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Do the Shoe You Drew

Gillion Skellenger teaches her design students to walk a mile in a shoemaker's shoes.

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October 27, 1989: It may be cold and gray outside, but Leon Beltran is making sandals. He's got them on lasts, the plastic forms over which shoes are fitted, and one by one he's gluing the straps to the sole. As he works, Beltran hunches over, his head practically touching the table on the other side of the shoe. He presses a strap into place, pulls it up, presses and pulls again until he's satisfied. But the leather wrinkles as he handles it, and by the time he's done with some pieces, they look like paper that's been crumpled up and smoothed out again. "This leather is not going to look very good by the time I get done with it," Beltran says. He frowns, but keeps working.

In the next room, Jenna Craig is trying to adjust the straps of her sandals. She's finished one of them, but the fit on the second sandal is giving her trouble. Like Beltran, she's using contact cement; later she'll nail the straps down more securely. Instead of using lasts, she positions the straps on the sole partly by looking at the sandal she's already finished and partly by following a muslin-and-cardboard model she made. Then she puts the sandal on her foot and adjusts the straps a little. She stands up and takes a careful step, testing the straps' location. But as she takes the shoe off, she accidentally tugs the straps loose from the sole. Craig has no choice but to start the whole business over.

Craig and Beltran are students. During their 15 weeks of classes in shoe design at the School of the Art Institute, they're required to complete two pairs. Of course real-life shoe designers don't have to make the shoes they design, but they do have to know how they'll be put together. So students in the Art Institute's class design and make shoes, but the actual construction is what takes most of their time.

The School of the Art Institute has offered the class for three and a half years. The Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology, both in New York City, are the only other institutions in this country to offer such a class as part of their regular curriculums. A few other schools offer their design students special programs, like internships with shoe companies. Shoe designers usually train in--and often come from--Europe. But thanks in part to Gillion Skellenger, about two dozen people a year also study shoe design in Chicago.

Skellenger, who started out at the School of the Art Institute teaching an accessory-design class, also designs shoes for Florsheim. She's been a shoe fanatic for years--buying them, reading about them, taking pictures of them, going to museums to see them. Seven semesters ago, she finally persuaded the school to let her teach a class devoted exclusively to shoes. Now she spends one day a week trying to pass on her enthusiasm to her students.

She's good at it, too. Skellenger's an outgoing, chatty person and a wild dresser with a penchant for big, arty eyeglasses and outrageous shoes. Over the course of 15 weeks, she tries to surround her students with as much inspiration as possible: The classroom walls are covered with magazine clippings, the closets are filled with pieces of brightly colored leather (donations, mostly from Florsheim), and each semester Skellenger brings in most of the books on shoes she's collected. Down the hall there's a resource room with more books and about a dozen pairs of vintage haute couture shoes, some on the verge of falling apart but all of them examples of some significant era or style.

Skellenger, who knows a lot about shoes, can't resist telling her students stories--about her favorite designers, her travels to leather tanneries, the inside scoop on the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. One of the first days of class is devoted to the history of shoes, complete with slides.

The first visual records of shoes are paintings found on Egyptian tomb walls, papyrus sandals dating from about 1400 BC. King Tutankhamen's tomb contained a pair of leather sandals decorated with jewels and detailed designs and pictures. Pressed into the soles of many Egyptian sandals were human images that represented the wearer's enemy, who was symbolically crushed with each step.

Shoes stayed simple for several centuries: if you lived in a warm climate you wore sandals, and if you lived in a cold climate you wore moccasinlike boots. Then, in about 300 BC, the Greeks started adding leather flaps--what we now call tongues--to their shoes. The flaps, which ran under the laces of sandals, were presumably for comfort, but as the first important change in the shoe's form, they must have opened shoemakers' eyes to new possibilities. Shoes were no longer just for shielding feet from the elements or symbolically crushing one's enemy: they could also be fashion.

From about 1066 AD (the Norman invasion), European styles changed about once every century. As the pace of civilization was stepped up, styles changed and innovations cropped up more frequently. In 1660, Englishman Samuel Pepys invented the buckle--the big kind most people associate with Pilgrims--as a replacement for the leather thong, which had been used to secure shoes for two centuries. In 1790 the French introduced shoelaces, and by 1791 buckles were so passe that 20,000 people were laid off in the buckle-making capital of England, Birmingham. A shoemaker in Philadelphia broke ground in 1822 by making the first set of lasts that differentiated the right and left feet; still, it wasn't until after the Civil War that the idea of right and left shoes really became accepted. Cowboy boots and rubber-soled sneakers made their first appearances sometime in the early 1800s. Then, in 1934, shoe styles came full circle: open-toed sandals became popular in Miami.

The shoe sizes we use now go back to the seventh century, when Britain began using the barleycorn as a standard of measurement. Three of them laid end to end equaled an inch, and depending on where you lived, anywhere from 27 to 39 of them equaled a foot. In 1324, King Edward II ruled that, by law, 39 barleycorns would be a foot and 117 would be a yard. (Because barleycorns continued to vary in size and shape, Edward's system was a modest improvement at best.) Using barleycorns, there were 13 inches in a foot, so 13 eventually came to describe the largest shoe size; sizes got smaller with each barleycorn, or third of an inch. Four became the smallest size, the story goes, because very young children wore leather "socks," not real shoes, until their feet were as long as four knuckles.

Shoe sizes gradually became more standard over the ensuing seven centuries, and width measurements popped up in 1880, when New Yorker Edwin Simpson came up with the first standardized measurement chart. Sometime in the middle of this century, Charles Brannock invented a foot-measuring device that became standard equipment for shoe salesmen; it not only measured width and length but ensured a good fit by comparing foot length to arch length.

You hardly ever see shoe salesmen use the Brannock device anymore, but Skellenger uses it on her students to order their lasts. Students get lasts in their own sizes so they can wear the shoes they make. On the first day of class, when the students get measured, most of them say they take a bigger size than the Brannock measurement gives them. As it turns out, however, no one's shoes are too small.

September 22, 1989: The first thing Skellenger's students learn is how to draw shoes. Drawing shoes well is a tricky business; what the designer puts down in two dimensions, the pattern maker--the middleman between designer and factory--has to translate into three. That means that the shape of the heel and the toe, the placement of buckles or ties or decoration, in fact everything about the way the shoe looks and works has to be clear. The drawings must be color, and shading a color drawing to make it look three-dimensional can be hard. Skellenger's advice to the class: "Take an old shoe and put a desk lamp just a few inches away from it; you'll see the light and dark."

The first things her students draw are their lasts. Their second assignment is to design two shoe collections, groups of shoes to complement two designers' fall lines--which means 48 separate sketches of shoes. Kim Brown, a junior with wild red hair who dresses in vintage 60s minidresses and bell-bottoms, designs strange heels for one of her collections. She draws shoes that look like guns, with the heels as grips. She draws heels that look like miniature human legs, and heels that look like layer cakes. "I'm interested in cakes," she said. "These are on a plate, so you can have a wedge cut out but the shoe is still steady to walk on. I thought I might make one of them a German chocolate cake."

Amy Isbell dresses in plainer clothes, mostly black and white, but the shoes she paints, in watercolor, are ornate and jewel-colored. The styles seem to belong in a medieval palace, and when she puts them on antique-looking paper with delicate watercolor borders, the pictures themselves become works of art.

By the third week of class, when everybody gathers around a big cutting table to present their drawings, they've got quite a collection. Some of the drawings are crisp and mechanical; others are purposely muddy and out of proportion, artists' renditions of shoes. But creativity without accuracy doesn't go over well with Skellenger. "This is a wonderful, beautifully alive page," she says about one drawing, "but this shoe, I have no idea what's going on on the other side. Never draw a shoe sideways. It's a cute illustration, but it's not going to show the pattern maker how to make the pattern." (Students are supposed to draw a three-quarters view.) Other students have other problems--soles and heels that aren't on the same plane, for instance. "Go back to drawing the last," Skellenger says. "I always tell students who have trouble drawing to go back to the last."

October 6: The third assignment is due today, sketches of the first pair of shoes they'll make--sandals, because they're the simplest. Not everyone will follow their sketches exactly, however, and that's part of the learning process.

Students have found lots of different sources of inspiration: Skellenger's history lecture, current fashion, even the Art Institute's armor collection. A couple of students modeled their shoes after the designs of Romeo Gigli, an Italian whose ornate clothes look centuries old. Jenna Craig is one of the Gigli crowd, and her shoes don't look much like conventional sandals. Brown leather covers most of her foot, so that just her heel, the tip of her big toe, and a bit of her instep are visible, the last glimpsed through three thick brown straps that connect the top of the shoe to the sole. On top there's an ancient-looking cross (a Celtic cross, she says) that's embroidered with gold thread and beaded with tiny gold and crimson balls and one bigger red gemstone. "My foot's pretty covered up," she admits. "I don't really like sandals that much."

Leon Beltran's drawing looks like the three-dimensional plot of some wild geometric equation. The shoes are basically a grid of thick black leather straps that cover the foot, but only one strap actually touches the foot, right above the ball. From ball to toe, the grid is rounded out from the foot like a light bulb; above the ball, the shoe gradually flares out like the mouth of a megaphone. "My surroundings while I'm designing influence me a lot," says Beltran. "I was looking out the window and thinking about the shapes of the office buildings over there."

As the class comes to a close, Helen Cho is still busy drawing the last part of her shoes: the sole. The tops, checkerboards of hot pink and orange, will sit on short platforms of cork wrapped in the same bright colors of leather. On the bottom, she plans to cut irregular wedges out of the cork soles.

Today students were also supposed to bring in a list of materials they thought they'd need. Skellenger will supply tools and, when she can, leather scraps, but for the most part students buy their own supplies: leather, soles, dyes, even cement. The supplier they use--I. Sachs, on Roosevelt Road--is the only big shoe-supply store in the city, and its inventory and service are inconsistent at best. Some students come back with second-rate materials and stories about crabby salespeople, while others rave about the great selection, the great service, the great deals.

Making a shoe is a lot like sewing a dress or knitting a sweater. That's what you'll start to think, anyway, if you watch Doris Akers work on one. Making leather form a toe, she says, "is just like when you're setting in a sleeve--you have to ease." She makes matching the grains of the leather on two shoes sound like matching the plaids on a jacket. She even compares making shoes to knitting the sleeves on a sweater: with sleeves and shoes, she says, it's important to do each step on both pieces before moving on to the next step; after all, a pair is supposed to match.

Akers, a longtime friend of Skellenger's, lives in Michigan, but she comes into Chicago one day every semester to teach Skellenger's class how to make flat pumps--closed-toe shoes. Skellenger knows how to make shoes just fine, and she's the one who shows the class how to put together sandals. But closed-toe shoes--the quintessential shoe, the shoemaker's shoe--she entrusts to Akers. Skellenger doesn't let her students make high heels, partly because it's difficult to get supplies but mostly because she doesn't like them. "They're uncomfortable and unfashionable," she says. A poster on the classroom wall says, "The ladder of success is harder to climb when you're wearing heels."

So Akers shows the class how to make flats. She introduces a few new tools, gives the students a few shoe-making terms, and puts together a shoe in front of them. Like Skellenger, Akers does her demonstration using one shoe, not a pair; both shoemakers have quite a collection of unmatched shoes. "Someday I'd like to make a pair," says Skellenger.

Like a dress or a sweater, shoes--whether flats or sandals--start with a pattern. Muslin is used to make patterns for uppers; cardboard is used for soles. With the pattern, the shoemaker is supposed to work out any fit problems. Then the pieces are cut, and the edges, or seam allowances, are skived--thinned with a knife so they're not bulky. Skellenger skives most of the students' leather pieces on a machine skiver, a metal appliance the size of a sewing machine, but for smaller jobs they can also use a hand skiver, a dull, round-tipped little knife.

Then the tricky part begins--the process of making the pieces look like a shoe, a process called lasting. The last sits upside down on a metal brace, a "shoe anvil," and basically the shoemaker wraps the upper around the last and glues it to the midsole, the layer of leather between foot and sole. The hard part is getting the flat leather to mold to the rounded last; this is where the fancy tools come in. When the top of the shoe is finally fitted and glued into place, the shoemaker nails the sole on with tiny tacks. The tacks are curved, so that when they hit the metal plates on the last, the ends curl over, all the way back into the sole.

Students aren't ready to make flats, Skellenger figures, until they've finished a pair of sandals. As simple as sandals are, making that first pair is time-consuming. Most students don't finish them until two-thirds of the way through the semester, and even A students usually require an extension to finish their second pair of shoes. "They learn how to do it with the sandals," Skellenger says. "They're working out all their problems with this pair."

It takes Akers, who's been making shoes for years, all day to finish one shoe, a shoe she had designed and cut earlier. "Obviously you can't rush through this," she says. "You can't say, 'I'm gonna quick put these soles on.'"

October 20: Helen Cho is skiving the square pieces of orange and hot pink leather that will make up her straps. The skiver, about the size of a nail file, pulls the leather off in little balls. It takes her about five minutes to skive a one-inch-square piece of leather. It has taken her two weeks to glue together the six layers of cork that will make the platform heel, which she'll then cover with orange and pink leather: "I'm going to be old and gray by the time I'm finished."

The students work at long tables, which are covered with brown paper to protect them from cement, leather dye, nicks from metal tools. Jenna Craig has finished stitching her straps together and embroidering her Celtic cross, and now she's taping the upper to the cardboard sole she cut as a pattern to see how they'll fit. She's frustrated because the sandals don't look like she thought they would, and the straps aren't fitting her foot right. "It's so different working with leather," she says. "It's just completely different than muslin. I need to learn how to perceive things better."

Stephanie Schweitzer is looking for thread. She wants lines of stitching across her wide gold metallic straps--to make them look "less shiny"--but she can't find the right color thread. The gold embroidery thread she has been using bunches up and breaks in the sewing machine, so she's traipsing back and forth, to and from the sewing machine, with a tiny scrap of leftover gold leather and several colors of thread: first peach, then rust, then brown.

Lorena Aguayo, further along than anyone, is nailing her straps to her sole. Her sandals have rows of straps, both narrow and wide, crossing her foot in two directions. In her drawing, the straps were blue, purple, and gray; on the shoe, they're green, gold, and gray.

Near the end of the day, both Craig and Cho discover that the masking tape they've been using has pulled some of the color off their leather. Which prompts Skellenger to remind the class of another danger: "I hope you all are learning about the problems of overcementing," she says. "You always want to be careful that the cement doesn't discolor your leather."

Skellenger first studied fashion and textiles at the Moore Institute, a design school in Philadelphia, in hopes of becoming a costume designer for the theater. Then she went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy. It wasn't the best school, she says, and she wasn't the best student. "I was thinking, 'The hell with college, I want to live.'" But she fell in love with Italy, and after the academy she got a job as a textile apprentice in Milan, where she stayed for four years. "That's where I really got my education."

Eventually she ended up in Chicago, where she started her own business, Gillion Skellenger Handbags. She designed fabric printed with seashells, feathers, flowers, geometrics--70s stuff--and hired students to print it and seamstresses to stitch it into purses. She also sold yardage to textile firms in New York that sold to interior-design places and fabric retailers. When printed cloth bags went out of style, she switched to shower curtains, moved to a big, out-of-state fabric printer, and expanded her business. "I had a rep in the Mart," she says. "I was big-time."

It was at this time she was hired to teach a class in accessory design at the School of the Art Institute. A few years later, Skellenger shut down her business: "I was running a business, not designing. I was rushing to do designs because a market was coming up. I wasn't an artist."

All these years, even as a student in Italy, she had loved shoes. "I would draw sketches of shoes and bring them to a shoemaker near my house in Florence, and he'd make up shoes and I'd wear them and love them. If I ever had any money, it went to buy shoes." She started taking her accessory classes on trips to Europe, where she discovered museums with shoe collections and even whole museums devoted exclusively to shoes. She took pictures when she could, slides she now shows her shoe class. "I'd also buy books on shoes. I wanted to know as much about shoes as possible."

It wasn't until she contacted Florsheim hoping to get samples to use in her accessory class that she met Ros Hommerson, the head of Florsheim's women's shoe division. Hommerson was so taken with her enthusiasm that despite Skellenger's lack of experience she hired her as a designer. About the time Skellenger started working at Florsheim, she convinced the school to let her teach the shoe-design class.

November 3: Amy Isbell is having trouble figuring out a way to fasten her sandals, thick-strapped Roman-looking things that come up to the middle of her shin. The upper is embellished with feathers and beads, and Isbell doesn't want to draw attention away from the embellishment with buckles. She was thinking about Velcro, but she's having second thoughts. "I don't trust the fitting with Velcro," Skellenger tells her. "When you walk, it pulls." She likes Isbell's other idea, a zipper up the back, but it's impossible to attach the bottom of the zipper to the sole. After a half-hour of laying straps and zipper on the table in different configurations, they finally come upon a solution: sew the zipper to a piece of leather near the base of the heel, and then last the leather.

Kim Brown's problem is figuring out how to keep her soles attached to the rest of the shoe. Like Helen Cho, she made platform heels, 13 layers of cork glued together about three inches high. Nails will pull right out of the cork when she walks, and cement isn't strong enough to keep all those layers of cork from pulling away from the leather straps. She'll have to screw the pieces together; today she's cutting an extra midsole to cushion her foot from the screws.

When Leon Beltran discovers that his sandals aren't going to stay on anyone's feet, Akers suggests adding elastic straps around the heel. He figures out where they'll need to hit the sole and cuts a pattern. When he finishes with them, he'll be done. Meanwhile, he's still fuming about the wrinkles in his leather. "Your construction's so much better than mine," he tells Craig, whose stitches are even, straps smooth. "I'm jealous."

Skellenger loves to point out the contrast between her work at Florsheim and what she encourages her students to do. "I tell my students to make beautiful, interesting, far-out shoes, and then I go off and design shoes for middle-of-the-road America."

Over the past three and a half years, Skellenger's students have made some pretty weird shoes: sandals modeled after the Saturday Night Live character Mr. Bill; flats inspired by the movie Dangerous Liaisons, with a fluff of cotton in the shape of a piled-up hairdo on the top; and shoes made to look like frogs, dragons, and watermelons.

The weirdest shoes in this semester's class are probably Beltran's giant, bulbous black grids. This is his third time taking the class, and this time he's acting like a true designer, making shoes not for himself but for a female size eight. He had to take the class again, he says: "I wasn't happy with what I did the first time. I was immature." This is the last time the school's curriculum requirements will allow him to take it.

Not everyone in the class is here to become a famous shoe designer, though. For fashion student Helen Cho, this class is a requirement; she likes shoes, but she'd rather be doing clothes. Lorena Aguayo is a photography student, and this class is just an elective for her, a diversion. Still, students from other departments sometimes make better shoes than fashion students, says Skellenger: "Some of the best shoes have come from sculpture students."

Some students absorb shoes heart and soul. Stephanie Schweitzer talks about shoes thoughtfully, as if they were some obscure school of philosophy. "I had a fight with a friend the other day about shoes," she says one afternoon. "I was trying to explain how shoes are important. He just didn't get it."

Jenna Craig has developed a sort of love-hate relationship with shoes. She's an impatient perfectionist, and over the course of putting her sandals together she has cursed, sighed, and stomped her feet a lot. "This was not as easy as I thought it would be," she says. "I mean, I didn't think it would be easy, but I thought I had worked out all my complications."

Where students go after this class depends--a little on them, but mostly on what's out there. Some of Skellenger's past students (including those who studied shoes in her accessory class) have gone on to apprenticeships in Europe and jobs for American shoe manufacturers Brown and Bally. She hopes to get Beltran a summer job with Sharlot Battin, a friend of hers who teaches shoes at the Fashion Institute of Design in New York.

But Skellenger refuses to attribute any of her students' good fortune to her one-semester influence on them. "There are teachers who are popular because they're entertaining," she says, "and there are teachers who aren't popular, but man, the students learn because the teacher is very clear and knows what they're doing. I find myself in the middle."

No matter how clear Skellenger is in class, her students often have to work out many of the difficulties themselves: learning how to manipulate an unfamiliar material, leather, or learning to make a pattern that fits their feet so they don't have to make adjustments at the last minute. Frustration is part of the process, and Skellenger tries not to insist on perfection; she praises students for their small victories, like finding the perfect buckle or not getting cement all over their leather. "They won't have to do construction when they're shoe designers," she says. "I don't want them to get too frustrated."

December 15: On the last day of class, the shoemakers are supposed to present their shoes. In true shoe-class tradition, not everyone has finished, but most are done. There are Beltran's grid sandals, and the plain black flats he made with curled-up buckram coming out of the sides like wings. Amy Isbell has brought her tall feather-and-zipper sandals and a pair of blue flats whose main feature is a glass eye surrounded by leather folds like eyelids. Kim Brown's platforms have blue and red stripes, and the straps are black with yellow stars. Her second pair of shoes, which she calls "the bee shoes," have yellow and black patent-leather stripes and toes pointier than most pencils. Stephanie Schweitzer's sandals look like they were made for a party, all black suede and gold with a red lining.

Skellenger gives them first a slide show on Chinese foot binding and then their grades. She can no more resist a few words of advice than she could have resisted giving the slide show. The good news: they're leaving the class with two pairs of shoes and a better knowledge of shoes than most shoe salesmen. And the bad news: "You're going to look at shoes differently; unfortunately, you're going to move to more expensive shoes."

Before they're all out of the room, she remembers one more thing: "Please don't wear your shoes until we get a chance to photograph them," she pleads. Slides of her students' shoes are as valuable to her as any of her museum slides. But she's probably worrying for no reason; it's the middle of December, and she's talking about sandals.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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