Maria Egolf-Romero
Santa Fe Reporter

For much of human history, getting a new dress or pair of shoes wasn’t a wham-bam affair. You had to visit a seamstress or cobbler and have these items tailor-made to you. Artisans who were masters of their respective crafts created bespoke blouses and jackets, hats and heels on the daily.

Seeing a milliner or cobbler in action in 2017 is a bit like stepping into a time machine and visiting that past world. These craftspeople take on roles that sit somewhere between artist and historian, reviving lost techniques and skills. Jessica Brommer is one such artisan-creator. The Santa Fe-born cobbler makes shoes, sandals, boots and other footwear under the title Hope and Industry Handmade at her studio in the Siler Road area, but before she was into shoes, Brommer was a painter and sculptor. “I have always made stuff,” she says. “Always, always, always.”

theashoe2-5In the late ’80s, Brommer’s shoe fetish was sparked by cobbler Sara McIntosh’s shop on Old Santa Fe Trail, Sara’s Shoes. “I was always like, ‘I want to apprentice with her,’ but I was too chicken and I never approached her,” Brommer says. “And at that point I was really getting into painting.” She painted and sculpted for around 20 years, showing her work at Turner Carroll Gallery on Canyon Road and with local gallerist Linda Durham. But Brommer had a change of heart. “I sort of lost interest in the impractical nature of making art,” she says. So, she asked herself: “I don’t think I really want to be a painter—what am I going to do?”

Living in New York City at the time, Brommer attended shoemaking classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “The second day of the first class that I ever took, I was like, ‘Oh my god. This is it. This is totally it,'” she says. “It’s challenging, its precise, its practical. … It fulfills a lot of the same—I don’t know—need that making paintings did.” After taking classes, Brommer relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, and solidified her own shoe company under the title of Stalworth Shoes and Boots in 2012. The company became Hope and Industry Handmade in April 2016 when Brommer moved back to Santa Fe and opened her shop off Trades West Road.

Early on an October weekday morning, I meet Brommer in her studio. The industrial doors are wide open, and the autumn light poured in, bathing everything in a marigold aura. It smells of leather, which she says she doesn’t notice anymore, and I think: Damn, that sucks, because it smells natural and really good in here. The shelves are filled with lasts (wooden forms that serve as the foundation in building a pair of shoes), rolls of blush and sand-colored leather and half-finished footwear forms. Vintage Singer sewing machines and samples of her designs cover large tables.

theashoe3Wood-bottom heels ($185), mary janes ($425-$450) and oxfords ($475-$550) are some of the styles you’ll find at Hope and Industry Handmade. Each pair—which take around 10 hours to make—has classic lines and inspirations with current twists making them so cute and reliable, they’re the kind of pair you wear for life.

When Brommer started cobbling, she imposed a single self-restriction: She would only make men’s shoes. Today, while she does make women’s styles, many of her designs are still inspired by menswear. “When I was in high school, I would go to St. Vincent de Paul [thrift store] and find these really great men’s shoes,” she says, “and stuff the toes with tissue and wear them.” Many of her designs are recreations of those thrifted pairs.

This gal’s cobbling skills don’t stop with her own designs—she does custom pairs too. “There’s a lot of cool problem-solving aspects to it,” she says, recalling a recent client who wanted to recreate a pair of English-made kangaroo leather boots he’d owned in the ’70s when he was a hippie living in Las Vegas, New Mexico. “This guy is now in his late 60s and he’s in the legislature, and he’s been wearing these boots to his job for 40 years,” she says. “They’re completely falling apart right now. It was super-cool, because they were gorgeous boots.”

The reincarnation required special work. “These boots were made on a really old-fashioned style of last,” Brommer tells SFR. “So, I had to rebuild the last to make the boot on.” The work paid off, and Brommer smiles widely as she describes a text from the client who, when he saw his reborn kangaroo babies, said, “They’re perfect.” She’s also up-cycled sentimental items, like a Louis Vuitton diaper bag that was transformed into ballet slippers.

If shoemaking sounds like a ton of fun to you, you can learn to do it yourself in one of Brommer’s classes. She offers a variety of choices, and you can find them along with her designs on her website ( One option is a weekend-long sandal workshop, in which you make your own custom pair during the course. “Choose your own strap color. Choose your heel height,” says Brommer. “People can come in and be really creative.”All Hope and Industry Handmade shoes are made sans synthetic materials and with leather that Brommer hand-dyes herself. You can visit by appointment, and you should—there’s an undeniable element of antiquity to her shop, and you get a sense of how truly handmade these products are.


Sole Woman

Asheville artisan Jessica Brommer might just be the next big name in shoes. But if her first and last never roll off the tongues of fashionistas, she’s okay with it. “I’m more interested in reviving an industry or being part of an industry revival than I am in having a fashion line,” she says. “I’m not out to become the next Manolo Blahnik.”

To be certain, she is a shoe designer. But above all, she’s a shoemaker — satisfied not to see her sketches come to life on the sidelines but with using her own hands to shape and sew.

“I make things,” she states definitively, citing an artistic childhood in Santa Fe that led to an impressive amount of creative career pursuits in adulthood, from silversmithing to painting. Brommer’s current offerings as Stalworth Shoes & Boots include custom all-leather pairs for both sexes done in mostly men’s styles — no sky-high stilettos. She soon hopes to move away from time-consuming custom work (ranging from 15-30 hours per pair) to a handmade ready-to-wear line.

Crafting shoes brings Brommer a unique joy. In fact, she’s been smitten since day one of her first shoemaking class at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 2007. “They’re fun to make; they’re exciting, challenging and really gratifying,” she shares. Although, there’s more to it: “They say so much about you. People are so picky about their shoes. People judge people by their shoes. They’re so culturally important to us, yet we don’t have any shoemakers left.” A

Dying Art: The Cobbler, The Tanner, and The Shoemaker

According to Brommer, the US was once a major manufacturer and exporter of shoes. We began outsourcing in the ’80s and now import more than 90 percent of what we wear. That means the once-thriving industry built around the master craft has crumbled, which adds to the challenge of being a shoemaker today.

For example, she says, finding good US-made leather is difficult now that many stateside tanneries have closed. It’s part wild-goose chase and part waiting game: If you do find a tannery here, supply is limited and your name usually goes on a waiting list. What’s more, our modern methods of raising cattle don’t equate to great hides. Animals confined and slaughtered young don’t develop strong muscles and thick skin, resulting in thin leather not great for shoes.

In addition to tanners, the broader industry includes toolmakers, cobblers, heel turners, and the all-important last makers. Brommer relies on lasts, or forms, to create her shoes. Lasts dictate a shoe’s size, heel height and toe shape. When you want to change one or more of those elements, you need a whole new form, making lasts an expensive hurdle to overcome in small-scale shoe production.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the obstacles that get Brommer up in the morning. She sees the potential for a full industry renaissance. In fact, she’s already talked with a local woman interested in opening a tannery and working with area farmers who raise cows using methods that make for nice leather. And, she knows just how the possibilities would look realized: “I’d love to get not only a good shoemaking school set up but then have an apprenticeship program, and that would segue into a manufacturing scenario.”

An Oxford Education

Her plans are well underway. About a year and a half ago, she started teaching shoemaking classes in the basement of her West Asheville home — the walls are lined with sewing machines, tools, and an enormous line finisher for sanding, buffing, you name it.

“I’m certainly not a master shoemaker, far from it; I’ve got another 20 years of doing this before I could even begin to claim that,” Brommer admits. “But I figure it’s more important for me right now to pass on the knowledge I do have while I continue to learn.”

Classes have been a hit, with many repeat students. Because it’s a craft, beginners learn the basics before dipping their toes in design waters. Brommer teaches lace-up Oxfords or Derbys — styles differentiated by a nuanced placement of vamp and quarters, shoe section vocabulary taught right away. Students modify lasts so the shoes fit their feet perfectly. “I really loved learning this process, and I really love teaching it,” she says.

This summer, Brommer will take her beginning class on the road to Penland School of Crafts, July 20-August 5. Because she can’t bring along hefty equipment, students will use only hand tools, bumping up the difficulty a tad. She expects attendees won’t mind, noting, “At this point, people are really interested in learning how to do things in the old methods.” The class will be her first at Penland and her largest to date, 12 students, and has already sold out.


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