These Boots Are Made for Making
by Eric Lach
How To Make Boots From Your Garage is not a shoe store; you can’t walk in off the street and buy a pair of boots. But you can learn how to build a pair. The shop’s proprietor, Olivier Rabbath, wants to teach you. “The fact is, it is possible to make up to a hundred pair of boots a month, in a space no bigger than a two-car garage,” Rabbath writes on his website, an aesthetic throwback to the days of Geocities.
The workshop occupies the first floor of a three-story brick building on a bare stretch of Hoyt Street, in Brooklyn. When I walked in on a recent afternoon, Rabbath, a lithe and agreeably profane French ex-pat in his fifties, was feeding his toddler, Gaia. A young woman worked quietly at one of the tables in the back. Raw materials — pieces of shoes, synthetic severed feet, which shoemakers call “lasts” — were strewn around the large room, interspersed with papers, tools, desk lamps, table fans, and a few pieces of heavy machinery. In one corner, above and around a small coffee table and couch, several dozen of Rabbath’s creations — boots, high heels, shoes, sandals — were on display, hanging upside down from the ceiling like bats. Some were extremely elaborate, like a gigantic, embroidered tan leather boot that looked like it rose up to the wearer’s waist.
Rabbath, who lives above the shop, offered me a beer and quickly began to explain the philosophy that underpins How To Make Boots From Your Garage. “It’s shoes, what part do you have to understand?” he said. “You need it! Boom. I make you a good shoemaker. Your productions — forget the talent — last fifteen years. You fuck all the companies. Because you’re doing good shoes. That’s it. It’s called a skill.”
Rabbath came to shoemaking indirectly. As a young man, he had been interested in political cartooning and painting, and made money by selling t-shirts — “funny ones” — to tourists in Paris. The business was so successful he opened a clothing store, called Illusion. After opening a second location, he began making shoes to compliment the clothes. His original attempts were so poor that “people were almost falling in the store,” he told me. Over time, he learned from his failures. “You cannot come back in leather,” Rabbath told me. “You have no right of error. Even stitching — same. You have one try, only. Which is ok. What is important is having a firm hand, and, mostly, no hesitation. Even if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Rabbath first came to the U.S. for a trade show in the late eighties, and as the decade came to a close, he decided to relocate to America in order to focus on shoes. He thought that his prospects would be better here than they were in France, and moved to Miami in 1989, where he opened what he called “my little factory.” There, he spent a decade “producing three hundred pairs a month,” he said. “So I have over thirty thousand pairs in my hands. Thirty thousand pairs. Sixty thousand shoes. And believe me, you know, you remember that.”
Eventually, Rabbath burned out; he almost “died of work,” he told me. He abandoned Miami, moved to New York, and spent several years tending bar, bouncing from apartment to apartment. While the Bush years soured Rabbath on U.S. politics, and he briefly considered moving to Australia, he credits President Obama with inspiring him to return to the shoe business. “When we got our president today, I wanted to believe,” Rabbath said. “So I invest all my money — I had almost a hundred thousand dollars — to do a school.”
How To Make Boots From Your Garage has been in business for nearly five years. In that time, Rabbath has instructed more than three hundred students. Rabbath’s website features photographs of dozens of his students proudly holding their creations. He currently offers classes ranging from a nearly four-thousand-dollar curriculum spread across forty hours that teaches people who want to “be in the business” of crafting shoes, to a basic course on creating a “dream slipper,” for seventy-nine dollars. In addition to giving classes, and renting workspace to former students, Rabbath also creates custom-order shoes, what he called “prototypes,” which can run five thousand dollars. One client, a fashion designer, asked Rabbath to make a pair of shoes where the right looked like the left and the left looked like the right. He showed me that pair, still in progress. They looked how they sounded, with the toes of each shoe pointing out in the opposite direction. Are they comfortable? Rabbath assured me that they were.
A few days after our first meeting, I returned to Rabbath’s shop to watch him work on a pair of special-order sandals he was making. The client was an old Italian woman who had one leg that was several inches shorter than the other. Rabbath made plaster casts of the woman’s feet and cut construction paper into a number of sloping, angular shapes. I watched as he took a pen and traced the shapes onto the backs of small sheets, or hides, of treated leather. Rabbath was using both black and white leather (it takes roughly two-and-a-half square feet of leather to make a pair of shoes), which would be stitched together to make the sandals. He reached for a box-cutter, then, leaning over the work bench, his hair falling over his face, cut into the leather with smooth, strong movements. The long fingers of his off hand followed closely behind the razor as it went along. He mumbled little thoughts to himself, and let out an occasional small sigh. When he was done cutting out the pieces of leather, he took them over to a “skiving” machine to pare down their edges.
After Rabbath had finished up, a man came in through the shop’s front door. He was interested in buying a pair of boots. Rabbath grew animated, and handed the man some pamphlets. He told the man that, instead, he could show him how to make his own boots. The man nodded. He’d think about it, he said, as he walked out the door.
Eric Lach is a writer who wears shoes.
Still from, of course