IN 2008, Jeff Mandel blew my mind. A former IT guy who had become infatuated with the art of traditional shoemaking, he had recently started his company ExIT Shoes, where for $1,200 he will make you a completely customized shoe, including your own unique last, vacuum foam, and perfection-seeking fitting appointments that include a "trial shoe"—the shoe equivalent of a muslin fit garment. Having spent a great deal of time studying with the aging European masters of the shoemaking trade, he is one of the most knowledgeable people in the city, and probably the country. Like the couturiers whose handwork techniques are in danger of becoming extinct, shoemakers of this category are a dying breed, giving way to the factory-produced products that even high-end shoe boutiques like Portland's Halo Shoes traffic in almost exclusively. This week, however, Mandel is participating in a residency at Halo, where he will give presentations on the craft of shoemaking, the importance of choosing your leathers wisely, and a glimpse at a project in process.
Halo owner Nathan Newell, whose store is a longtime landmark on the Portland shopping scene and the first stop for most serious shoe-seekers in the area, has himself dabbled in shoemaking, an experience he blogged about on the Halo website. "It's hard," he says wide-eyed, before praising it as an education that heightened his admiration for what people like Mandel are able to do. Indeed, Newell's enthusiasm for craftsmanship is evident in his store—Mandel is filling in for permanent fixture Larry Olmstead of Entermodal, who maintains a position making and selling leather bags and accessories to Halo customers who enjoy the added thrill of looking behind the construction curtain.
As fascinating as it is to hear the well-spoken Mandel explain his interests, techniques, and what he thinks of the shoes you're wearing, it's an important distinction that what he does isn't all romance. A lot of people, he confirms, will come to him excited about learning the trade, but when they actually delve into the work it becomes apparent that what they are really interested in is designing shoes, not making them. Mandel's roots are in a culture where shoemaking was simply a trade role necessary to society, more akin to the science of the baker and blacksmith than the sketching of Christian Louboutin. His designs reflect an air of practicality, hewing mostly toward oxford styles in cheerful color combinations, with feminine styles available with modest heels (Mandel's frustration with the structural integrity—or lack thereof—of women's high heels is apparent, but he seems to address it as a constant challenge).
This weekend's lectures are a special opportunity to learn the background of a rarely seen culture of craftsmanship for makers and shoppers alike. It's an indispensable lesson in understanding what you are buying when you buy shoes. Jeff Mandel will be working at the Halo Shoes workshop through Wednesday, March 21. Lectures take place at Halo, 938 NW Everett, on Friday-Saturday, March 16-17, 1:30-3 pm.