Feats of shoemaking

Ingenuity is the very heart of Sapatero—a combination of scholarliness, curiosity, and derring-do that appeals to their customers.

Words  JOHANNA D. POBLETE


It’s casual Friday at the office. Raymond Villanueva, founding partner of shoemaking outfit Sapatero, is wearing a standout pair of handmade round-toe sneakers in matte black leather calfskin, with a contrasting white rubber sole. They’ve got a classic silhouette, with a hip, urban feel—one could easily imagine the dressy rubber shoes morphing into a smart lace-up derby or brogue. “They’re a prototype,” says Mr. Villanueva. “I’ve been wearing these nonstop for about a week.”

Mr. Villanueva can hardly contain his excitement at breaking in the precursor of a new casual line of shoes for Sapatero. “For the type of men that we cater to, we want to be in every outfit that they have,” he explains. Sapatero aims to provide the shoes a man would wear to his own wedding down to the pair he’d take on a mall run. For three years now, Mr. Villanueva’s unflagging enthusiasm for fancy footwear has pushed Sapatero into expanding to ready-to-wear and made-to-order, apart from their specialty business in bespoke shoes. His favorite catchphrase—“How far can we take this?”—usually heralds Sapatero striding past a new milestone.

This June, Sapatero opened their own mini-store in Salcedo, Makati. Furthermore, where they used to have an informal setup within the barbershop and haberdashery Felipe and Sons, now they’ve got a space for their shoe displays. It’s a far cry from when Mr. Villanueva would introduce himself to clients—usually grooms being styled by Felipe and Sons—and convince them to try on Sapatero shoes.  “In the beginning, it was just me hanging out there. I never got a display rack. I never got a sign,” Mr. Villanueva reminisces. He and his partners are also looking at opening their second Sapatero branch in Ortigas, while raking in orders from the provinces—mainly Cebu, Bacolod, and Davao—through their online shopping portal.

Mr. Villanueva, referred to as “the shoe guy” by his clients, imagines a rite of passage where grandfathers bring their grandsons to Sapatero for their first bespoke pair of shoes.HL_zapatero4

It starts with shoegazing

Right now, Sapatero caters to a healthy mix of local and expatriate shoe enthusiasts ranging from their late twenties to early forties. They are mostly businessmen accustomed to getting exactly what they want. “They’re old enough to know what they like, and they’re old enough to go for the things that they like, in the particular way that they like,” says Mr. Villanueva. This particularity lends itself well to the business of bespoke, where every detail is up for discussion. You can tell that someone’s a hardcore enthusiast when they ask, with furrowed brow, “How many stitches per inch did you use for your insole seam and your outsole seam?”

Given that he can hold his own when it comes to shoemaking shoptalk, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Villanueva is a noob to the industry.  A few years back, he’d been fine wearing a pair of worn-down Bally’s that he got “on super-sale at 50% off” for his senior prom, which lasted him all through college and his early professional life. This stubborn clinging to a serviceable pair of shoes wasn’t an indication of disinterest so much as frustration over a lack of choices, especially since he has narrow, flat feet and “would take forever” to find a good fit. “I like shoes. I’m very particular about what I would wear. I always had a thing against fashion companies making shoes because these would wear out quickly. And not to name names, but if you go to an expensive shoe store here, it’s all the same designs… Before I started Sapatero, it would take me about a year to be able to find a shoe,” says Mr. Villanueva.

The tipping point came during a family trip to Europe, where he encountered the dizzying array of choices for men’s shoes in Rome, Paris, and London. He pored over menswear blogs, researched the finer points of craftsmanship, got swept into shop after shop, and came back home with his bags full of high-end shoes. “I have an addictive personality, and when I find something very interesting—it’s a long, drawn-out process,” Mr. Villanueva admits.

Naturally, he became interested in shoe maintenance, going so far as to buy a valet kit to keep his shoes in good condition. When he “ran out” of shoes to care for, Mr. Villanueva started offering to shine the dress shoes of his friends and colleagues—and realized a lot of people made do with “really bad shoes,” even though they could afford a nice suit and wore an expensive watch. “It’s amazing how you look around and see a lot of people who are very well-to-do and doing something that requires a good impression—and they don’t have nice shoes.”

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Becoming Sapatero

It was inevitable that Villanueva, caught up in his newfound passion, became a shoemaker. “Entrepreneurship is a creative skill in itself but it’s always fascinated me when I met someone who is very, very good at one thing because it was simple, like Zen,” says Mr. Villanueva. “So when I was shining these shoes, I had the skill, no one else did. It was such a surprise for me. I wanted to take it further—be a part-time shoemaker. Just for me. It was a skill that I could learn.”

He paid a Marikina shoe factory owner for a month’s training, working with scrap leather onsite, studying each of the steps in shoe production. He learned of the glory days of the country’s shoe capital, when “every other house had a shoemaker, and people all throughout the Philippines would drive to Marikina to have a nice pair of shoes made.” It fed his fascination, and so he bought some secondhand machinery, which he installed in his garage, and from there took one-on-one lessons under a master sapatero.

Figuring that he needed better leather, Villanueva convinced 10 of his friends to pitch in to import Italian leather. To make the shoes for everyone, he hired pattern-maker Elsa Carullo, who doubled as upper-maker (a little-known fact: only women are tasked with making the uppers of Marikina shoes), and sapatero Ading Torres, charged with lasting and welting the shoes. Word got out, and enthusiasts came calling (one “fanboy” eventually becoming a partner). As orders added up, more specialized machinery was acquired (including a Landis Blake stitching machine from the 1950s), and the shoemaking team grew to nine people. When Villanueva started scheduling fittings at Felipe and Sons, Sapatero had already become a full-fledged business. It soon outgrew the garage factory in Quezon City and has since occupied a house in Marikina.

Bespoke clients range from an IT guy who needed something appropriate for his company’s initial public offering, to a lawyer with a meek demeanor but a very specific taste in blue suede shoes, to an imposing Spanish gent whose odd-shaped feet obliged him to wear Sanuks with his swanky suits. “He wanted to dress the part, but he couldn’t get anything. So we became good friends,” says Villanueva. A force of nature, the distinguished Spaniard was carried up the hard-to-navigate stairs by his bodyguards for each of his hour-long fittings, and bought around nine pairs of Sapatero shoes.

Villanueva says that there are nuances to the way a man shops, so it’s natural to have both modest and more luxurious items in his wardrobe. Ready-to-wear offers something off the shelves, with no fuss, that can be conveniently ordered based on the client’s size. Made-to-order also allows more freedom—he can ask for design alterations (such as the type of leather material, color, toe shape, etc.), or even submit his own shoe design—and order a pair made in his size. However, apart from the design and pattern considerations, bespoke offers the ultimate perfect fit: Sapatero takes the client’s foot measurements for a custom-built last, which will then be used to fashion a shoe specifically designed for his foot. This entails a couple of fittings, and much conversation, to achieve the desired effect.

“The clients that would buy again and again are people who appreciate the craftsmanship of the shoe. They understand that anywhere else, this service—of having someone measure your feet, create the last, create a custom pattern, hand-sew it to your specifications, so you can improve whatever design you want, we will let you design your perfect pair—will cost much, much more,” says Mr. Villanueva.

It takes at least two fittings, and a month’s lead-time, for Sapatero to deliver on a bespoke pair of shoes. Pricing depends on material and labor entailed. Made-to-order shoes, meanwhile, take two to three weeks to complete; pricing starts at PHP12,000. For clients in a hurry, ready-to-wear shoes are already available, with prices starting at PHP7,500.

HL_zapatero7Regaining what was lost

By offering such a diverse range of well-made products, Sapatero aims to “re-examine the way people view products that are locally made, so that these are no longer perceived as cheap or low-quality,” but at the very least “of decent value.”

It starts with the materials: They’ve vetted suppliers with more superior goods than those commonly available, importing laces from China, lining from Bangladesh, and full-grain leather calfskin from France, Italy, and England. While open to locally sourced leather, Sapatero patronizes its current crop of artisanal tanneries for their ability to make colors pop (oak bark tanning is preferred).

Though more labor-intensive and time-consuming, Goodyear welting, which involves more layers, is the construction method of choice for each pair of Sapatero shoes. Members of the Sapatero team are constantly in training to improve their skills. Villanueva isn’t the sort to “overcomplicate things,” but his dedication to shoe-craft is such that he wants to keep certain skills alive—or revive them, if need be.

Sapatero may have bought ready-made templates in five types of lasts—English round toe, almond toe, chisel toe, square toe, and pointed toe—but they’ve also created two custom lasts of their own. And shoes from these lasts will be unveiled in time for Christmas. In a case of talent drain reversal, Villanueva hired a Filipino last-maker who used to work for the Chinese company from which Sapatero had bought their initial five lasts to make the proprietary designs. “It was an experiment that took years. They’re not as common a shape as we’ve been working with the past two years,” says Villanueva. “Lasts are very difficult to make. It’s engineering and art at the same time; it took us a lot of trial-and-error to be able to make it.”

There’s very little pretense in what they do: If they don’t have the exact machinery, they cobble together something that works just as efficiently. If they don’t know how something is done, they Google it, learn as they go along, and deliver a product that they and the client can be proud of. It’s this ingenuity that’s at the very heart of Sapatero—a combination of scholarliness, curiosity, and derring-do that appeals to their customers.

They’ll take on any challenge, recently acceding to a client request for seamless whole cut shoes. Traditionally, wholecut shoes are made from a single piece of leather, with a single seam at the heel; already rarified, the seamless version has been referred to as a “unicorn” in men’s shoes. What seemed an impossible task became manageable for Sapatero when they soaked the leather to make it more pliable whilst wrapped around the last, painstakingly poking and prodding and evening out with tweezers so that no perceptible creases would mar its seamless perfection. “It’s a display of craftsmanship. The wholecut is more striking in its simplicity,” says Mr. Villanueva.

Such feats in the pursuit of the perfect shoe easily lend credence to Sapatero’s stated ambition “to bring back Philippine shoemaking, one pair at a time.” HL_zapatero6