SEATTLE - The handmade mock Oxfords, in cognac-colored calfskin, will be Martin Stieglitz's first pair of dress shoes in six years.
The retired Boeing manager has chronic foot problems, yet he wouldn't be caught dead in a pair of orthopedic shoes. There was a time when it seemed he was doomed to wear nothing but athletic shoes, as he did on a recent trip to Paris.
Then he heard about Melinda and Louis Whisler.
"It's just impossible to find dressier shoes off the shelf," Stieglitz, 64, said as Melinda Whisler knelt at his feet, checking the fit of the Bellevue, Wash., man's so-far-sole-less right Oxford.
From their cramped, cluttered shop called Rubaiyat, tucked between a barber shop and a Mexican restaurant on James Street in downtown Seattle, the Whislers are carrying on a 40-year legacy of designing and handcrafting sandals, mules, pumps, Mary Janes, boots and casual slip-ons.
With a 60-year-old Italian sewing machine, a grind sander and decades of know-how, the couple have brought their "wearable art" in flamboyant leathers and exotic skins to rock stars, famous athletes and an anonymous Microsoft executive - not Bill Gates - who once ordered a pair of red Superman boots.
Their shoes aren't cheap, but they're made to last. And the Whislers see themselves as "shoe artisans," among the last of a dying tradition of custom shoemakers who still follow traditional methods with a shared philosophy and social conscience to fight what they call "overpriced, throwaway shoes."
"This is our small contribution to what's real in a cardboard, synthetic world," said Louis Whisler, 68. "We're trying to do something with gravitas, something with substance, something real in a superficial world."
In Seattle, their clients tend to be lawyers, writers, artists and other professionals looking for unique footwear they're not about to spy on another pair of feet. Customers participate in the design of their shoes, choosing toe shapes and heel heights and selecting from more than 80 colors of leather - or lizard, alligator, python, shark and stingray.
A pair of shoes usually takes about six weeks to make and ranges in price from $345 to $1,300 or more for exotic skins.
Still, their $1,800 alligator shoes are a steal considering stores in Los Angeles and New York charge $3,500 and up, Louis Whisler quickly points out.
"We like selling shoes everybody can afford," he said.
Melinda Whisler, 62, measures customers' feet and uses a wax pencil, butcher paper and a razor blade to create shoe patterns. She stitches the leather pieces together, then passes the uppers off to her husband.
He spritzes the leather with water and lets it mull overnight in a paper bag. Then, using pliers and a hammer, Louis Whisler tacks the leather upper to a form.
They take the forms home to their Capitol Hill apartment and bake them in a 110-degree oven for 20 minutes to shrink the leather just enough so that they will form-fit to the customer's feet.
Finally, the bottoms are grinded and the forms removed. Louis Whisler pounds and glues the soles to the bottoms and glues on molded, nylon heels.
"It's an art form, a lost art form," Melinda Whisler says.
"Nobody can do what she can do," Louis Whisler adds. "I do the pick-and-shovel work - she's the artist."
Juneau Empire ©2013. All Rights Reserved.