When you think about shoe cobblers, the image that comes to mind likely involves a multi-generational shop run by an old-timer hunched over a pair of brogues. For the most part, you'd be totally right. It's the shop most people expect to walk into when they look to hand over their Goodyear-welted boots for a new sole.
But that image has been fading because the humble craft has been on the decline for decades. A century ago, shoe repair shops numbered over 100,000. Today, there are less than 4,000.
The reason? Sneakers have dominated the shoe market. Just last year, Nike made $10 billion in shoe sales in North America alone. Sneakers are a hot commodity thanks to their comfort, style and affordability. Though sneakers are constantly pushing innovation and implementing new technology, they've put a major strain on the shoe repair industry. The same reasons that make sneakers popular are the very ones that hurt shoe cobblers. Unlike traditional shoes, sneakers aren't made to be resoled so much as they're made to be re-bought.
While that's forced many shoe cobblers to downsize or close altogether, others have taken on the challenge and are paving the way for the next generation of shoe repair. A leading example is Goods & Services, a shoe repair shop located in Los Angeles' design district. You'll certainly find a pair of Goodyear-welted shoes on the work bench, but most everything else isn't the traditional image of shoe cobbling. The shop feels more akin to a design studio. In a way, it kind of is. Because next to that pair of Viberg boots is also a pair of Air Force 1's being customized by owner Rory Fortune in collaboration with his customer.
Shoe repair isn't exactly a hobby one can simply fall into. Often, it's the family business, passed on to the next generation. The store front, along with the machines, the customers, the skills are all transferred. "It's wild to think that you used to be able to go to a trade school and take a course on shoe repair with a professor and a textbook," Fortune says. "That's not a thing anymore — you're totally on your own."
Getting into shoe repair is opaque, but Fortune had an in. His background in the fashion industry certainly gave him cursory knowledge of the trade, but it was a childhood friend whose family ran a shoe repair shop that really gave him a leg up. The shoe repair shop was in need of a refresh and Fortune pitched in to help. That's where the shoe repairing journey started.
"On the weekends, I was making stuff in my garage. I started out making shoes from scratch," Fortune says. Over the years, he acquired more skills and more machines to progress his craft. And, eventually, he opened the doors to Goods & Services in 2019.
A neighbor to denim brand 3sixteen and workwear/outdoors-focused menswear shop Hatchet Supply, Fortune's shop gets a fair amount of customers looking to have their boots resoled. But what's gotten him more attention is his customized sneakers. "Sure, I get guys inquiring about bespoke shoes, but it's the younger guys that come in and get really excited about the sneakers," he says.
Sneakers, as simple as they seem, are actually very complicated to repair. "Sneakers are evolving all the time," Fortune says. "You used to be able to figure out what kind of adhesive a sneaker was using. Now, it's more difficult because shoe companies are coming up with proprietary materials." With traditional shoe repair, the process is more open source. As long as a shoe cobbler has the right tools and materials (and skills), a shoe can be easily repaired. With constant advancement in sneaker technology, cobblers struggle to keep up. But that hasn't stopped Fortune from experimenting, advancing the craft to meet the demand.
And, that demand has shaped his business immensely in less than a year. Rare sneakers are the name of the sneakerhead game, so customized one-offs become especially desirable. That's a big boon for Goods & Services since the customer is directly involved in the process. Others have taken notice of his creations, through Instagram and word-of-mouth and the business continues to grow, even in the midst of a pandemic.
While his inventive repairs are eye-catching, they're not just for show. He's also upgrading them by converting them into traditional welted constructions. Once converted, a pair of Goods & Services sneakers can be easily resoled by any other cobbler.
It's an enticing proposition ecologically and aesthetically. But, it'll cost you. A sneaker conversion can run you about $400, many times over the cost of the sneakers themselves. "It's a lot, but you're paying to actually upgrade the quality of the shoe," Fortune says.
The shoe repair industry is still struggling and will continue to struggle. Sneakers aren't going anywhere, a fact that shoe cobblers need to recognize in order to adapt. Though the trade is slow to change, Goods & Services is a shining example of what the next generation of shoe cobblers will look like.