By Gene Fowler
“Everything I do has rhythm,” says Anne Marika Verploegh Chassé of STIEFELwerk, a one-woman bespoke boot and shoe making company based in Brooklyn. “I have always been a maker and a collector of skills, and in shoes and boots I have found a perfect expression for my many talents. To think and build something beautiful and lasting in its functionality, applying traditional techniques in playful ways, suits me well. A touch avant-garde, a touch strange, truly labor-intensive and thoughtfully made with intent. This is who I am.”
Many of the leather artists or artisans I speak with recall younger years filled with endless, compulsive drawing or other creative activities in a visual context. But Marika has a background that was really rooted in the world of fine arts. Growing up in Switzerland, she was always drawing, sketching and painting. In Europe, where the presence of the Old-World masters is more of a living, breathing tradition, she at first grew to love works by such artists as Monet and Van Gogh. And though she resisted some artists at first, such as Paul Klee and the American abstract-expressionist Jackson Pollock, in time her vision expanded to include appreciation of their paintings as well.
The works of one European artist in particular, the Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, especially resonate with Chassé’s creative life today. Tinguely was known, among other things, for satirizing the age of automation, in which runaway technology overproduced material culture inferior to that made by older, slower methods. Marika deploys the same perspective in her atelier, making boots and shoes by hand and with “imagineering” flair.
In her hometown of Bern, Switzerland, she studied cultural anthropology and worked part-time as a teacher to support her artistic pursuits. For a time, she operated a music club. Two decades ago, Marika moved to New York to continue her art studies and pursue a career in the fine arts. “I fell in love with the raw energy of the city,” she says. “And I met such a diverse array of people, both ethnically and artistically, musicians, actors, deejays, people who were exploring, trying things out. I really felt that this would be the place to develop my own personal art.”
The hand of fate led her to the foot. “Out of the blue,” she recalls, “a friend passed along a flyer for a shoe-making course. And on a whim, I decided to take the class and see where it led me. I’ve always been a learner, and I’ve always been interested in functional art. Right away, I could see the physicality of footwear as a kind of 3-D sculpture. And, I also realized that I’d really always loved boots and shoes. I’d always regarded them as the foundation for the way that you walk into the world, and I’d always known that the way you felt about yourself and presented yourself to others started with how you stand and move, and with the fit and function of what you’re wearing on your feet.”
As she learned, Marika began making boots and shoes for friends. In time, she refined her knowledge and techniques by heading back across the Atlantic. Though she never had what she regards as a traditional apprenticeship, in which one studies with one teacher for an extended period, she learned through intensive studies with a series of highly-evolved makers. “It completely rearranged my whole life,” she says.
To support her ongoing gleanings of knowledge and techniques, she worked as a freelance bookkeeper for Brooklyn restaurants and businesses, often crunching the numbers three days a week, improving her maker skills the rest of the time, and taking off a month or so at a time to go work with and learn from accomplished artists. In London, she was introduced to the world of bespoke, hand-welted shoes by studying with James Ducker and Debora Carré of Carréducker Ltd. And in Sweden, she learned about derby and Oxford shoes, along with Chelsea boots, gentlemen’s side seam boots and field boots at the Melker Shoes workshop of Janne Melkerson.
Marika got into the Wild West world of cowboy boots with two of the best—Oregon’s D. W. Frommer and Oklahoma’s Lisa Sorrell. “They’re a different beast than shoes,” she says, “and every bootmaker has their own tricks. D. W. showed me how to build heels and utilize wooden nails. Lisa taught me about inlays, overlays and other techniques. And she also provided inspiration for boot designs.”
In Brooklyn, Marika took a master class on cemented shoe construction with Knoronya Shoes and Boots founder Marcell Mrsan, who made his first pair of shoes at the age of 14. Back across the pond, in Eastbourne, United Kingdom, Dominic Casey and Steven Lowe schooled her on the finer points of last carving at their Lastmaster House workshop. Mike Friton introduced Marika to the experimental niche of athletic footwear in his classes held in Providence, Rhode Island, and back in the Big Apple, Eustace Robinson amped up her skills in pattern making and design.
“I’ve melded all these teachings and more to evolve my own unique design language,” she explains. “And I’ve loved working with leather from the very beginning. I love the way it smells, the way it behaves and molds over your body. I love the fact that it’s made to last and the way it wears through 25 or 30 years. It really writes its own story. Nothing compares to leather.”
Marika has found veg-tanned leather more suitable for her purposes than chrome. “It changes more over time,” she says. “It’s more sustainable, and I like the way it darkens, the way time enhances its patina.” Her leather is sourced from Italy and from Pergama, a tannery in upstate New York, and other materials used in her boots and shoes are from Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom.
While Marika can create pretty much anything that a client’s imagination can conjure up, a fact clearly reflected in the images shown here and on her website and Instagram, she presently offers three, signature made-to-order styles for men and three signature styles for women. For both sexes the signature looks include the Chelsea Boot with Hand-stitched Back-seam and the ¾ Oxford Style Dress Shoe. A ¾ Oxford Style Lace-Up Work Boot with Hand-stitched Back-seam for ladies and a Derby Style Lace-Up Work Boot for gents round out the signature creations. All are made with vegetable-tanned leather.
“The lace-up boots feature indigo lining,” Marika adds, “and the shoes have beetle wing lace ends. They’re based on men’s shoe designs by Ferragamo that were favored by Andy Warhol. I saw his shoes in an exhibit.”
While she may find inspiration in some of the foundational styles of the footwear industry, Chassé also advances their 21st-century iterations with techniques not normally associated with boot and shoe making, such as screen printing, embroidery, Shibori (Japanese resist indigo dyeing technique) and Sashiko (Japanese stitching/repair/ embroidery technique).
Realizing the difficulties inherent in maintaining a bespoke boot and shoe business, Marika supplements her bottom line by teaching shoe making at the Rhode Island School of Design and at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. (Soon, the busy bespoke artiste will also join the Parson’s School of Design faculty.) Teaching also provides the engaging give-and-take with fresh young minds that she misses in a solitary studio practice. “I find that I can get too much into my own box of ideas,” she explains, “so it’s refreshing to put myself out there in an academic setting.” Her outreach and educational activities also include monthly, open studio events. Check the STIEFELwerk website and Instagram for details.
She generates additional income by repairing pointe shoes for Broadway and offering consultation in all phases of footwear history and construction. As she told Interview magazine last year, in a piece on the fashion industry’s borrowing from the tradition of the geta, a shoe worn by Japanese geishas, “Designers are really starting to think about the total look and seeing shoes as an expression of self.”
Marika has also participated in several shoe exhibitions, and her work can be seen in another show at the Rhode Island School of Design’s Industrial Design Gallery, which opens on February 27 with a 6 p.m. reception and runs for two weeks.
The STIEFELwerk (BOOTwork) website announces that the browser has clicked his or her way to pages that offer “Bespoke & Custom Footwear – With Attitude.” And by attitude, Marika reflects, she “means to express: individual, personal, unapologetic, adventurous, out of the ordinary, dancing to your own beat, taking pride in being yourself, not following trends, a little bit wild, a little bit different…”
It’s the attitude inherent in “making something that endures thousands of steps, walks, dances, adventures, moments in time….Something special, personal, unique, earthbound and beautiful in its imperfections, filled with raw, handmade energy….And I love the way that well-worn shoes and boots are reminders of past lives, adventures, dreams and hopes….This is who I am.”