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Stepping Into Shoemaking

Stepping Into Shoemaking

This spring RISD designers are taking advantage of a rare opportunity to dive into the world of traditional shoemaking – a highly specialized craft that's rooted in centuries-old European tradition. In Introduction to Basic Shoemaking – a studio offered by RISD’s Apparel Design and Industrial Design departments ­– Critic Marika Verploegh Chasse is teaching students how to make a pair of basic leather pumps, from start to finish. Once they’ve learned the basics, they will design and make a second pair of shoes to further expand upon their newfound knowledge.

“We’re uncovering the mysteries of what it takes to make a shoe,” Chasse explains. “Most people have no idea how their own footwear is constructed.”

According to the Brooklyn-based artisan, shoemaking is an intensive process that requires an enormous amount of patience – and sometimes spurts of brute force. After sketching a basic pattern, students use small knives to cut pieces of leather to fit the design. Then the leather is draped on a wooden shoe model (called a “last”), nailed to the sole and sewed together. Finally, students build a stacked leather heel and attach it to the bottom of the shoe.

“The process is very time consuming. It takes about 40 hours to make a simple shoe,” Chasse says. “Students are fumbling right now because they haven’t made footwear before. But they're making great strides.”

The shoe studio is teeming with work in process. Hammers, pliers, shavers, small knives, glue bottles – even shards of broken glass – are scattered across the floor. Sitting on metal stools, a band of students wearing dust-covered aprons circles around Chasse. Zoe Shi 14 AP holds up her half-finished shoe for a brief inspection.

“You have to pull out the nails before you can apply the next layer of leather,” Chasse explains. “But I’m so worried that it might rip,” Shi admits. “Don’t worry. The material is more sturdy than you think,” the instructor explains as she neatly removes the metal fasteners.

Across the room, John Bai 14 ID hunches over a drafting table as he vigorously scrapes the outer edges of a piece of brown leather. On his first attempt, the industrial designer accidentally cut the material too small to fit on his shoe model. “I need to try this again,” he explains as he wipes a bit of sweat from his forehead. “The measurements have to be close to perfect.”

Bai originally became interested in the studio after he spent time in Italy participating in the Wintersession travel course taught by Professor Khipra Nichols BID 78 and Critic Kathleen Grevers. For over three weeks, students visited galleries, studios and factories in Turin, Milan and Florence to study shoe design prototypes.

“I was envious of the artists we met who knew how to make these beautiful, high-fashion shoes,” he says over the sounds of light hammering. “I wanted to pick up construction skills that I didn’t get the chance to develop when I was in Italy.”

Zebinah Masse 14 AP is taking the class in conjunction with Junior Tailoring for Menswear, a course in which she’s designing and making an original jacket. For the final critique in May, the apparel designer plans to have her model wear shoes she’s crafting in Chasse’s studio. “I’m having good luck so far – though I’ve destroyed my fingers a few times when hammering,” she notes.

Joseph Escobar 13 ID is also running with the ideas formulated in the studio. By the time the class ends, he will make a pair of five-inch wedges using materials he routinely encounters in his industrial design classes: wood and metal. “I'm going to use a CNC machine to make the structure of the shoe. I’ve learned that there are many different ways you can address a wedge,” Escobar explains. “My design is going to be absolutely wild.” –Abigail Crocker