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Style profile: George Esquivel's shoe-in for the CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund award?

August 27, 2009 |  5:12 pm

George-esquivel George Esquivel's shoe style -- classic leather loafers fit for either a Rat Packer or Sun Records star and featuring modern-day detailing and coloring popular among those who might have been known to wear a (sometimes) ironic workman's or bowling shirt -- recently earned his eponymous label a nomination for a CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund award.

An avid music fan, the Southern California native started small, selling shoes to friends at concerts and eventually to the musicians on stage -- and their friends. No Doubt, 311, Social Distortion; his client list looked like a 1990s O.C. teen's BMG mail order. And just like many of the bands he worshiped -- his start was in someone's garage.

"It was where my shoemaker lived," he says with a laugh when we talked on the phone earlier this month, mentioning how his teacher worked out of his home. "And my distribution center was my garage."

He's credited Desi Arnaz as an influence and loves what "Mad Men" has done for the resurgence of vintage fashion, but he won't mind a chuckle if you happen to call a pair of his handiwork "Duckie shoes," comparing them to the white-and-black pair Jon Cryer shows off in "Pretty in Pink."

Although Esquivel's poised with an opportunity to make men's shoes the object of desire the way women are willing to go into credit card debt for a pair of Christian Louboutin, he does have one small problem -- he can't decide which pair of his shoes he'll sport for the awards gala on Nov. 16 ("I don't wear black shoes."). However, he did share some plans for the future of Esquivel Shoes. Continue reading for the Q & A.

Esquivel-shoes-boot You've moved up partly because of the music world. Was it all just social networking, in the traditional sense?

It really was the social networking. I think [my shoes] were a little different. They weren't the Doc Martens and the Creepers that everyone was wearing. It was Doc Martens-ish, but a bit more vintage. The Creepers were cool, but they weren't my style. This was kind of the alternative to something like this. They weren't that expensive because musicians who made it big were like "Yeah, give me five pairs."

It's still kind of the same thing today. I work with stylists, but I still enjoy working with musicians the most. Most musicians still really know their style and what they like. Actors have to get into an act, but musicians are who they are on stage -- it's how they express themselves.

Has your taste in music changed much over the years?

Yeah, totally. I still ... No Doubt was the first really big band that was wearing my stuff, but it's not like I listen to these guys every day. I'm a huge fan of the new bands that are out there, but I've been a big Ben Harper fan. And when can you stop being a fan of Johnny Cash? And then like the Killers.... I'm a huge fan of the Killers and those guys wear my stuff. It does evolve ... one of the bummers of getting older and having much responsibility is you don't have the time to seek out the new stuff. It has to be something really special.

How has your line evolved with your love of music?

I think all designers evolve because you learn more about the craft and the leathers and as you get older your style changes. I still do the Rockabilly and punk once in a while. When you're a kid, it's "everything sucks except for the music I listen. Who would ever go to so-in-so type of concert?" As you get older, it's "that's really cool." 

When you look at my shoes, they're still very American. And hey, we invented rock 'n' roll. I think I always go back to that. Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley -- they're all types of music, they're all rock 'n' roll. My styles have evolved to fit all the types of music.

So you've just grown up?

When I was growing up, there weren't downloads and Internet. You couldn't listen to a band from Seattle unless they came through town.

Do you think the Internet has affected clothing lines?

Maybe not line, but fashion in general. You go to Mexico and there's really cool kids in Mexico ... you go to Taiwan and there's kids in Taiwan. Now they can get on the Internet and get that look.

Have you incorporated different trends because of the Internet or travel?

I'm not a trend guy because I'm not bound by contract manufacturing. With me, we make everything in house. If I don't think a trend is cool, I don't have to do it. Usually I'll test a shoe on a made-to-order level, if a stylist or a celebrity or the stores are saying that's a great shoe, who am I to say it's wrong? I don't really follow trends unless it's meant for spring or fall.

I don't really look too much at what other companies are doing. I'm inspired by a lot of furniture and wood. I'm developing leathers, and I want them to look earthy and worn in. I'm interested in old suitcases, old jackets.

I think true luxury is getting exactly what you want -- it's my philosophy, not so much a brand. I do the same thing for the stores: Here are my designs, here are the sole types you design from. That, to me, is the biggest inspiration is working with creative people. Why not sit with somebody and let them come up with their own concept and idea?

How do you choose which materials to use? 

It's been a lot of trial and error. With my shoes, I'm not doing crazy new  materials every season. What we've been able to figure out is how to treat these leathers to look different each season. I want a leather that I can use not just for one season. I try to stay with leathers I'm familiar with, and we'll develop new colors and treatments to it. I add a new leather each season. I'm not in the rat race of fashion; my main focus is to be consistent. Leathers are trends. Colors are trends. I have access to everything I need, but I don't want to be the trend guy.

Are there any materials you won't use?

I wouldn't use like elephant or something like that. I was somewhere and I saw a pair of elephant skin boots and I was like what? I'm not really into doing something crazy just for the sake of money. We work with exotics like alligator and sting ray. I'm not going to do something crazy or weird. I hear there's a black market for crazy leathers, but I don't get involved with that stuff.

Esquivel-shoes-monica A while back it was reported that you designed a pair of $70,000 shoes. Have more offers like that come in? 

I sold a pair of $20,000 shoes recently and that shoe's going to a customer in China or Taiwan. I'm opening up a store in Beijing at the end of October and someone already ordered a pair of $20,000 alligator shoes.

I don't want to talk about stuff like that because people think that's all I'm selling. It's pretty cool, but that's what I'm doing. The $70,000 pair is still in development. The people that want it -- it could be a two-year process. There's someone in mind for that shoe. You can't rush them. It's not about "hurry up, let's sell the shoes." It's true luxury.

It's not my main focus of my business anyway; it's the regular guy who's coming in and buying all the time. Some of those projects are really exhausting -- working with a jewelry, a type of hide ... they want a special box for that shoe. For my part, the $70,000 shoe was already done, but they wanted more stuff on it. They wanted more jewels, but I don't know where to put more jewels.

You once told The Times you wanted a store on Rodeo Drive. How's that dream coming along?

You know what? I've changed my concept. I love, I love, I love what I have now, [with B.Spoke behind Douglas Fir on Third Street in Los Angeles]. I used to want [Rodeo Drive] because you're thinking "oh cool, I want a store on Rodeo Drive." That's not me. I want what I have on Third Street, but on a larger scale -- a true Esquivel house where people can see the shoes being made. There's a room with bags, there's a room with belts.

I'd like to dupe what I have on Third Street all over the country. There, you get to meet people. I've had so many cool people come by. Why would I want a store if the top stylists are coming through? That's my version of true luxury store. If I was doing production and had a lot of products to sell, then Rodeo would make sense. To continue what I'm doing, I'm trying to build kind of a fan base. I'd rather give them what they want and they'll be back. Douglas Fir has become such a partnership. I really love the concept of having a house.

Would you want to start that house in Southern California?

It's my backyard. Maybe in the next three or four years, I'd love to have a big house. [Something where] the car picks you up from the airport and take you to the house and you pick out all your leathers for all your stuff. I'm really not a guy's guy ... but i think it's something that guys want.

But not in the "no women allowed type of thing." The majority of my business is men, but I think it's starting to change now. I did men's shoes for so long, but now the women's is picking up. Satine is picking up my women's shoes for fall.

What designs did you submit to CFDA?

I did a catalog that had not just pictures of the shoes, it's the leather that we use for the shoes. We did a really cool green Norwegian calf book.

We picked this green because it's one I developed in Norway. This is my green. It's my color. It's something I burnished and learned how to make beautiful. I don't know if W get [the book] back or not.

Your style is kind of a rock 'n' roll take on a conservative look. Why do you think that appealed to Anna Wintour, etc?

You know, I've never submitted before and I think a lot of it has to do with that. 2008 was the first time I started working full time for my business.

I've been doing Americana for so long ... that's what I've been preaching for so long that that's what's going on right now. It might go away in five years, but that's fine.... The basketball players are coming to me and they don't care about trends, they just want comfortable shoes.

-- Whitney Friedlander

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Photos: Top: George Esquivel by Nate Napierala. Middle: The Boot, $800, available at Douglas Fir in Los Angeles. Bottom: The Monica boot, $950, arrives at Satine mid- September. Shoe photos by Vern Breitenbucher

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