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Inspiration Comes Between Wake & Sleep | Amara Hark-Weber | Artisan Shoemaker

Artisan Shoemaker

What does it take to be a shoemaker and how easy or hard is it to design and make shoes? This is one of many questions ask of Amara Harker-Weber during the tour of her shop at Hark-Weber Studio in St. Paul, Minnesota. Yes, a female shoemaker’s perspective on the craft of shoemaking in the upper Midwest along with a glimpse into the world of a shoe craftsman.

StitchnPost | Do you recall where you were when you decided to become a fashion designer? If so where?

Amara | I was in graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for graphic design when I took my first shoemaking class. When I graduated, I thought: the world has enough graphic designers, what if I tried to be a shoemaker?

StitchnPost | What is the difference between a shoemaker and cobbler?

Amara | Shoemaker makes new shoes. A cobbler fixes used shoes. Many cobblers make new shoes, and many shoemakers fix used shoes.

StitchnPost | What does fashion design mean to you?

Fashion design is about creating a home for an individual body that helps express who that person is. It is about creating confidence in every individual, comfort and ease of movement, and beauty. I believe we clothe ourselves to reflect and absorb the beauty around and within us. The better we feel as individuals, the kinder and more empathetic we can be towards each other. I hope that wearing beautifully made shoes will help my clients walk with confidence and clarity, and as they engage with the larger world, they will do so with kindness and respect.

StitchnPost | How did fashion design come to be your career choice?

Amara | After I decided to try it as a shoemaker, I gave myself one year to see if I could support myself with what comes out of my studio. At that time, I also made leather bags, and that helped to make ends meet as I practiced making footwear. Every year since then, I set new — and hopefully more ambitious — goals.

StitchnPost| Where did you begin your training to become a fashion designer?

Amara | The first class I took was at SAIC. That taught very basic footwear construction, with no talk of fitting, business, materials, etc. I went on to study with master bootmaker DW Frommer, and that was a more rounded entrance into the world of making footwear professionally, setting up a workshop, client relations, tool maintenance, etc.

Hark-Weber Studio | St. Paul | MN

Fashionable | Stylish | Trendy

StitchnPost | How long have you been a small business owner? And are you a shoemaker or a cobbler?

Amara | I started in 2013, so I have been working full time for myself for the past 7+years. I am a shoemaker.

StitchnPost | The art of shoe-making is no longer a sought-after profession and few professionals exist in the U.S. especially women. What is your take on the number of women that have chosen shoemaking as the profession of choice? In addition, what has been your experience as woman in the business of creating and designing shoes?

Amara | My gender has not been an issue for my work, but it has been my only experience. That said, I do not look like the person that may come to mind when one thinks: Shoemaker. While there may have been more ease in some interactions with tailors, distributors, and some peers had I not been female, my clients are extremely respectful. I didn’t even realize how few professional female shoemakers there were until I wrote an article a few years ago in which I interviewed many of my peers. When the article was complete, I was shocked that most were male. I think that I didn’t realize this disparity because 85% of my students are female. But 85% of my peers are male. It is similar to graduate school in which most of the students were female and most of the professors were male. The math doesn’t add up, but maybe in 10 or 20 or 30 years, things will change.

StitchnPost | How would you describe your shoes, fashionable, stylish, trendy?

Amara | I would not describe my shoes as trendy, but hopefully stylish. I try to make the work elegant. I also think that they are pretty classic, but I like to play with color and texture. Because my work is all client based, my work reflects the ideas and taste of people who commission shoes.

StichnPost | Where did you receive training to become a shoe designer?

Amara | I largely learned and am learning on the job. I have traveled to learn from other shoemakers, most of whom are older, I have gained new skills that way. But there isn’t any real training program for shoemakers, to my knowledge. Shoe design is a different story, but I consider myself to be a shoemaker rather than a designer.

StitchnPost | Has your business in fashion taken you beyond Minnesota, if so, where and would you do it again?

Amara | There are so few shoemakers, and I have tried to be very selective about who I learn from. I have learned from 4 shoemakers: DW Frommer in Oregon, Janne Melkersson in Sweden, Marcell Mrsan in Georgia (he is Hungarian, but lives in the US now), and Chris Francis in LA, and have traveled to work with each of them. I actually went to Sweden, twice to learn from Janne.

I have also visited the UK, Italy, and around the United States and Canada visiting shoemakers, factories, etc. There is only one other hand shoemaker in Minnesota who works professionally, and I have visited him many times — he is wonderful! Buster of Buster and Co in Northern Minnesota who makes cowboy boots. For me, travel is necessary to learn, and I must learn to get better. It is how I have been able to deepen my skill as a maker, as well as efficiencies in running a workshop, and finding suppliers. Also, I can’t say how important it is just to speak with others in the trade who understand the struggles and successes particular to being a shoemaker.

StitchnPost | Have you met with any challenges during your journey to becoming a shoemaker? If so, identify one challenge that you would like to share.

Amara | As for challenges, it has been a real struggle to find and learn to use the tools needed to do excellent work. I am now at a place where I feel like I have most of the things that I would like in my workshop, which makes me incredibly lucky. I do not have financial backing, so it has perhaps taken me a bit longer than it would have if I had been able to throw money at my workshop, but every tool and machine, knife and last has a story.

StitchnPost | How do you stay current as to the direction of fashion, style, and trends?

Amara | I’m honestly not sure that I do. I spend time studying the work of other shoemakers, but that’s about it. I look more towards history than I do at what is being manufactured currently.

“Each pair takes between 35-70 hours to make.”

StitchnPost | As a professional shoemaker, what determines the price of a pair of shoes that you design and create?

Amara | Materials + hours + experience (level of difficulty). But, it is a complex equation. The question of pricing is interesting, and something I think a lot about. Many people are eager to support fair trade initiatives and living wages for artisans abroad, but for some reason it feels really different here. When people buy shoes from me, they are supporting an independent craftsman who is both maintaining a tradition and creating custom work. No one thinks twice about the price of a bespoke suit — they know it’s expensive, but it is culturally accepted. When it comes to bespoke shoes, people are surprised by the price, even knowing nothing about the time needed or cost of materials used.

For example, just the materials needed for each pair costs more than most people pay for shoes, between $300-450, and even more for exotic leathers. Each pair takes between 35-70 hours to make. Additionally, there are 2-3 fittings, each of which takes an hour or more. It all adds up. That said, if I were to pay myself the same hourly wage as a plumber, my shoes would be 3 times as much. Yes, I’ve done the math! The shoes are expensive, but that is only when they are compared to manufactured shoes. When looked at through any number of other lens’, they are an incredibly good deal!

“Sustainability is something I think about all the time.”

StitchnPost | What is that you strive for when you are creating a new design?

Amara | The satisfaction of my client and myself. For myself, I am satisfied when the technical craft is very good, and the shoe looks better than I could have imagined it. For my clients, satisfaction comes with a combination of fit and look that creates a feeling. They walk with confidence, feeling physically supported, and that their shoes reflect and project who they are as individuals. The culmination is when a client walks out of the workshop in their new shoes feeling wonderful. There is no better feeling in the world.

StitchnPost | Where does your inspiration come from when creating your designs? And is there a specific time of day that you find you are most creative? If so, when?

Amara | The design is always a total collaboration with my clients. It makes it more fun (and challenging!) for me and is better for them. If I am making work as a sample or for myself, it is usually related to processes that I want to practice or try out. If I am being purely creative and making artwork, it is usually related to ideas that come from books that I read or listen to, or ideas I think about while working. Because I am alone for so many hours every day — all day every day! — I have a lot of thinking time. My best ideas usually come in dreams, or that space between being awake and asleep. With a new baby, I tend to have a lot more of those times, and I have been having a lot of ideas!

StitchnPost | Once you have completed a design project, what is that you hope you have accomplished?

Amara | That I have been challenged and met my own expectations as a maker, and that my client is satisfied in the look and feel of their new shoes.

StitchnPost | What do your friends and family think about your business in fashion design?

Amara | They are very supportive. I am incredibly lucky!

StitchnPost | Name at least one person that you feel has given you the support needed to continue in your profession as shoemaker. And explain, how they’ve supported you.

Amara |I have had several teachers/mentors, all of whom have shaped me as an individual and my ability as a maker. But the main person who has been supportive is my mom. She is also a craftsman — a paper-maker. She raised my sister and I completely independently, and was an amazing role model of determination, grit, hard work, and creativity. She set the example of maintaining excellence despite the circumstances that you may find yourself in, whether it is being extremely tired, lack of money, or just spending long hours alone. I don’t think I would have known what that kind of person looked like (because it is extremely rare) had I not grown up watching her.

StitchnPost | What does the term sustainable and eco-friendly fashion mean to you?

Amara | Every decision I make as a consumer is impacted by my understanding of the interaction between what I buy (and make) and the environment. As a professional shoemaker, sustainability is something I think about all the time. Not just the supply chain of my materials, but how I run my business and how my business impacts others and other areas of my life. For the shoes themselves, they are made of leather, which will eventually biodegrade. They are also built to be repaired, so while they may be more expensive than off the rack shoes, they will last significantly longer.

Additionally, the leather I use is from the meat industry, and a way to use the entire animal. When we get to a point where there are different consumption patterns, i.e. meat is eaten less, it will be time to rethink the materials we use. I also feel that a part of eco-friendly fashion has to take into account the life and livelihood of the people making the items, not just the supply chain of the item itself. I try to buy locally and from small companies whenever possible. By supporting local craftsmen, you are supporting the life and culture of your community. As a link in that chain, I, in turn, do everything I can to keep money in the community by buying locally and supporting other professional craftsmen, like myself.

StichnPost | During this time of Covid-19, How do you keep yourself, safe, motivated all the while continuing to create?

Amara | It is hard! But, my work takes incredible amounts of focus, so in some ways, working is a helpful coping mechanism, because I have to check my anxiety at the door and completely immerse myself in whatever task is at hand.

StitchnPost | Are your designs created with a small carbon footprint in mind as-in environmentally friendly? If so, how do you strive to implement this into your work?

Amara | As a single maker, there are efficiencies that I cannot accomplish in comparison to factories who are pumping out many times what I am able to produce. But, there are significant trade-offs. I use leather that is overstock from large runs of European and American tanneries, thereby helping to reduce industrial waste. And, much of what I do is done by hand. I use few machines, use every scrap of material that comes into the workshop, and make work that will not (hopefully!) be thrown away. Additionally, I have an almost zero waste shop. I even collect the leather dust I produce to give to an artist who uses it in sculpture. The only materials thrown away are scraps too small to be used for earrings (all leather scraps are given to artists and a local repair shop), broken nails, and… that’s about it!

StitchnPost | What would you say is the most challenging about being a fashion designer and small business owner?

Amara | There are so many challenges, and my answer will vary depending on the day, and even the time of day. Today – a Monday morning when I am about to start a new pair – I would say that finding excellent materials is challenging as a maker. To talk about shoe-making as a business requires a whole other paragraph because it is so unusual in the context of the United States today. The most challenging part is that there is a misunderstanding of value and quality when it comes to my work. And, of course, it takes mental strength to both be a shoemaker and run a small business. Some days I just am tired.

In addition, the pressure to satisfy each client, each of whom has different needs. Client work is tough. If my job were just to make shoes, I would be perfectly and absolutely happy and have a lot less stress. But, making shoes for people is really challenging. I am not as interested in the business and promotional aspects of my job. My priority has always been to grow as an artist and craftsman. The business aspect of it is supportive of my growth in understanding and ability, and refinement of my skills as a maker.

StitchnPost | Name at least one fashion show that you have participated in within the last three years that keeps you motivated and interested in designing?

Amara | I am always motivated and interested in making shoes, I don’t know why. It just sparks something in me that keeps me going — probably because it is so extremely difficult that it keeps me engaged. As for an event, I’m not sure how to answer. I am motivated by my clients, by new and challenging requests, by new materials, by seeing something in nature or that someone else has made that is amazing. But, I don’t participate in fashion shows. I have been in a number of gallery shows in museums, but as good as recognition can feel, it is really something in the daily grind that keeps me going, rather than recognition.

StitchnPost | How do you determine success?

Amara | When I have met a new challenge, and when my clients walk away happy, I feel successful.

StitchnPost | Finally, what one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring footwear designer today?

Amara | Do good work, don’t take shortcuts, unless you have mastered the long way, and don’t take your mistakes personally.

‘To wear dreams on one’s feet is to begin to give reality to one’s dreams.’

– Roger Vivier

Fashion | St. Paul