by Gene Fowler
“And so that’s when I became the annoying English lady,” says Austin, Texas shoemaker Zoé Rios with a chuckle. A native of Windsor, the town on the Thames where the British royal family’s castle was built in the 11th century, the distinctly unannoying Rios was explaining how she came to be a “self-appointed” apprentice to cowboy bootmaker Greg Carmack at the Uptmor Saddle Shop, located in the Brazos River town of Waco, Texas.
“I studied fashion design at West Thames College in London,” Zoé recounts, “and while I liked the technical side of fashion, I hated the fashion industry.” Fast forward to 2006. Rios had been flying the friendly skies as a Continental Airlines attendant for the previous ten years. “I loved flying,” she recalls, “but I wanted something more creative, more engaging, and I wanted to spend more time with my young child.”
As a runner herself, she held a great interest in how one’s shoes affect one’s gait. And thus, living in Waco while her husband Chris Rios was an administrator at Baylor University, Zoé found herself at Uptmor Saddle Shop, asking bootmaker Greg Carmack if she could be his apprentice.
“He said no,” Zoé explains, adding, “but with my sewing experience, I got a job with the saddlery two days a week and my worktable happened to be right next to Greg’s. And that’s when I became the annoying English lady, asking questions about his procedures and the various kinds of leather as his self-appointed apprentice. Greg would sometimes roll his eyes at the time, but he laughs about it now.”
She worked at the saddlery for two years and over time began applying what she’d learned from the bootmaker to the art and practice of shoemaking. “I told my early customers that it might take me a while and only charged them for materials,” she explains. “There’s really no such thing as a self-taught shoemaker. It’s a complicated process to learn and you are bound to run into mistakes. So, you have to learn from people who know.”
She has also found books useful, such as Bespoke Shoemaking: A Comprehensive Guide to Handmade Footwear by Tim Skyrme. This 300-page volume by Australian shoemaker Skyrme appeared in 2006. “I especially used it when I was making something with which I was unfamiliar,” notes Rios.
In the early days of her shoemaking career, as she collected the necessary equipment, Zoé also made and sold handbags to help finance her launch. While still living in Waco, the shoemaker set up shop in Anthem Studios: a cooperative, multi-maker workshop located in the 1915 Praetorian Building. “Making a shoe look as beautiful as the shoe in the store — that’s the really, really hard part,” she told the Waco Tribune-Herald in 2014. “Fashion is the best kind of challenge. You want something to go with one’s wardrobe that won’t go in and out of fashion and is fashionable in a long-term sense.”
After the Rios family relocated to Austin, Zoé set up shop for a time in the back of a tailor shop, then late last year moved her worksite to a cooperative outfit called Hackerspace, where until recently she not only made shoes, but also taught classes. Subjects covered in the classes included beginning shoemaking, how to skive, working with different kinds of seams, pattern making and more. Tim Skyrme’s book, Bespoke Shoemaking, came in handy as a teaching tool.
While many of Rios’ customers seek her out because they simply want a well-made shoe with a customized fit, many also need special care due to bunions and other foot maladies or unique sizing issues. “If someone’s feet are completely normal, I will often tell them to buy their shoes in a store first. And then if they can’t get a fit they like, come back and see me. In order to make a profit these days, manufacturers are having to narrow down their selection of widths and other size considerations, as well as the variety of designs. So, the fit of mass-produced shoes becomes more problematic, and that drives the need for custom fitting and the bespoke industry.”
Recent disruptions to the supply chain in manufacturing have also inadvertently highlighted the need for quality craftsmanship and handmade shoes as a repairable, sustainable resource. “And that’s an important role, a creative need, that the leather industry fulfills,” adds Rios. “There’s something about the making process that makes people happy.”
Zoé stresses that, more than the individual shoe itself, it’s the relationship with customers that makes her industry special. While a customer will normally find their first custom pair to be a welcome change, the second pair is even better. And once a unique fit is perfected, she ends up making a capsule collection for many, if not most, customers.
The first pair will generally be “everyday footwear,” often made from water buffalo leather that the shoemaker acquires from Garlin Neumann Leathers in Hudson, New Hampshire. “It’s versatile and indestructible,” says Rios. The second pair is a little more about style and fine, beautiful shoes. “I’ll most often use Orion Calf, which is distributed by Greg Carmack, for that pair,” adds the shoemaker. “I’ve developed trust there with Greg—he’s really knowledgeable—and the Orion Calf is expensive, but exactly what I want. It offers a really high yield and it’s so consistent. I know what it’s gonna do. It’s so soft, like butter, it stays buttery all the time. And it comes in so many lovely colors, blues, yellows, pinks, reds.”
Oklahoma bootmaker and boot-and-shoemaker supplier Lisa Sorrell is Rios’ go-to source for “anything you can’t get anymore,” such as lavender kangaroo. “Lisa has been a tremendous support. The Honourable Cordwainers’ Company held a three-day meeting in Guthrie and we got to explore her studio and shop. She shared her business strategy for taking orders, demonstrated skiving skills and walked us through leather and shop organization. Later, during multiple emails, she helped me with boot patterns and designs. I don’t often make boots, but once in a while I make a pair for fit or other issues, usually for someone who is already a customer. In these instances, I’ve bought lasts from Lisa and then followed up with pattern and construction questions that she answers with extraordinary transparency. It’s really hard to put into words how much Lisa has helped me. Her honesty and vibrance have been the greatest help.”
Rios started making her own lasts in 2019, after commissioning a specially made sabot knife from BlackGuard Customs of Liberty Hill, Texas. Writing of her excitement upon acquiring the knife last summer, the shoemaker said, “I’ve been preparing for its arrival with push-ups and extra swimming laps, but it’s so perfectly balanced and sharp that I needn’t have bothered. It cuts through wood like butter!”
Utilizing the method developed by Bulgarian shoemaker George Koleff (1924-2002), author of The Lasts Designing and Making Manual, Zoé posted a short video of herself using the sabot knife on Facebook. “I have been in the shoe business for over 45 years and have never seen lasts made in this way before and completely by hand,” posted a British colleague in response to the video. “What wonderful skills. Well done!!”
Rios also praises the shoe-repair professionals in Austin. “My shoes can be resoled,” she notes, “which adds to the value and sustainability. My soles are generally a little thinner, which allows the shoe to maintain its structure better. Manufactured shoes will often have a thicker sole, which can be unhealthy for the foot as the sole wears down. It doesn’t provide support for the metatarsal bones.”
Like most shoe and boot makers, Zoé has studied foot anatomy and function in detail. For eight or nine years, she was a certified pedorthist before officially retiring from BOC Pedorthic certification. She has also conducted considerable work designing a new iteration of prosthetic foot, one which lessens or “removes impact from further up the kinetic chain.” In other words, “your body knows where the ground is through correct ground contact.”
Due to increased survival rates of veterans injured in global conflicts, the field of prosthetics has become more important today than ever before. A graduate student at Northwestern University is writing a dissertation on Rios’ prosthetic foot, and the shoemaker is also developing a shoe for the single amputee’s other foot that matches the tread of the prosthetic, while seeking corporate support for the project.
Working out of the Hackerspace collective, until ongoing coronavirus issues disrupted the relationship, Rios had access to metalworkers, woodworkers, engineers and other leather workers with whom she could bounce ideas, brainstorm and share processes. “The shared-space environment also relieved financial pressures.” When interviewed in late June, the shoemaker was looking forward to the adventure of evolving her next workspace situation.
Wherever and with whomever that may be, take my word for it. The honourable English cordwainer is not the least bit annoying.