Thursday, March 11, 2010

Talking with Shoemaker Aimee Taylor

It’s not uncommon to meet someone who likes shoes, but someone who makes them is another thing altogether. San Francisco’s Aimee Taylor can not only be counted on to be wearing a truly great pair of shoes, she can work leather into her own dress, stiletto heeled or themed art shoe designs. Aimee answered some questions about her love of shoe making between returning from studies in Budapest and prepping for a gallery shoe in Point Arena later in the year.

DC When did you realize you could make your own shoes?
AT At the first shoemaker I apprenticed with, Paul Schulman's workshop in Mendocino. He was legally blind. Tunnel vision, so he could only see right in front of his face. Lucky for him that's all you need to be able to see to make shoes. The first time I went there I knew I could do it. I had been in shoe repair shops before, but never a shoemaker's shop. I saw him use the tools, and thought, ‘it's a skill. You just have to practice a lot.’ He wouldn't let me do much. It was an hour away from my house, and I'd drive up there and he wouldn't show... Or he would show, but I'd end up driving him around on errands, and we never made shoes that day at all. But that was my most important apprenticeship because it was there that I knew I could do it. It can be frustrating to find people willing to teach you. Shoemakers are a strange lot. They don't like to give away their secrets. How they solve certain age-old problems that come up in shoemaking... They all have their little tricks. An apprentice was never taught the whole process by a master, just a small part of the whole process, which has literally hundreds of steps. There's a lot to know.
DC You've been studying with some master shoemakers, how have you gone about finding instruction over the years?
AT A lot of it has been through the internet, actually. But initially I went to my local shoe repair guy who I took my shoes to for years. I was shocked when he told me that he had never made a shoe! He put me on to the blind guy in Mendocino. After that fizzled out I found Shoe School on the Internet. It's in Port Townsend, WA. Alan Zeborick and his wife Jayne run a week long course from their home. It's well put together and that was another step forward. There's an Australian guy who wrote a great book I bought online, Tim Skyrme. He would answer questions I would email him about shoe making.
But things really changed for me when I met my mentor and nemesis Marcell Mrsan. I found him online as well. I just would do searches to see if I could find any new shoe making information. He's Hungarian and I took the first class he offered in New York City.
I studied with him twice in New York. Once, August, in a muggy basement in Brooklyn. It was torture. He's a maniac. But it's a level of shoe making rarely found here in the US. It makes me crazy! Once I saw what he could do, I knew that's the direction I wanted to go. I want to be that good. That skill level takes years to even come close to. He is truly a master of his craft. His shoes are exquisite. To hold one in your hand is heaven. People fly in from all over the world to study with him, or buy his shoes.
DC You recently traveled to Budapest to study a time-intensive techniques used for men's shoes. Can you talk about that and how you'll incorporate that into your custom shoes?
AT Marcel invited me to study in Hungary for five weeks in the dead of winter. Which I did. I knew it would be torture and it was. I went with another shoemaker friend of mine. It was a surreal experience but I am glad I did it. It was like being in a Grimm's Fairytale. He would throw our work on the ground and tell us to make it again, but then not tell us what he didn't like about it. The tradition in Hungarian Shoemaking is serious business. They are not kidding. He was taught in a communist school— a two-year program which started when he was 14. He believes that shoe making needs to be taught the same way he learned. I disagree, but I complied.
What I learned though, was how to make shoes in a very special way. I love it. Hand welted, which means the upper is sewn onto the insole instead of glued. No one has been able to invent a machine that can do it. It has to be done by hand. The heels are held together with wooden pegs and the hand cut soles smoothed with broken glass. They are very special techniques. Ridiculously labor intensive, but I don't mind. I use hand tools I got in Hungary made by an 85-year-old toolmaker. When he dies no one will know how to make these special rasps and skiving knives and things. You just can't learn this stuff here in America. It's fascinating to me.
DC What type of shoe do you most enjoy making? How do you work with clients?
AT I never thought this would be the case but I love men's dress shoes the most. It's where the craftsmanship is really apparent. The top guys are so good. Their shoes are impeccable. It's all about the construction. If you see a shoemaker looking at a shoe, he always looks at the bottom first. That's where you can tell how skilled the maker is. If I am half as good as some of those guys in ten years I will be happy. When I work with a client I measure his feet and talk about design and leather choices. I have a limited number of lasts (the form you make the shoe on) so we talk about styles that work well in that shape and try to figure out something that will love wearing. Then I build up a last to match their measurements by gluing leather or cork onto an existing last and sanding it until its perfect. Then I make a pattern, then a mock up pair to see if the fit is right, this is just a quick cemented pair that I can adjust if needed until it's perfect. Then the final shoe is made. Once it's welted it can't be altered so you have to be 100% sure it's going to fit! The whole process can take months.
DC Who or what do you look to for inspiration in your work and designs?
AT Well I love John Fluevog. He's a Canadian designer that I've loved since the 80's. I constantly look at people's footwear, on the bus, walking down the street..EVERYWHERE! Magazines, on line. I think about shoes constantly actually. I found a website recently of some Japanese guy who is a collector of vintage bespoke shoes. He has them all photographed and catalogued by country of origin. I spent hours studying the designs of those incredible shoes. There is a Japanese shoe magazine that has some amazing stuff. The Japanese are my current shoe heroes. Their shoes tend to be so elegant, and well crafted. Those guys know what they are doing.
If you'd like more information about shoes by Aimee Taylor, write

3 comments: said...

It's not unprecedented to meet somebody who likes shoes, but rather somebody who makes them is something else inside and out.

Jessie G. Pulley

MagicalRay said...

Quite an interesting interview and take on shoemaking.
Esther Walking-Simpson

.tooc said...

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