Jesse Thorn (left) and Raul Ojeda (right). Photo by Gordon De Los Santos.
In part one of our interview with Raul Ojeda of Don Ville Shoes in Los Angeles, we learned how he grew from shoeshine entrepreneur to master shoe craftsman. His new shop, Don Ville, named after his mentor Willebaldo Rivera, is the only storefront in the United States dedicated to hand-made shoes, crafted on the premises. I talked with Raul about the process of shoemaking at Don Ville.
In part three of our conversation, I’ll talk with Raul about why he thinks hand-crafted shoes matter, and why he’s dedicated his life to them.
JT: You mentioned that you took my measurements the other day. And we worked out a system. You sent me an e-mail when you decide to open the shop and said “Hey, can you write some copy for my website. You know, you’re a professional writer, you can handle that.” And I said, “Ok, but would you trade me a pair of shoes for it?” And you said yes--thankfully. Apparently that was your idea, too. So we’re now in the beginning of the process of making a pair of shoes. I want to talk a little about what that process is, because I think that people don’t have experience with this process at all. When I went in the other day, we started with discussing what kind of shoe I wanted. Then I stood on an art pad so you could draw an outline of my foot, which I think are things that people would automatically think “Yes, he’s going to do those things.” You also started taking measurements. What are the measurements that you take?
RO: It depends on the shoe. Since we’re doing a lace-up shoe for you, I’m really interested in the ball of your foot, medically known as the metatarsal line, which, when you look at your foot, it’s the widest part of your foot on both sides right where your toes meet the other part of your foot.
That area normally compresses or expands as you walk. If your foot is fully relaxed, you can compress that a half inch or three quarters of inch, without really feeling pressure or pain. When your full weight is on your foot, it spreads. That’s a very important measurement because I want to make sure that I have enough room to sit there comfortably and also to hold your foot when you start walking so that you don’t feel like your shoe is extremely loose. That’s the first, probably the most important one.
From there we go to the instep. The instep is right before the joint of your foot with your leg--it meets right at the joint. If you are fully relaxed you can find where the joint is, we normally take the instep measurement about a half inch below that, and it’s wrapped around the arch.
That’s really important also especially with lace up shoes, but when we’re doing an oxford, we have to be careful not to let that lacing line open like a “v,” because most folks don’t like the look of that. That measurement generally doesn’t change. So you want to make sure you take that measurement and apply it directly on the last so you have straight line that goes up.
The third measurement is the one that wraps around your heel and goes to just above the instep measurement. That’s also important to know how much room you will need to lace up the shoe and also to know how far up you can bring the top collar part of the shoe. With those three we have been extremely successful adjusting the last that we utilize for the shoes. When we do boots of course we have to take a different measurement.
JT: You then brought me half a dozen different last shapes. Example lasts that were various different shapes, different shapes of toebox--chisel toes, bulbous toes, pointy toes, and I chose my preferred shape.
Your next step is to make some kind of alteration to a standard last, in my case. Is that lasting process the same for all of the different services you offer? Are there people for whom you’re making a shoe based on a standard last or people for whom you’re completely manufacturing a last from scratch?
RO: Here we offer three different things. In your case, the lasts that I showed you are not existing lasts that we have, the ones I showed you are just examples. As you know, we recently acquired a really really old piece of equipment, a last-turning lathe built in the 1890s.
With that equipment we will take the last style you ended up picking and we’ll make a whole new last just for you. That’s our full bespoke service. We can build shoes on this last for you forever.
We can also alter a pre-made last for you. We have about 500 different styles of last, which enables us to really do a very good selection on the shape of the shoe that you wanted. If you had a concern about making the height of the heel any different, we could also change that or make the overall shape of the shoe.
We also have a lot of samples on the floor. If at any given point someone walks in and picks one of those shoes and we’re going to make them so they fit, we’ll look at it as made to order or made to measure. We’ll go through the same measurement session, but if we have that shoe on the floor that means we have full runs of those lasts. We’ll pick the last that fits the client better, and we’ll do some adjustments so it fits perfectly.
In your case, as I said, we approach it as a bespoke style where we’re going to make the last for you. Every now and then we’re going to do a run of shoes of shoes that will be ready-to-wear so if you walk in, and you’re a size 10, you put the 10 on and it fits well, you can go home with it. But we want to be more made to order, so we’re working on having more floor samples, so that we can later personalize and customize according to each individual case.
JT: The pricing here is variable depending on your level of customization. We’re talking about, for the ready-to-wear shoes--I’m working from memory here--it was around $700, $800, something like that?
RO: Correct. Yeah, we have some really beautiful loafers for $750. We also do some women’s shoes. A lot of our ready to wear women’s stuff start around $300. $275 we have some really pretty sandals. But men’s shoes, because, as you know, the construction is different, they normally will start about $700.
JT: Then, for the made-to-measure offering, you go up another few hundred dollars.
RO: Yeah. That is reflective of the additional work we’re going to do. And some money’s going to come out of our pocket also to make another last, because if you wear a size 10, to make a size 10 shoe made-to-measure, I would have to take my last, alter it, and remove or add volume to the last so it fits well. So I don’t have the size 10 anymore, I would have to replace it with my standard 10. So that’s the $275 fee.
JT: And then the further cost, the cost that you describe, with every single bell and whistle you offer might be around $2000, is when you’re manufacturing a last completely.
JT: That’s very different price than the prices for similar services from Lobb or Cleverley--some of the bespoke shoe offerings that people might get from a trunk show or something like that. Is that a function of the fact that you are making the shoes in house, that the “atelier” is in the back of the shop, and that everyone lives and works in Los Angeles, where you’re taking the orders, or is it just a function of you taking a smaller markup or what?
RO: A combination of both. Because if today, your show is a very popular show, I hope I don’t get a call. Because today I can take a job at John Lobb, and be part of the shoemaking group, and I feel confident I could go almost toe to toe. Of course I don’t have the decades of experience they have, but I can do technically the same work that they do.
That being said, if I give you a cost of $5,000 to make a shoe--me? Don Ville?--I’m confident that I will not get any orders. Because who am I? I’m not John Lobb, I’m not royalty, I haven’t been around 200 years. Same thing with George Cleverley.
We have to mark it up enough so we continue to be in business, to keep our doors open so we don’t lose money (laughs). We want to make more shoes, though. We understand that having a lower cost may be higher incentive to want to come in. We want to make shoes people can wear and enjoy.
Editor's note: here's Putthison's ep 2, featuring Raul.
Part III coming soon.