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Jesse Thorn interviews Raul Ojeda of Don Ville, custom shoemaker in Los Angeles

post #1 of 48
Thread Starter 
Editor's note: Jesse Thorn is the founder and host of the long-running, recently retired pop culture interview series The Sound of Young America and cohost of comedy podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go!, and he recently launched a new show, Bullseye. He also produces Put This On, a video series and blog about dressing like a grownup that will soon begin its second season. Jesse has been a Styleforum member for a few years, and together with Put This On cowriter Derek Guy, he'll be contributing to Styleforum on an occasional basis, i.e., in the exceedingly rare moments when he's not in front of a mic or camera.

Jesse Thorn (left) and Raul Ojeda (right). Photo by Gordon De Los Santos.

There aren’t a lot of shoemakers left in the United States. When Raul Ojeda met one, he begged, wheedled and pleaded his way into an apprenticeship. His mentor, Willebaldo Rivera, was already in his 80s, at the tail end of a long career making shoes in Hollywood for folks like Charlton Heston and Bill Cosby. Raul spent years at Rivera’s side, learning the shoe-making techniques that Rivera only rarely used in his shop, which had over the years nearly stopped making shoes altogether.

When Rivera retired to Mexico, Ojeda took over the store, and focused on developing the shoemaking craft both in himself and his staff. His goal was to meet the standards of the European giants of shoemaking, but at home in Los Angeles. A few months ago, he opened one of the only storefronts in the United States dedicated to custom shoes, Don Ville, on a fashion-forward strip of La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles.

In our three-part interview series, we’ll hear about Raul’s journey from shoe-shine entrepreneur to master craftsman.

Jesse Thorn: I want to get a little bit of your history first. You’ve been in the shoe business in some form or another for about 10 years, but you were doing shoe shines on the west side of Los Angeles when you walked into Willie’s and decided to try and become a shoemaker. Tell me about how you did that.

Raul Ojeda: Right out of high school, my late teens, I was persuaded by a very good friend of mine to join him on a shoe shining venture. He was thinking about going over to Las Vegas and taking over all the shoe shine stations in the whole city. I got a little bit of training and we drove over to Vegas and we ended up coming back after 2 weeks because you cannot be in a casino if you’re under 21. I was just 18 at the time.

JT: A tragic miscalculation.

RO: Who knew?! So I got back to Los Angeles and continued to work shining shoes. I got so many clients that enjoyed coming and hanging out rather than just getting a shoe shine. We started getting a lot of customers--so many customers that I couldn’t handle it on my own. So we had more people, at one point four of us, shining shoes at the same location.

How I got into Willie’s though, was that I started to get my clients’ shoes to get them repaired because they trusted me more than a shoe repair shop. I shopped around for a shop to do the work for us, and one thing led to another and I started bringing the work over to Willie’s. I started mentioning it to some of my clients and people who knew it were saying, “Oh, those guys go way back.” They knew more about it than me at the time. So hearing comments like that, I would start to get more in depth with Willie as far as building a better relationship and a nicer friendship and started asking him questions about his roots and how his business started.

That’s how I found out the shop’s been open since 1956, and when it first opened its doors it was a made to order shoe shop. Just like what we have going on here today. At that time his biggest clients were movie studios and costume designers that would come and have him measure people, or have him go out to stars’ homes to measure them and then make the shoes, and he got really big and famous among designers. And did very very well for himself. At one point he had 10 people working at the shop.

In 1982 we moved over to our current location on Cahuenga, a much bigger place. The first shop was only about 700 square feet; the new shop is about 2,000. And although the business was still really big in custom making, there were so many designers and department stores, and all these other shoe shops started to provide a huge variety of footwear. So the custom shoemaking that Willie was really big on started to become more of an alterations place. A lot of repairs, a lot of adjustments, because now instead of hiring Willie to make the shoes, now they’re bringing a pair of shoes to trick them out a little bit so they can do what they wanted, and before you knew it we became a shoe repair shop; shoemaking was 10 or 15 percent of our business.

When I came in there, the shoemaking capabilities stood out brightly, and shined so much more than the other shoe stores that I had worked with in the past. I just wanted to learn more about shoemaking. That was in 2004, and I started to work on the weekends, come in and help out, just Willy and me.

We’d close up the shop and have lunch and we just became closer friends and closer friends. To the point that I wasn’t shining shoes anymore during the week. I only had one gig, we shined shoes for the Santa Monica police station. I started at 6 in the morning, worked until 10, then rushed over directly to the shop and just worked the whole day.

JT: Willie was already in his 80s by the time that you started working with him. Had he passed this 50 years of experience to anyone, or was he planning to eventually retire and let the shop just be a regular, old-fashioned shoe repair shop?

RO: I think so. When I got there, he was at the point where working hard wasn’t a priority anymore. For Willie it became such an important part of his life. He would look forward to coming to the shop, but not so much to working (laughs).

He was extremely selective with the people he would do work for. If he didn't know you, he would totally tell you to go somewhere else. It was a total old, cranky shoe repair shop, a place where you couldn’t find anything. I don’t think he seriously planned for what he wanted to do in his later years, at all.

Sadly, his wife had just passed a few months before I met him. He was going though a transition--making the decision on what was going to happen with the rest of his life. Here I came along and started spending so much time with him. It just happened so naturally. We’d be having lunch and he’d be like “Next week, I’m gonna teach you how to do Goodyear welting. You’re gonna come in early.” I think that I became so much like him; he always starts conversation by making references to something old, and we ended up never working on what we were going to do. Then he’d be like, “Next week, we’re going to again try to do Goodyear welting. So you’re gonna come in the morning, and we’re gonna show you how to wax your thread...” So what I ended up doing, I had to start a lot on my own and have him correct me on the things I wanted to learn.

JT: How many years did you work with him in the shop?

RO: About 3 years. And then in 2007 I took over the shop completely. I took over the management, and he would continue to come to work. Even today he comes into work when he’s in town. He now spends a lot of his time down in Mexico. But whenever he’s in town he’ll be all day in the shop.

Even when I met him, his stitching lines were not flawless and straight and I could tell that that pissed him off so much that he would commission somebody else to sew it. Because he didn’t want to acknowledge that his touch had been a little worn out, if I may.

Lasts and shoes at Don Ville. Photo by Gordon De Los Santos.

JT: There are a lot of shoe repair places in Los Angeles and in the United States but there are not a lot of custom shoemakers. When did you realize that you were doing something special and had the opportunity to provide this service that nobody else was providing? There are maybe 10 custom shoemakers in the United States.

RO: Really, there are probably a lot more custom shoemakers in the United States. But people understand that businesses are difficult. So people work very small--they have one or two clients per month and work out of their home, or share space with someone else. After researching how many shoemakers in Europe, you know, London, the UK, France, Italy, and even some Spanish people, they travel to the United States to do trunk shows and take orders for well-crafted footwear, I started thinking to myself, “Why is it European people have to come here to make shoes for us?”

There’s not a lot of us doing it. There aren’t a lot of people who want to work with more people than just themselves. I know most of the good makers in the United States. They enjoy working at home. They enjoy working by themselves. They enjoy dealing with one or two people a month.

I don’t want to just do one or two pair a month, we want to be doing three or four pair of shoes per day here at the shop. Here’s something that I don’t get about the traveling operations like John Lobb: when John Lobb comes to the United States, and I have clients that get shoes made by them as well--it’s going to take 6 to 8 months to maybe a year to get your shoes, because that one guy who’s gonna measure you is going to go home and he’s going to work on your last, he’s going to work on your pattern 3 or 4 months after they see you for the first time because they’re just so backed up. I really don’t know how much quality you end up losing over that time.

The system that we run here at our shop, we’ll take your measurements (we just did measurements for you a couple weeks ago). We started work on your last right away. We get it adjusted, once it’s adjusted, we trace the pattern, and we start cutting the upper. In less than 1 month we have the dummy ready for you to try on--your shoe.

I took your measurements on a Saturday, correct?

JT: Right.

RO: On Tuesday I was taking another measurement for someone else and we started working on the last right away the week after. It’s only four of us who work here in the shop. So it’s a little bit difficult for me to understand why you have to sit on measurements for 3 or 4 months before you get to work on them. I realized you just need to have a more competitive team to work with you.

We need to make it more accessible. Although the quality of footwear and the approach that we utilize is based on generations and traditions and research on how other shoemakers really approach construction of a shoe, we do the same thing. We’re working on the shoes as a team. I’m as qualified as the two other guys on my team to do the same work. I just want to offer that for a competitive cost.

I don’t personally know a lot of millionaires, who have a $100,000 laying around in the budget to buy shoes over the next 10 years, because that’s what shoes cost! You know, Europeans, John Lobbs are about $6,000. Our shoes, the most expensive are maybe $2,000, maybe $2,400 when we have to start a last from the very beginning. I really don’t see how you should be paying 3, 4, $5,000 for each pair of shoes. I think you probably wouldn’t even want to wear them.

We want to offer shoes for the many of us that love and enjoy wearing shoes. That’s the inspiration for this shop. We want to have people come over, get their measurements, and have the shoe that they really want to wear that fits very well.

Don Ville
113 N. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
323 932 9874

Part one of three.
post #2 of 48
Nice interview. Looking forward to the remaining parts.
post #3 of 48

Here's our second episode, which featured Raul (and was when I first met him). He's kind of an amazing guy.
post #4 of 48
He should travel.
post #5 of 48
Looks like somebody's getting a free pair of shoes.
post #6 of 48
Thread Starter 
Styleforum policy is that no payment in cash or in kind is allowed to be taken in exchange for editorial content. This policy is in place to preserve the editorial integrity of Styleforum.

Any "promotional articles" will be marked as such.

Although we're not Put This On, Jesse is, and you can read Put This On's policy as well.
post #7 of 48
When Raul opened the store, he asked me if I'd write some web stuff and fliers for him in trade for a pair of shoes, because he's not confident in his writing in English. I accepted because I felt comfortable that he was genuine in wanting my help and not wanting something outside of that.

He's never asked me for any coverage on PTO or elsewhere, or even suggested it. At all. He doesn't really do that kind of stuff. He's a classy guy.

I think my editorial policy (and record) are very clear.

This, by the way, is disclosed in the article and on my site, because I think that's important.
post #8 of 48
Originally Posted by patrickBOOTH View Post

He should travel.

I don't think that's out of the question. For the time being, from what he's told me, he's focusing on the LA market, which is really under-served for this kind of thing.
post #9 of 48
Will the next parts have pictures of yours and Raul's other in-progress shoes?
post #10 of 48
Originally Posted by StarterStyle View Post

Will the next parts have pictures of yours and Raul's other in-progress shoes?

Gordon was only there one day (actually before we planned this interview), so we don't have any shots of my shoes.
post #11 of 48
Is there any promotions for styleforum members?
post #12 of 48
This is great news. Thanks for the write up. Loved the video too. Raul comes across as a good guy.

Loved your video interview too, J. . Enjoyed the humor of the captions and the bearded guy. Its clear and comprehensive in presenting info for beginners and should appeal well to young guys who often are hungry for this kind of info. I think I've only clicked on Put This On once, but if this is what you're producing, I'll going to have to spend more time there.
post #13 of 48

Great interview! They mention at the end that the most expensive shoes at Don Ville are around $2000. Does anyone know how much the average price is?

post #14 of 48
Originally Posted by dkasper View Post

Great interview! They mention at the end that the most expensive shoes at Don Ville are around $2000. Does anyone know how much the average price is?

We'll get into that in the later parts, but it depends on what level of service you want - do you want a hand-made last, a modified standard last, or a standard last, do you want a standard design or a custom design. Full bespoke (hand-made last and custom design) is about $2K, a little more for non-standard leathers and such. Their made-to-order men's shoes are about $700 (that's picking up a design off the shelf and saying, "make me this in a 9B"), and their made-to-measure (with a personally modified standard last) start around $1000, iirc.
post #15 of 48
Originally Posted by shoreman1782 View Post

Styleforum policy is that no payment in cash or in kind is allowed to be taken in exchange for editorial content. This policy is in place to preserve the editorial integrity of Styleforum.
Any "promotional articles" will be marked as such.
Although we're not Put This On, Jesse is, and you can read Put This On's policy as well.

I'll reluctantly be the skunk at the garden party.

Apologies if I missed this, but I only see this disclosure on the PTO web site, at the bottom of the article. I don't see it up in the Styleforum article. To me -- 20 years as a journalist -- this is indeed a "promotional article."

It's intended to let people know about a shop for which PTO has traded services for goods. SOP in the blog and magazine worlds.

At any rate, good luck to Raul -- love to see crafts passed along, although it looks like he had to drag it out of of the old man!
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