Shoe designer George Esquivel has one of those American dream stories. While driving a truck, Esquivel opened up a made-to-order shoe business in his Orange County garage. Celebrities came calling like Pearl Jam and Kevin Costner, then a slew of stores including Fred Segal and eventually Vogue (Esquivel was a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2009). Most recently Esquivel has been collaborating with a slew of designers including Maria Cornejo on shoes, designing for Fratelli Rossetti and fielding calls for the custom Oxford shoes he made for Janelle Monáe that she can’t seem to take off.
We sat down with Esquivel to talk about his origins as a designer, his thriving bespoke business and what’s next.
How did you start?
Rancid, Green Day, The Offspring: That was the music scene that I came up in, in Orange County. I couldn’t find any clothes that I liked at the time. My mom reworked vintage shirts for me, and then all of these guys in bands wanted me to start making their shirts. I didn’t really know anything about fashion. I had a really tough upbringing, living on welfare, my dad was in prison. I was never really taught to dream.
I was also into vintage shoes and I could never find anything that I liked. On a trip to Mexico with my wife, my girlfriend at the time, I walked into a shoemaker and I thought, wow this is so cool, and ordered a pair. I showed up two months later and picked up these crazy black and white spectators. I was blown away.
I was driving a truck at the time, doing repairs for linen stores. I used to see shoe repair stores everywhere and I thought, one of them must know someone who can make shoes for me. I went into one and met a shoemaker. He told me to come to his garage. He makes me a couple of pairs for me, I start wearing them and then my friends start buying them. That was how it at all got started.
How did it grow from there?
Six months later, my shoemaker is behind because of all of the orders we are getting. I ask him what I can do to help. I start organizing the leather. He shows me how to cut. The only thing I never learned how to do is sew. I basically became his apprentice for the next two and a half years. At some point someone wrote a piece about me, around 1995, then the stylist for The Drew Carey Show called, and then it just took off. We were making shoes for Drew Carey in my garage. Everyone wanted to come to my studio. I would say: We are under construction, we’ll come to you.
How did the business work at that point?
People were just placing orders. The styles were very basic at the time. We offered a wing tip, a 1950s spectator, but you could choose any color combination. Dr. Martens were about $120 at the time and my shoes were $200. I didn’t know what to charge. People kept telling me, George, charge more, but I was still learning.
After about two and a half years, I’m addicted. I’m constantly tearing shoes apart and thinking about how I can make them better. I know some other shoemakers who start making shoes for me. Around ten years ago is when it went from being a hobby to a business. I got together a group of investors and really started to think about the business end of it.
The last shoemaker I was using before I went in-house told me, George, you are driving the guys nuts. He gave me some machines and told me to pay him when I could. I called all of the guys that I knew, we would meet at night at my shop, by then I had a shop, and make shoes. We started with about 15 pairs of shoes a night. And now we are at a capacity of about 3,000 pairs a day. Little by little, we started hiring more people.
What do you consider to be your big break?
I remember getting my first order on Melrose. Fred Segal. Huge. I had gotten another order previous to that at American Rag, which was cool, but Fred Segal was the big time.
How did you become a shoe expert with no formal training?
I really learned the craft by apprenticing. Not so much because I love making shoes but so I could understand the process. It’s a really difficult process to make shoes. Some of my guys’ forearms are massive -- pulling the leather and stretching the leather, it’s very manual. I have my interns sometimes cut leather and after five minutes they say, my fingers hurt. We do everything by hand. We hand-cut the soles.
How does the bespoke part of the business work?
The client first visits my showroom. They need to see what we are about. If I go to them on the first visit they don’t understand how it works, and I am not a traveling shoe salesman. We meet and do a fitting and it can be complicated depending on someone’s feet. Football players, for instance, have broken toes and a lot of issues. 300 pounds stepping on you is a lot of weight and that can require special attention. We go back and forth making a prototype and once the prototype is approved then we make the final shoe. We also offer made-to-order shoes, which come in standard sizes, but you can customize the color. Soon we are launching "Luxury To Your Door." You get a catalog; You get a call from one of my salespeople or me to help you through the process; We send leather samples to you. It’s made-to-order, but without ever having to leave your house.
Your bespoke business is thriving -- and counts everyone from a Google co-founder and Amare Stoudemire as fans. Why do you think that is?
People want to be unique. People are coming to me because they want something special. One of my best clients told me, I go to every country, I don’t want people to have what I have. Currently our bespoke business is the biggest chunk of the business, but wholesale will surpass it this year.