Dan Huling and Annabel Reader aren’t your typical couple. For almost two decades Huling has been juggling chainsaws as part of the vaudeville troupe the Handsome Little Devils. Reader is a costume designer and part-time stilt walker.
They were looking for a way to slow down and stay closer to their Bellvue home. But Reader said they didn’t want to lose their artistic edge.
“We’re both creatives," she said. "We both need to make to feel sane.”
Then, on a trip back to her hometown in New Zealand, Reader learned about a shoe-making school. It seemed like a perfect fit.
This summer the couple opened the Colorado Shoe School. There, students can learn to make everything from complicated boots to a simple slide from start to finish -- or heel to toe.
This is Chris Mccullough’s first try at cobblery -- sort of.
“I made an attempt to make my own tap shoes once,” Mccullough said. “But that just consisted of me hammering some pieces of metal onto some old shoes, so I don’t think that counts.”
The dance instructor from Fort Collins is crafting a pair of canvas slip-on shoes as part of the school’s one-day slide workshop. He said he’s never really been into fashion, but the class has given him a new outlook.
“I don’t own any quote-unquote fashionable shoes,” Mccullough said. “Maybe this will be my only pair of fashionable shoes that I ended up making.”
For Fort Collins artist Andrew Bohn, there’s a sense of pride that he feels when he puts on the custom
brown and black-trim leather boots he made in Colorado Shoe School’s boot-making class.
“Every time, I feel like, ‘Mmm-hmmm, I made these boots!’” Bohn said, adding that he often gets asked about them. Once he was even stopped by a cobbler.
“I’ve never gotten compliments on my footwear before, ever,” he said.
Taking the class was also a chance to connect with something Bohn said he -- and a lot of others -- take for granted.
“It’s been this abstraction, this industrialization, this handing things off,” he said. “We don’t know where our food comes from, we don’t know how the thermostat works in our house, we don’t know all of these little practicalities that are our everyday life and once everything becomes an abstraction, I feel like it leaves a void, it leaves an emptiness. So I think people are hungry for reconnecting to their world.”
Part of the school’s mission is to use repurposed and recycled materials. Thrift store leather jackets, old handbags, even old conveyor belts are all used to make the shoes, Reader said. One of her favorite materials to make shoes from is a paint-splattered, canvas drop-cloth. Reader rescued it from the landfill after taking part in a costume design exhibition at the Denver Museum of Art.
So why use repurposed materials?
“Because there’s enough in this world,” Reader said. “All the resources are already here.”
Overall, the concept of shoe schools is gaining traction. There are now classes across the country on everything from de- and reconstructing sneakers to designing vintage footwear for historical re-enactments. But cobblery itself seems to have fallen out of fashion, Huling said, adding that much of the school’s equipment was purchased from cobblers either downsizing or going out of business.
“Where there used to be thousands and thousands of shoe repair shops, now there’s only a handful,” he said.
Sara McIntosh began making shoes in 1974. It started as just part of her self-sufficient lifestyle, which included growing her own food and building her own home. Eventually she was able to start a business making custom shoes.
“I think that shoemaking really provided a unique opportunity for me to do something that was a little bit different,” McIntosh said.
The job also gave her the freedom to move around. McIntosh lived in Wisconsin and New Mexico before landing in Guffey, Colorado in the late 1990s. Eventually, she ended up in Chicago. That’s where she got the idea to start a shoe school.
“Along the way in my 42 years of shoemaking, people had asked me what I knew,” she said. “I did teach a few people informally what I had discovered, but when I turned 60 I thought, ‘You know it’s time for me to really share the information that I have gathered over the years about shoemaking and pattern making and see if this is of interest to our culture.”
Since 2011, McIntosh has run the Chicago School of Shoemaking and Leather Arts. At the start, many of her students were people looking to get into shoemaking as a trade. Lately, it’s become more of a hobby, she said.
“It’s a bucket-list kind of thing,” McIntosh said. “I think there’s a romantic notion about making shoes that has occurred in our culture. Ruby red slippers and Cinderella and all of those kind of magical shoes. And it followed me through my career as well. ‘You make shoes? That’s amazing!’ It’s not something people expect to see.”
Statistics back that up. In the last five years, U.S. jobs in the shoe and leather industry have decreased by more than 30 percent. In Colorado, there were only an estimated 50 jobs reported in 2017.
But with the trade wars heating up, McIntosh said she believes skills like shoemaking will be in greater demand.
“There’s going to be a shift that more people in this country are going to be called upon to take on some more manufacturing jobs and get back to -- I hope that we get back to -- valuing that trade,” she said.
That’s why even though he gets asked about his shoes all the time, Huling said he wanted to go into teaching people to make shoes rather than just manufacturing them himself.
“Because a big thing for us is passing on a skill as opposed to just being another product that’s consumed,” he said. “In addition, people will be able to cherish their shoes more, know how to fix it when it needs to be repaired and there’s a little bit more of a relationship with the shoe -- even going to the extent of, you can write a little secret message in between the layers and no one will know it’s there except for you, a little mantra. It has that whole, a journey of a thousand steps.”
The Colorado Shoe School will be part of the Fort Collins Artist Studio Tour September 28-20, 2018.