Although it seems as though George Esquivel just burst onto the scene last summer with his CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund nomination, the LA-based, self-taught shoe designer has been honing his craft for almost 20 years.
The music-obsessed Esquivel got his start making one-of-a-kind shoes out of his garage for the likes of Pearl Jam, No Doubt, Perry Ferrell and 311 in the early ’90s, and today counts everyone from Janelle Monae and the Kings of Leon to Courtney Cox, David Arquette, Diane Kruger, Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl as clients (the latter of whom wore his-and-her Esquivels to the Fashion Fund cocktail party at Anna Wintour’s house in October).
Esquivel, 39, recently launched ready-to-wear shoe collections for men and women, hand-crafted in the same LA workshop used to produce his custom kicks, all of which share a classics-with-a-twist aesthetic (think: wingtips, oxfords, combat boots and the like rendered in funky color combos from seriously luxe leathers) and range from $650 to $4,500+ for bespoke. This month, the designer will present his F/W10 collection during New York Fashion Week and is scheduled to collaborate on shoes for the Loden Dager and Zero + Maria Cornejo runway shows, along with a few other still-to-be-confirmed projects.
Lauren David Peden: I know you grew up in LA. What was your childhood like?
George Esquivel: My childhood was pretty crazy. We grew up mostly in and out of motels, on welfare and food stamps. My dad was always in and out of jail and causing trouble.
Lauren: Wow, that sounds rough.
George: What would happen is, at the beginning of the school year we’d move into an apartment. Then half way through the year my dad decided he didn’t want to pay the rent anymore, so they’d evict us and we’d move into a [welfare] motel. There were seven of us in the motel room—I’m the oldest of five, plus my mom and my dad. The thing is, my dad at the time was making good money, but he’d spend all his money on drugs, getting high, enjoying life. And then he actually went to prison for murder. So I ended up going to 12 different schools.
Lauren: How did you deal with that?
George: I played sports and I tried to get good grades to be normal. I didn’t want anybody to know about my life. You know, being in high school you just want to fit in, and I never fit in.
Lauren: What sport did you play?
George: I played football; I wrestled one year. All of us played sports. I think sports were our saving grace of not ending up like my dad.
Lauren: I’m curious because you said earlier he made good money. What did he do for a living?
George: Well, my dad was actually a really smart man. At one point he spoke Spanish, English, and he understood French and German very well because he was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War—just one of those guys that’s really smart, could do anything but was just a waste of talent. So he would always get jobs working as a machine shop operator, in construction, making good money at the time, but he would blow all of his money on drugs or get-rich-quick schemes. What was really weird was that my dad had this really strong sense of morals. He always respected police, but he was a criminal. He would always tell us, “You need to respect the police officers and people in authority.” Maybe it was the military in him—but he never respected authority, which was really funny.
Lauren: Do as I say, not as I do.
George: Exactly, and it doesn’t really work when you have kids, because I used to look at him and think, ‘What a hypocrite.’ It wasn’t until I got older that I realized he was right about everything; he just didn’t do any of it [laughs]. My mom, who moved here from Mexico to marry him, finally kicked him out and now he’s just kind of this old guy who’s semi-homeless on the street. He was in a bad drug deal several years ago and is permanently disabled, so he doesn’t have to work; he’s got a metal plate in his head. He’s 63 and he looks like he’s about 85.
Lauren: That’s intense. Now, at what age did you first become interested in fashion?
George: Well, when I was a kid living in motels, the reruns that were on TV were The Monkeys, The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch and I Love Lucy, so I’d watch all those and I used to really think, ‘Wow, these guys look really cool.’ And then, remember the movie Taps with Tom Cruise?
George: That had a huge influence on me, and I wanted to go to military school after I saw that ’cause they looked so cool.
Lauren: You were, like, “I want a uniform.”
George: Well, when you don’t have clothes and you see these cool uniforms and their shoes are polished and they did the rifle thing, you’re thinking, ‘Man, that is so amazing.’ That was a huge influence on me. I was probably in junior high, maybe freshman year. But even watching TV reruns, I would always notice their shoes, maybe because I never had good shoes. We always had the fakes—we never had the real Reebok, we never had the real Nike, we never had the real anything. I think God has a pretty good sense of humor, given how he’s blessed me with amazing shoes. Now I can do anything I want with shoes, and I never had shoes growing up so it’s pretty cool.
Esquivel’s S/S10 men’s collection at New York Fashion Week.
Lauren: So how did you get into shoe making?
George: Well, I graduated in ’89 and right out of high school I was into the whole punk and the rockabilly scene here in Orange County. I used to buy vintage clothes and shoes, but I never found anything I liked in terms of new footwear. My now-wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, we were in Mexico and I saw a sign that said shoemaker, so I went in and asked if he could make a pair of black-and-white pointy spectators. They made them for me and that was it. I was hooked. And I was already buying workwear shirts—like Dickies and UPS driver shirts—and reworking them for all the local bands and my friends with my mom, who was not a professional seamstress but was handy with a sewing machine. We actually had a pretty good account base. I think I got up to 25, 30 stores around the country. But I didn’t know what I was doing; it was just a hobby.
Lauren: And how did the shoe line develop?
George: We were making all these shirts in my living room and selling them. Now the shoes come into play, but I can’t go to Mexico every time somebody wants a pair of shoes. So I did the research for about a year—this was before the Internet, so I’m driving around to all the shoe repair shops in LA—and finally found someone who could make them. Because everybody said, “Yeah, I can make them,” but nobody could make them the way I wanted them.
Lauren: What were they doing wrong?
George: They just weren’t what I wanted. But I didn’t have the words or the vocabulary to really describe what I wanted, because it was very new [to me]. I knew nothing about it, and you couldn’t go on the Internet and research shoe making. I had purchased a couple of books on making shoes, but how do you translate that into Spanish? All these guys are from Mexico. And at the time, I was still driving a truck for a chain of linen stores and doing all kinds of other jobs. Then one day I met a retired shoemaker who had shoemaking machines in his garage. He was a leather craftsman who used to make shoes for all the stuntman in the ’60s and ’70s, like Evel Knievel and these other guys. So he makes me a couple pair of wingtips. Next thing you know, all of my friends are buying shoes. From there it took off to the bands and everybody buying shoes.
Lauren: Was it just the two of you making all the shoes or did you have a little crew at this point?
George: No, at the beginning I was making them in his garage and what was happening was, I’d wear the shoes to concerts and people would say, “Where’d you get the shoes?” ‘Oh, it’s my company,’ and I would hand out a card with just my phone number. It didn’t even have a name; it was just my phone number [laughs]. ‘Cause everybody was wearing Creepers and Doc Martins at the time, and that wasn’t me. It was too much flash. So we designed a wingtip and an oxford and a cap toe. He would go buy scrap leathers, and every week we would meet and he’d say, “Alright George, from this leather you could make three full pairs or six half pairs.” It got to a point where he got behind, ’cause I was just selling them by wearing the shoes around town. I would walk into American Rag, “What are those?” ‘Oh, they’re my shoes.’ “Well, we want to place an order.” Just like that; it was the craziest thing. So I go to my guy and say, ‘They want to buy 50 pair’ and he says, “What, 50 pair?!”
Esquivel four-inch platform heels made for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund gala. The pleating on the black and purple Juan Carlos Obando dress worn by Esquivel’s wife, Shelly, inspired the shoe. The vamp is a hand-burnished pleated purple wrapped in this black supple leather with a rippled heel.
Lauren: And how did you get into the actual shoe making process yourself?
George: Well, at first when we got behind on the orders I’d show up and say, ‘What can I do to help?’ He said, “All right, take the trash out.” ‘OK, I did that, what else can I do to help?’ “Organize the leather.” And it went from taking the trash out to organizing the leather to “I’m gonna have you cut this leather. I’m gonna have you scythe this leather.” I became his apprentice, and he showed me how to make shoes over the course of two and a half years. Finally he quit on me and I found a couple other shoemakers who mentored me for a little bit longer.
So I would say eight years ago was the beginning of what Esquivel is now. When I started working with Fred Segal, I found someone who could really make good shoes; he’s an artist in a whole different way. Then he—my last mentor—finally said, “George, you’re driving my guys crazy. Here are some machines. You’ve got to go on your own.” And I went out on my own and opened up my shop about six years ago, and now we have anywhere from eight to 14 guys making shoes here full time.
Lauren: What’s the process for making a pair of shoes?
George: To break it down really simply, first you have to develop a last, which is a mold. That determines the heel height, width, toe shape, everything. Without a last, you can’t make a proper shoe. Someone introduced me to a gentleman in Mexico, who’s been developing lasts for 20 years, and their company uses all European machinery and they have a European mindset; there’s a lot of Italians that work there. So I learned from one of the best of last developing. From there, you develop designs or uppers that go on that last, and then you create a pattern, then you make a couple of prototypes—cut the leather, stitch it on. There are a lot of variables that go into a shoe. For instance, if the eyerow, where your laces are, is too far back, you’ll have a difficult time getting your foot in, and if it’s too far forward, it won’t hold your foot properly. If the last is too long, it’s not gonna be comfortable on your arch. If the width isn’t correct…I mean, it’s just all of these things. So you go from lasts to pattern making to prototype to cutting, sewing, mounting, and then soles. That would be the steps.
Lauren: Do you know what type of leather you want to use before you make the last, or does the last determine the materials?
George: It’s a little bit of both. I kind of have a vision. I usually create a yearly collection, and within that we’ll add or delete styles. For 2010, my inspiration is that famous image of the men building the Empire State Building, sitting and having lunch and reading their newspapers.
Lauren: Oh, the Lewis Hine shot of the men on the I-beam?
George: Yeah. That’s the inspiration for 2010. So based on that I started developing my collection. You look at what the guys were wearing—the hats, the clothes—and obviously you don’t want to use alligator hides for that collection. It has to be something that is still beautiful but a little bit worn, a little bit softer. Then based on that I’ll work with my existing lasts or develop a new last, and you start building around that. I would say 95 percent of the time I already know, because I have everything in-house, how that shoe’s gonna look. If I had to use an outside factory, I don’t know how the shoe’s gonna show up. But I’m 25 steps from my workshop. My office is upstairs, I go downstairs and I take a look at it. Or my guys come up and say “What do you think, did we mount this correctly?” I say, ‘No, I want this adjusted, I want that moved.’ Where in a traditional design world, first you sketch it, then you send the sketch to a last developer, then do a prototype, and then it comes back and the designer approves it or not. We do it all right here.
Image by Lewis Hine.
Lauren: And where do you source your leathers from?
George: My leathers are from some of the best tanneries in the world. One of my favorite tanneries is out of Norway. They’ve been family run since 1889. These guys supply other luxury houses like Louis Vuitton, and I work really closely with them to develop special colors.
Lauren: So even with the addition of ready-to-wear, it’s still a very small business.
George: It’s very small. You know, we want to do rare products, and when you think of rare, they’re exclusive and they’re in limited quantities. We only make between 1,500 and 2,500 pair a year.
Lauren: Esquivel is known for flats—you started with men’s shoes and then segued into women’s shoes—but what is it about flats that you love?
George: I guess I’ve always had in my mind that you’ve got to have a utility shoe. I’m a huge fan of high heels and all the sexy, beautiful creations that are out there. But for me—-and maybe it’s because of the way I was brought up—you have to invest in something that’s going to be very durable, wearable, so it’s got to be a utility shoe. Plus, it’s not how high the heel is that makes a shoe sexy; it’s how you rock it. It’s about the attitude. Utility with attitude is, I think, what makes my shoes what they are. My shoes are for going to work. If you’re a creative type—a writer, architect, graphic designer—those are the things that my shoes allow you to do. They let you be creative and take care of work. There are a lot of people that do amazing heels. I want to be the shoe that people think of like, “This is my go-to shoe that’s gonna take me day-in and day-out. I’m going to go make money with these shoes and take care of business.”
Lauren: Wait until Fashion Week, when you see everybody coming through your showroom in their ridiculous heels…
George: Yeah, but now everybody’s wearing my shoes and it’s so cool, you know. That’s what my shoe is about, and I think it goes back to that whole 1930s Depression era, when you couldn’t afford to have ten pair of shoes. I don’t think people need to have 20 pair of my shoes. Buy one or two; they’re going to help you get through this whole craziness that’s going on with the economy. That’s the inspiration for this collection. It’s not so much Americana; it’s the American worker. Now I would love to do heels one day, but for right now people want to get back to basics in terms of something that’s an investment. You don’t throw my shoes away. You resole them, you take care of them, you put them in their box, you put them in their shoe bags. That’s what I think we, as Americans, need to get back to. It’s about creating a new heritage.
Images by Irving Penn. Working men and their shoes.
Lauren: So what’s next on your professional agenda?
George: To me, this past year has been a blessing, and I want to be a good steward of what’s been handed to me, which is this amazing opportunity. I don’t want to look at it like, ‘Wow, I was in Vogue, and that was a cool party.’ I’m here to grow a business. I want to employ more people. I want to have a bigger shop. I would love to have 50, 100 employees making beautiful leather works, shoes and bags and accessories. So if I want to do that, I think the most important thing to come out of this is that there’s some really smart people that have seen designers like me come and go. I don’t want to go. I want to keep growing, so I want to seek their expertise and their advice and their guidance.
Lauren: Very cool. Any non work-related dreams or goals?
George: I think non-work related, I just want to do what we should all be doing, which is give more back. I’d love to start an internship program with at-risk youth. I’ve spoken at youth jail camps in the past, and I’d love to hire some of those kids as interns and show them a trade, learn how to make shoes. That’s one of my dreams. I’d love to help at-risk moms and mentor some kids. And not mentor them in terms of how to make shoes, just mentor in life.
Lauren: Lastly, I know you’re really into music. What is it about musicians that you find so inspiring?
George: Well, I think it’s just their creativity that inspires me, and it’s the craft of musicianship. For instance, No Doubt, they’re one of those bands—and I’m not saying this because I know them all and they wear my stuff—but I went to their show recently thinking, ‘Ah, I’m too old for this,’ and they put on a frickin’ amazing show. They are true craftsmen and they’ve mastered whatever they do. It’s really, really cool. I took my kids and my little girl is jumping up and down, my 12-year-old boy’s into it, my teenage daughter’s into it, my wife is into it, and I’m into it. And that’s when the craft has come together, and you’re thinking, ‘What a really cool band.’ That’s what I like. I like the craft of making music. If you look at my shoes, yeah you might like the style, but truly what is behind it, it’s the craft of the burnishing, the craft of the leathers and the textures coming together. So for me, it’s always about the craft.
“I’ve seen some beautiful pictures of Coco Channel in the ’30s, and she looks like a woman who’s getting stuff done. She looked elegant, but she wasn’t draped in layers and layers and layers—and she wasn’t walking around in ten-inch stilettos. She had a hat and a coat and a skirt, and there she goes. That’s kind of my inspiration for the 2010 collection: just getting it done and moving forward. Also, she overcame so much in her life. But what got her there was her craft and skills—using her hands and sewing beautiful objects.” -George Esquivel. Image courtesy of LIFE archive.
Esquivel’s S/S10 women’s collection at New York Fashion Week.
Lauren David Peden is the New York Correspondent for Vogue.co.uk and editor of The Fashion Informer. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Surface, Time Out, Allure, Plastique and many other publications.