Asheville artisan Jessica Brommer might just be the next big name in shoes. But if her first and last never roll off the tongues of fashionistas, she’s okay with it. “I’m more interested in reviving an industry or being part of an industry revival than I am in having a fashion line,” she says. “I’m not out to become the next Manolo Blahnik.”
To be certain, she is a shoe designer. But above all, she’s a shoemaker — satisfied not to see her sketches come to life on the sidelines but with using her own hands to shape and sew.
“I make things,” she states definitively, citing an artistic childhood in Santa Fe that led to an impressive amount of creative career pursuits in adulthood, from silversmithing to painting. Brommer’s current offerings as Stalworth Shoes & Boots include custom all-leather pairs for both sexes done in mostly men’s styles — no sky-high stilettos. She soon hopes to move away from time-consuming custom work (ranging from 15-30 hours per pair) to a handmade ready-to-wear line.
Crafting shoes brings Brommer a unique joy. In fact, she’s been smitten since day one of her first shoemaking class at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 2007. “They’re fun to make; they’re exciting, challenging and really gratifying,” she shares. Although, there’s more to it: “They say so much about you. People are so picky about their shoes. People judge people by their shoes. They’re so culturally important to us, yet we don’t have any shoemakers left.” A
Dying Art: The Cobbler, The Tanner, and The Shoemaker
According to Brommer, the US was once a major manufacturer and exporter of shoes. We began outsourcing in the ’80s and now import more than 90 percent of what we wear. That means the once-thriving industry built around the master craft has crumbled, which adds to the challenge of being a shoemaker today.
For example, she says, finding good US-made leather is difficult now that many stateside tanneries have closed. It’s part wild-goose chase and part waiting game: If you do find a tannery here, supply is limited and your name usually goes on a waiting list. What’s more, our modern methods of raising cattle don’t equate to great hides. Animals confined and slaughtered young don’t develop strong muscles and thick skin, resulting in thin leather not great for shoes.
In addition to tanners, the broader industry includes toolmakers, cobblers, heel turners, and the all-important last makers. Brommer relies on lasts, or forms, to create her shoes. Lasts dictate a shoe’s size, heel height and toe shape. When you want to change one or more of those elements, you need a whole new form, making lasts an expensive hurdle to overcome in small-scale shoe production.
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the obstacles that get Brommer up in the morning. She sees the potential for a full industry renaissance. In fact, she’s already talked with a local woman interested in opening a tannery and working with area farmers who raise cows using methods that make for nice leather. And, she knows just how the possibilities would look realized: “I’d love to get not only a good shoemaking school set up but then have an apprenticeship program, and that would segue into a manufacturing scenario.”
An Oxford Education
Her plans are well underway. About a year and a half ago, she started teaching shoemaking classes in the basement of her West Asheville home — the walls are lined with sewing machines, tools, and an enormous line finisher for sanding, buffing, you name it.
“I’m certainly not a master shoemaker, far from it; I’ve got another 20 years of doing this before I could even begin to claim that,” Brommer admits. “But I figure it’s more important for me right now to pass on the knowledge I do have while I continue to learn.”
Classes have been a hit, with many repeat students. Because it’s a craft, beginners learn the basics before dipping their toes in design waters. Brommer teaches lace-up Oxfords or Derbys — styles differentiated by a nuanced placement of vamp and quarters, shoe section vocabulary taught right away. Students modify lasts so the shoes fit their feet perfectly. “I really loved learning this process, and I really love teaching it,” she says.
This summer, Brommer will take her beginning class on the road to Penland School of Crafts, July 20-August 5. Because she can’t bring along hefty equipment, students will use only hand tools, bumping up the difficulty a tad. She expects attendees won’t mind, noting, “At this point, people are really interested in learning how to do things in the old methods.” The class will be her first at Penland and her largest to date, 12 students, and has already sold out.
For information about future classes and to learn more about Brommer, visit Stalworth’s Facebook page at facebook.com/stalworth.shoemaker.