Known for the flashy custom footwear he has designed for rockers like Sean Lennon and the Kings of Leon, George Esquivel was welcomed into capital-“F” Fashion’s inner sanctum in 2009, when he was embraced by Anna Wintour and nominated for a CFDA Fashion Fund Award. This richly deserved acclaim was a Hollywood ending for the designer who grew up tough in Los Angeles, the son of a drug addict; but George Esquivel isn’t done just yet. His bespoke kicks for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh caused a sensation at this year’s NBA All-Star Game, and his ongoing design work for the storied Italian house Fratelli Rosetti has him feeling like “a kid in a candy store.” We talked to the designer—whose shoes are on sale now on Gilt MAN—about craft, Yao Ming’s toes, and the value of bespoke shoes.
We’re big fans of your shoes around here.
How is it out in Italy working with Fratelli Rosetti?
I’m out there every week. It’s going well. I’m like a kid in a candy store. Here in the States it’s really difficult to find anything for shoemaking. We literally developed all of our own… everything—except the leather. Whereas there they have this whole facility. It’s kinda fun, to be able to play with somebody else’s stuff.
How is the process, from design to construction, different from what you are doing on your signature line?
There it’s production. They do some parts of the shoe by hand, like the beautiful hand burnishing. They don’t cut the shoes by hand, they don’t mount the shoes by hand. The soles are prefabricated. That’s how you keep some of the costs down. In our shoes we literally hand cut, hand last, hand everything. We cut the soles ourselves. That’s also where you get the price difference. There’s a lot more manual labor in our shoes.
But like with homemade food, the handmade-ness is where some of the happy detailing comes in.
Right. Each one is a little different. And with a handmade shoe you get a lot more imperfection. You can have two or three people doing the same job but if they’re a little different, you are going to notice that. That’s the beauty of it. I can look at my customer and say every shoes is different. And it is! And that’s what I love about it. I’m not into the ‘90s perfection of YSL or Gucci, you know, how everything was so perfect and clean. That’s too much for me. I like it a little raw. More American. I think we like things a little disheveled.
A little sprezzatura for your Italian friends.
Has being inside Rosetti and collaborating with people like Maria Cornejo, Loden Dager, Timo Weiland, and Juan Carlos Obando affected your process?
You know, I’ve been consulting for a long time and that’s how I’ve been able to keep my brand small and pure. When you don’t have a consulting job you have to sell to people you don’t want to sell to or you say, we need to this because we need to pay the bills. I’ve always been blessed because I’ve always been consulting. Now, collaborating is kind of a different deal. I’ve been collaborating with people for a long time because it lets me be creative in a way I could never be within my brand. Like the Maria Cornejo shoes—the way they are made they have a little of the Esquivel aesthetic and some of Zero Maria Cornejo aesthetic. In the same way that for Juan Carlos Obando we made some crazy sexy high heels. If I was to make that heel, people would say, What is that? That’s not Esquivel. But when you combine his creativity and my creativity and my know-how of making shoes, you get this beautiful product. It does open my eyes. I think, ah, it would be fun to do that, but you also have to stay pure and true to who you are. I don’t want to be the guy who’s changing every season. I’ve been doing this for so long I know who I am and who my customer is. I don’t think my customers want this schizophrenic change from one season to next—oh, he’s making shoes for seniors… That doesn’t really translate to the message you want to send about who your customers are.
And your customer seems to understand craft, in the artisanal, hand-hewn sense. I think of you as being at the vanguard of a generation of young designers reclaiming age-old crafts that had fallen into obscurity and making them relevant and fresh again. Do you see that?
Within the last three years I’ve really noticed it. I’ve been doing this for so long and, don’t get me wrong, if I would have had the capability to go produce shoes in the traditional way I probably would have done that. Because [the way I do it] is really difficult. It’s one of those things that I just didn’t know any better. I didn’t grow up in the shoe industry. I didn’t go to school for fashion. You just don’t have those contacts, but I have been noticing it and it is a beautiful thing. Even in Europe—I’ve been talking to the Rosseti guys—and you’re not going to find a lot of 25-30 year-olds hand-making products anymore. In the States actually it’s coming back. But it’s something that second generation or third generation you go on to become a lawyer or doctor or something because it is really tough work to be working with your hands every day. For a country that is so heavily into production, they want everything to be perfect—because in production, everything is supposed to be perfect. I feel that, because a lot of our production has gone away, we’re going back to the core. We don’t really know what production is any more in the States so it’s kind of OK to make things by hand.
I’m fascinated by—as I think men are in general—the nature of apprenticeship. You studied under a master craftsman to learn a skill. Aside from having that mastery, why was that important to you?
For me it was two things: because of the way I grew up (my father was in prison, I was living in motels) it was one of these things that I never really knew what I wanted to do. I never really loved anything, and the moment I designed something and people started paying me for it I was hooked. I didn’t go into this thinking I was going to learn how to make shoes. The way the apprenticeship started for me was my guy was really backed up on orders and I asked to clean up the shop and from cleaning up the shop, taking out the trash, I started cutting and mounting, all these things. Next thing you know I know how to make a pair of shoes. About half way into it, I realize it would be very wise for me to know how to make this. Because once you know how to make something the design part is easy. People think, oh, I can design, but yeah, there is a difference between design theory and actually designing. If they can’t make it, what’s the point of it? You need to know how to explain it. That’s where I think I’ve been blessed because we’ve had some success because we know how to make shoes. You understand the structure and what you are capable of putting in leather, all the cool different treatments. I didn’t set out to learn how to make shoes but I’m glad I did. It’s a hard hard business. I have people who want to apprentice with me and then I tell ‘em what it’s going to take… I have an acquaintance who trained at John Lobb and for the first year and a half the gentleman who trained him just grunted at him. This was at school and we don’t really have a school so it’s a little bit more difficult for us to take on an apprentice and say we’re going to train you. It’s a huge investment because if you’re going to take someone on, you have to pay them—you can’t say, you’re going to work for free for a year and a half—and then six months into it they decide to quit. So you paid them for what? A lot of people want to do it, but you’re not going to get rich making shoes.
But I do feel as though people are coming back around to valuing the worth of a pair of great, handmade custom shoes.
It’s totally coming around. I’m really grateful. When we started we were making 15 pairs a year. You can’t survive on fifteen pairs. I’m also grateful that someone like Anna Wintour noticed us. That’s one of the things about being nominated for the CFDA [in 2009], she really is a big believer of craft. So many of these kids—I speak at SCAD and Parsons—and the kids don’t want to learn craft. And that’s the main thing. And I don’t think learning the craft means you’re going to make it for the rest of your life, but if you want to go into fashion, or even cabinet making, you appreciate it more. I guess it’s part of the schooling—to me it’s just a higher learning.
That’s why they call those of the highest level, masters. Like it is said of David Fincher that he knows how to do every tech and grip job on a set, when you master your craft, you are free to really go big.
So, let me play out a little fantasy of mine. If I were to come into the shop off 3rd in LA for a pair of full bespoke shoes, how would we proceed?
I think it all depends on how creative you are. I have some customers who say, I like that shoe, make it for me. I look at their foot and he’s a basketball player and he’s had surgery and it’s just messed up and it hurts. But let’s just say some regular guy walks in we actually offer two different types of services. We offer full bespoke and made to order. The made to order, you come in, pick your style and then you get to play with color, lining and soles and you get a standard size. I would say ninety percent of people are OK with standard size.
But so when LeBron and Chris Bosh and D-Wade come in you gotta make new lasts?
They’ve got foot issues. They’re running around on their feet all day and they want their shoes to feel like sneakers. They say, hey George, I need ‘em soft, I need ‘em padded, I hate that after the game I can’t put my shoes on. All of these issues come into play. Yao Ming’s got sixteen pins in his foot. When we were making his shoes it’s a special shoe—with orthodics that change every six months. Someone like that needs full bespoke, yes. You come in and sit and it’s maybe an hour and a half. It’s not about rushing to get this done. It’s about getting something cool that you’re going to be happy with. You come to the house I converted into a showroom, sit on the couch and we talk, about what you’re going to wear the shoes with, if you wear ‘em to work, are you a fashion guy, what you do for work—all of these things come in to play. By process of elimination through these questions we narrow it down to say three of four styles. And then we say, OK, what kind of toe shape do you like? We have five shapes. What kind of sole, leather. We also do a cork foot bed in all of our shoes. Some of these cost $2500. It’s molded to your foot, you love the leather, it’s just beautiful.
That’s what I’m talking about: A shoe for life.
If it’s a full custom I do all the appointments because I measure everybody. If we do a shoe party I will send my technician from Mexico where we make our lasts (this guy has been making shoes for 22 years—he’s a last master and he understands the foot on a whole other level—it’s a last craftsmanship in Mexico that was set up by Italians and it’s just insane. They even make lasts for Italians. It’s crazy). Typically the guy who is buying my shoes is a pretty busy guy. He doesn’t go from buying $200 shoes to $4500 shoes.
Is there a pair out there that you’ve made that is your favorite?
You know, these ones we hand burnish are really beautiful. There’s a guy in Orange County. His wife bought him a gift certificate for his birthday. He came in bought a couple more pairs of shoes. He let me walk him through—some kinds are kinda scared because they don’t want to take any risk—when somebody gives me the freedom to walk ‘em through the process and he really loves them you say whoa, I’ve got a customer for life.
What are you wearing right now?
I don’t have a lot of shoes. I get hooked on one style and I’ll get three or four pairs in that style in every color. So I’m wearing a cranberry (almost oxblood) hand burnished ankle boot. I have this one in white suede, burgundy, green, brown and a navy blue. When I’m done with ‘em, all my friends who are a size 10 already know to call. I always wear the hand burnished or nude leather. I’m 40 years old, I don’t need to be experimenting any more. I’ve found what I’m about.
A man does need to know what he likes and stick to it.
I think so. I’ll play around with my ties… I will say this: I do have way too many blazers.