to ensure quality and careful attention to every detail.

Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space in Williamsburg, New York City
Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space in Williamsburg, New York City. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian

They talk in hushed tones of Prince Charles’ John Lobb shoes, which they tell me are rumored in shoe circles to be the same pair he had made specifically for him more than 30 years ago. “He gets them resoled over and over,” Wahal tells me, leaning in closer.

Ultimately, Hirosue wants to see a change in how the US manufactures shoes, with prototypes made locally at collectives like hers instead of being packaged off to China or other countries that supply overseas low-wage labor to the fashion market.

But handmade shoes don’t come cheap. The shoemakers sell their shoes at prices comparable to those at high-end designer shops, with stitched oxfords selling for around $400, simple sandals for $200 and one-off totally bespoke pairs of shoes selling for around $2,000.

While they continue making inroads with fashion brands across the river in Manhattan and hustling to find new boutiques to carry their individual lines, all of the shoemakers regularly teach classes at the workshop to help ends meet during slow times. Shoemaking students come from across the US, Europe, Asia and Australia, with a split of 40% men and 60% women.

Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space in Williamsburg, New York City
Shoemaking classes at the Brooklyn Shoe Space in Williamsburg, New York City. Photograph: Maria Spann/The Guardian

Students typically spend five days learning the bare basics of shoemaking, walking away with an original pair. Hirosue herself started out as a hobby student, taking a quick class on fetish shoemaking when she first dipped her toe in the cordwainer waters 13 years ago. “Once you start making, it is so addicting,” she tells me.

The students who take classes at Brooklyn Shoe Space are a mix of those who simply want to make a special pair of shoes for fun and those looking for a little more technical knowledge before designing their own lines. “Everybody wants to be unique and wants custom everything,” Heykes explains, which has helped the shoe collective get about 10 inquiries a day from prospective students as well as designers. Being able to Instagram a pair of custom shoes and show off to friends also doesn’t hurt when it comes to bringing in prospective students, Wahal adds with a smile.


Olga Oksman

The GuardianTramp

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