"When I made my first pair of shoes, it was strenuous. You had to hammer, and you're tired after that," says Alexandria Wills. "But then you put them on. They fit and they look great." Wills was hooked and wanted to salvage what she considers a lost art.
In April the Alexandria Wills Studio Showroom opened in a stretch of Fullerton Avenue in Logan Square near Black Oak tattoo studio, Burlington Bar, Park & Field restaurant, and Viking Ski Shop. Wills furnished her bright boutique with shoemaking equipment—hammers, swatches of leather, a large array of shoe lasts, and a sewing machine. On display are a collection of products made with non-toxic glue and the softest of leathers, sourced from a New York family-owned tannery that employs ethical practices. Signature pieces come in "hair-on-hide" leather, since the raw pattern makes each unique.
Shoes are usually made to order and range in price from $150 to $1,200. Besides footwear, Wills makes and sells fanny packs ($50-$65), bags ($95-$300), wallets ($30-$60), belts, keychains, jewelry, and even dog collars.
Twenty-three-year-old Wills learned how to create her own clothing from her grandmothers, both of whom had a knack for sewing. "It's always been natural for me to work with my hands," she says. While in high school she attended jewelry, sculpture, and ceramics classes—the latter in a South Korean boarding school far in the mountains. As a teenager Wills had a studio in the Flatiron Arts Building and sold her jewelry in craft shows all over Chicago. She then moved to New York to learn shoemaking. She bought equipment and produced hundreds and hundreds of shoes in a tiny apartment in Harlem. "I made plenty of shoes out on a fire escape," she remembers fondly.
After two years, Wills packed her belongings into a mini school bus and moved back to Chicago. "I realized that if I wanted to grow my business I needed a more affordable place," she says.
For $350 customers can attend a shoemaking workshop at the studio. On a recent Saturday afternoon, anaesthesiologist and amateur cook Tristan Levey, 30, learned how to tailor a pair of shoes to fit his own feet. "I have high arches and I spend weeks breaking in shoes, which causes pain . . . It will be nice to avoid that," he says. "This is slow food for your feet." v