Tradition and innovation

A couple weeks ago, a friend connected me with an online shoemaker’s forum.  After spending so many years very much feeling on my own as a shoemaker (other than my fantastic crew and a few colleagues I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years, of course…but that’s different), it’s been really fascinating and inspiring connecting with a number of other shoemakers all over the world.  And to discover other people who are as passionate about shoemaking as I am.  And damn….there are some talented people out there.  I truly am in awe.

One thing I’ve found rather interesting (and at times frustrating) is the difference between tradition in shoemaking and innovation.  I feel that I fall in the latter category – more by circumstance than anything, due to the specific field in which I find myself working.  I however feel there is an art to both traditional and innovative shoemaking (SMALL RANT: yes, I use the word art very intentionally.  It is my belief that shoemaking is an art, not simply a craft.  Anyone viewing this type of work as a craft is destined to not produce anything very creative or interesting, in my opinion.  Latch-hook is a craft.  Shoemaking is an art.  If you need the differences spelled out for you, talk to Funk & Wagnall).

Following the centuries old traditions of shoemaking is an amazing thing.  Personally, I don’t think I have the patience for it.  Nor the knowledge base.  I could also never make a living at it – certainly not working in the arts.  I have enough trouble convincing people to pay my prices for custom made footwear – I couldn’t imagine tacking on an extra 20 or so hours per pair of shoes.  However, I digress.  Perfecting techniques of traditional shoemaking is a fine and commendable artform.  And there are some true artists out there in this field.  I’m amazed by the number of such artists that I have been introduced to in the past couple weeks.

I will say, however, that equally as important to the traditionalists are those who innovate.  The ability to take traditional techniques and to push them in a new direction is not only essential in the line of work that I do, but a true art unto itself.  You can read all of the historical accounts of shoemaking you want, and I promise you that none of them will tell you how to make a pair of 6 inch red patent platformed mary-janes for a drag queen.  You have to be inventive.  You need to push the limits of what you know is possible and find something that will work – not only in the short term, but something that can be worn 10 shows a week for an infinite run.  You need to invent.

Traditionalists have my unending respect.  As do the true innovators.  Two sides of the same artistic coin.  Or, to quote Tom Stoppard, “as there are so many of us, perhaps we should say the same side of many coins.”  I love that movie.

One thing I do take a bit of exception to is the definition that some traditionalists will give to the term handmade.  While I understand where this is coming from (there is a ridiculous amount of factory made footwear that is adopting the moniker of handmade – it pisses me off as much as anyway.  I’m looking at you, Mr Prada) I do find some traditional definitions of what is and is not handmade a little, well, insulting.  For each and every piece of footwear that comes out of my shop, the lasts are custom modified (or occasionally even made from scratch); all materials are hand cut; sewn by humans (using industrial sewing machines); hand lasted; soled and finished.  Yes, we use some industrial-aged technology to aid in the process, so as not to add days to the timeline of each project.  And other technology intended to prolong our life expectancy.  Am I making things traditionally?  No, I am not.  I make things in the manner of an essentially self-taught artisan of the first quarter of the 21st century.  And in doing so – to be uncharacteristically egotistical for a half-second – I make some things that have never been seen before (perhaps not all good, but still…).  All made by hand – either mine or the very talented hands I surround myself with (or a combination there of).  Period.

Stick 400 monkeys in a room together and you’ll probably get 4 or 5 opinions of what actually qualifies as a banana.  There are those who would not consider yours truly as a true shoemaker.  Or claim that my shoes are not actually handmade. You know what I say? Shoe ’em.

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