My experience with shoes began at a cobbler shop in Bozeman, Montana. I will always be grateful to my original mentor Jeff Carter of Carter’s Boots and Repair (cartersboots.com). He built a shop full of beautiful leather goods. I fell in love with the work and the customer experience he created. So much that I dedicated my life to the craft.
I apprenticed under Mr. Carter for one year and then moved back to Lake Tahoe, California where I continued to work in shoe repair. Randall Tobey of Ye Olde Cobbler Shoppe was kind enough to offer me a job. I couldn’t have been happier to live in Tahoe. It was always the place I wanted to end up.
Hungry to learn more than just shoe repair I decided to take a shoemaking class taught by Bill Shanor in Ashland, Oregon (shoemaking.com). After one week I had made the most beautiful pair of shoes I ever put on my feet. It was clear my experience in shoe repair gave me a leg up on the other students. I thought to myself “I could be good at this. But I’ll have to get better. A lot better.”
So I moved to Denver, Colorado to work for the largest repair operation I could find west of the Mississippi River. I was one of nine cobblers working for Dardano’s Shoes (dardanos.com). My colleague Alberto Pallares and I were responsible for putting new soles and heels on 30-50 pairs of men’s shoes per day. Lots of volume means lots of practice. I am so thankful to Dardano’s for perfecting my skills. My experience there was critical to my success moving forward.
In search of a skilled shoemaker I visited Perry Ercolino in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (perryercolino.com). Mr. Ercolino took me under his wing and let me poke around his workshop while we talked shoes and fashion. He’s known by many as one of the best shoemakers in North America. He made shoes for President Obama, elite members of congress, and the who’s who of Hollywood, including the boots of Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Titanic.
When I wasn’t working I was making shoes at home. I had a sewing machine in the living room and a workbench in my bedroom. The photo studio was my kitchen table and my glue bench was in the garage. I was so excited to make shoes that I would sneak them into work and do the final sanding and stitching on the company’s machines. I did whatever it took to get the job done.
While in Denver I apprenticed under bootmaker Mickey Mussett of Ghost Rider Boots (ghostriderboots.com). I assembled parts and sewed patterns on the uppers of cowboy boots. I worked every Saturday in exchange for an education in custom bootmaking. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Mussett for your sincere guidance and detailed instruction. I wish more people would open their doors to those interested in shoemaking and the arts alike.
In an effort to test my skills I entered the annual Footwear Competition held in Ashland Oregon (shoemakingsymposium.com). To my surprise I was voted “Best Style” by three of the most talented shoemakers today; Marcell Mrsan, Lisa Sorell and Bill Shanor. That was such an honor to be recognized for my shoemaking and a huge stepping stone for me in my early career. Thank you to all the founding members of the Footwear Maker’s Guild.
By this time I had built a portfolio of handmade shoes that caught the eye of luxury shoemaker John Allen Woodward (johnallenwoodward.com) The self-employed wizard of 25 years in leather offered me a job that I was honored to accept. I walked away from the life of a cobbler and stepped into the world of high end fashion. I’m referring to alligator wallets that cost $1,400 or sting ray shoes that go for $4,500. The pressure was on when I worked for Mr. Woodward. No room for error when cutting into exotic hides and precious metals like gold and silver. Not only did he teach me the art of American luxury but more importantly the art behind fair and honest business.
My determination to learn continued. After eight months with John Allen Woodward I moved back to my hometown of San Francisco, California where I worked as a shoemaker for Beneduci Shoes (beneduci.com). Frank Beneduci is a brilliant businessman and a bold shoemaker who is doing exciting things for the craft. He was instrumental in helping me transition from shoemaker to business owner. Thank you Mr. Beneduci.
Amazingly, everything came back full circle at the shop I used to work at in Lake Tahoe. Mr. Tobey offered to sell me the business. It didn’t take me long to make a decision. This is exactly what I prepared for. The hard work paid off and my dream came true. There’s no better place to call home. Lake Tahoe is where I feel most alive, most creative, and most inspired. So please, if you find yourself here, do get in touch and pay me a visit. Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I hope to hear from you soon.
Kevin J. Leffler