Raul Ojeda knows quality footwear better than most of us know ourselves. After being entrusted with famed, much-mythologized Willie’s Shoe Service, it would seem that there was no other mountain to climb, nothing else to conquer. But here, Ojeda proves us wrong: he has recently started Don Ville Shoes, the next great name in customized and bespoke footwear. We caught up with Ojeda to ask him more about his history, his hopes, and what “bespoke” really means…and we managed to interview him without asking for an autograph. Which is pretty good, if you ask us.
RYE & RIVET: What’s the bespoke movement essentially about for you, and how did it first capture your interest?
RAUL OJEDA: Eight years ago, I met a man who taught me the craft of shoemaking— y'know, the typical, sweet ol’ man that just has too much time to tell stories. According to his life experience, the bespoke movement is not new; it’s the way things were always made. It wasn’t until the seventies that mass-industrialization helped to offer so many—almost too many—choices, and now we just go and buy from stores.
I was introduced to the custom made/bespoke life by him. He had friends in the garment industry and all of his clothes has been made for him, and he had custom furniture in his house… because you can pretty much have ANYTHING made if you know where to go. That’s what got me interested in bespoke. I set a goal of opening a bespoke shoemaking shop that would be able to make shoes for each of my clients individually. In a way, once you know what to look for, you realize that there are many places to get items custom-made for you… Kinda like how, after you see Exit Through the Gift Shop [Banksy’s documentary on street art culture], all of a sudden you notice all the street art in the city.
R&R: How do you get people interested? What do you think will make potential customers realize the importance of investing in quality items?
RO: Most our clients are referred by someone else. Even if the one who is referring hasn’t had us make their shoes yet, they know of our services and pass along the word. We also do social media and are working on our website (not finished yet).
Folks like to be well-informed. When you know the DNA of your shoe, you are more likely to care for it. When you acknowledge that our shoes are made just for you, you tend to wear them with pride. And before you know it, a few years have passed and the shoes are still in good shape—Only then do you realize that you made a good choice in having shoes made for you.
R&R: Part of your story is that you were basically apprenticed by Willebaldo Rivera (of Willie’s Shoe Service). These days, this type of learning-firsthand-from-a-master is a pretty antiquated idea, but it’s also a big part of what this bespoke movement is about. What did this unique experience bring to the table for you?
RO: There is no better way to learn than to start from the bottom. When I first worked at Willie’s, I couldn’t even thread the sewing machines. But I was patient, and my goal was just to learn shoemaking without any future plans—at the time, it looked like just the next step on my ladder. The best way I can express what I went through is using the “Karate Kid” metaphor—Where there’s an old man who can technically do anything he wants as far as shoes are concerned. He taught me to be humble. For instance, every time I achieved something new and cool, like creating a pattern on my own, he would inspect every millimeter and say something like “Yeah, this is good, but…well, you don’t know yet. Keep it up.“ My reaction was always, “Boy! This sure isn’t easy!” That’s an inside joke in our workshop now—“ It’s okay…you don’t know yet…”
R&R: The idea of sourcing American-based materials is also very prevalent in your business. What’s the thought process behind this? Is it heavily linked to the bespoke movement, in your mind?
RO: As far as U.S.-made products, I was given that idea by Willie also. He saw a big decline in business when the industry started bringing in much cheaper products from overseas, back in the seventies. We refuse to accept that we can’t find more U.S.-based materials, so we go out of our way to find national products, and encourage friends and acquaintances in this business to do the same. Turns out that there are many small businesses that have quality materials, which helps us to deliver the highest-quality shoes. I do believe it has everything to do with bespoke. I’ll use the farmer’s market metaphor here—It’s far more satisfying to know where your goods come from. Better yet, to be able to shake the hand of the person who makes them available to you.
R&R: What’s the biggest difference, that a customer will find, when investing in a pair of bespoke shoes rather than buying straight from the shelf? And what do you want to communicate most to your customers with your work?
RO: The difference between off-the-shelf shoes and bespoke is like the difference between a 59-cent burger at McDonald’s and a Baseball Steak at Mickey Mantle’s Steakhouse. It’s very important to keep in mind that off-the-shelf shoes are not all bad, that there are high-quality shoes sold in many boutiques and even in department stores. However, there is no better shoe than the one is made for you, no matter what materials are used. Don Ville’s Shoes are made with love and great materials, with the only intention that you get to walk all over in them and love it every step of the way.
Thanks again to Raul for answering our questions. For more about Don Ville Shoes, stay tuned here.