Kirby Allison, founder of The Hanger Project, concludes his interview with Lee Miller from Texas Traditions. Lee talks about his life in the business, the current state of custom boot making, and what he believes the future holds for the craft.
So in 1985, Carrlyn and I were kind of thinking about what was the future going to hold for us. And I thought to myself well you know I had a chance to go to Houston and be an orthopedic shoe maker and I didn't want to do that.
And this is a year prior to to Charlie retiring?
Yeah this is this is this is a year prior to Charlie retiring and me buying the shop.
You probably didn't even know that was possible.
No I didn't. I didn't know it was coming. You know, I didn't know it was coming but I didn't know that I needed to change something. I was still I was at that point in my life where I needed something. Like a new goal, a new goal. So I had a chance to go to Houston and be an orthopedic shoe maker and I didn't want to do that. And and so I came up with the idea of making a pair of wholecut lace up shoes and sending them to Lobb's in London and maybe they would hire me and I could go and work for them for a while and then come back here and continue on here. And so I sent them the shoes and I got a very polite refusal letter, a rejection letter, and they sent me the book "The Last Shall Be First" autographed. Sometimes the things that you don't get are more important than the things you do get. So I mean if I had if I had gotten that job in New Hampshire making hiking boots I wouldn't be here. And if I had gotten this, I don't know, I wouldn't be here either. So I'm really, at the end of the day I'm where I should be. When I first started out on my own after I took over the shop, I still had questions that I was still looking for the answers to. And of course I would read them. I would look at books. I read the book on Ferragamo and I mentioned that earlier he dangles the secret of the fit. When Charlie would have a customer come in, later on after Charlie was retired, I would say "How do your boots fit?" "Oh I love my Charlie Dunn boots. They fit perfectly". So I would say "Well let me go ahead and measure your feet anyway just to make sure that you have current information". So I would measure their feet and then the cool thing, which I don't know if you would call this reverse engineering, was I was able to take their last that Charlie had set up and compare it to the information that I had just taken from their feet and try and discover why it worked.
And the neat thing about anything is if you can figure out why stuff works then you unlock the secrets. And so by doing that. You know even though Charlie had left and retired I still had these unanswered questions.
By doing that kind of, reverse engineering I guess you could call it, I was able to finally answer some of the questions about why things worked.
Have you ever seen a pair of feet that you couldn't make a beautiful pair of boots for?
Never. Never. Because you can. You know, I mean that's our job as boot makers, is to take a foot and make the footwear beautiful that fits it. There's different ways of making footwear. You can start with a given last or a given model and you can go ahead and you can alter that model or you can start with a larger version of the foot and reduce it until you're there. There's there's one philosophy in making and then there's the other philosophy in making. So we're starting with a given model which I've designed, it has all my knowledge in that model. Everything I know to be good and accurate and helpful in that model. And I start with that model and then I alter it until it becomes their foot. So I'm actually I guess it's additive and subtracting. Whereas with the other way of making footwear, where you're starting with a block of wood or a larger last you're actually subtracting. What I like about my method is that I don't have to reinvent the wheel every time because when you're doing that way ,where you're starting with a block you're having to reinvent the wheel each time you do it. Which does open up a can of worms. Whereas when I do it from the other way when I have a model that has everything that I know I'm starting from up close or a point and I'm not having to constantly reinvent the wheel. So they both have their negatives.
How many days will you spend building the last?
I spend two days on every pair of lasts I set up. So some makers, some cowboy boot makers will do five pair of lasts in a day. So you compare that to me, I'm much dlower.
And these are even custom guys.
Oh yeah yeah. So it's all about philosophy. It's all about what you believe is the right way to do things.
How long does it take to make a pair of boots?
The average boot takes takes 40 hours to make. We were asked to do in 1989 a pair of boots for Tommy Lee Jones for the movie Lonesome Dove. And there was a problem. They needed the boots in four days. And they were waiting to start filming till these boots were made. So there we were with four days to make those boots. So if you watch the movie Tommy Lee Jones is wearing him in the movie. But really it's a 40, the traditional boot is 40 hours.
40 hours and then over how many how many days, weeks or...
Well we don't work on one pair at a time. We work on many pairs at a time. And so while one is drying we're working on others because they do have to dry in the last and you want him to be on the last a couple of weeks.
So we're we're never working on one pair.
We always have more than one pair and we're doing.
Currently we have a four year backlog and so we're not taking new customers like we've made boots for your family. We'll make boots for anybody in your family. So you know we'll make you of course multiple pairs. So we try and it's a four year wait for that first pair. You know we have a four year backlog and that's we have two separate lists. We have a reorder list and we have a new customer list. So the new customer is going to take four years, and the reorder list is quite different. So once we've made you a pair it's a lot easier to make you another pair. You know, and we want, we don't want to make the existing customer wait four years for another pair. So we learned long ago that we couldn't treat, we had to have our existing customer list and our new customer list. And so because we have so many boots to make, and we're limited as to how many we can make, we out of necessity we had to do that.
And you're doing all of the last making yourself.
I'm the only person here who measures feet, sets up the last, and draws the paper patterns. And then everything else I have help for. I mean my goal Kirby is to have somebody else creep into the process to where little by little I'm eliminated. But right now that is the current setup and I love doing it. I mean I love making boots. You know it's fun. It's everyday you go in. It's kind of like sculpture. It's a puzzle that you have to solve. You know, the design work is interesting. You know Carrlyn and I work on everything together. So nothing is made here without her help. You know, she sits down with the customer. She talks through the design. She brings me in if I'm needed to do artwork and then I work with her on everything. And so everything that I do, she's involved in. You know I show it to her. I get her feedback, see what does she think. So even though she started out as a secretary, she's an integral part of the shop. I mean I feel very lucky. And I feel an urgent need to make sure that it doesn't stop with me. So I was lucky enough to work for Charlie. And so now I have apprentices also. And so I'm hoping that they'll take whatever Charlie gave me and take it forward. And that I give to them. I don't know. It's not right to say it's a mission but I want to make sure that legacy continues.
So do you see yourself as just merely a caretaker of Texas tradition?
Exactly. I'm just I'm just one part of the whole thing. And I want to make sure that I pass it on. And I'm thrilled that there's young people out there that want to learn, that you know people are always saying oh what you do is a dying craft and you know it's going to die with you. But as long as there's young people willing, you know wanting to learn, and there are now it will continue. When I was a teenager. The craft was, you know, there was the return to the arts and crafts. And so I think after that, people were no longer interested. And now there's a return once again to the arts and crafts.
Why does someone seek you out? I mean why do you think someone travels all the way to Austin?
I think that there's different reasons. I think that you know that they do their research and they're interested and maybe they have difficult feet to fit. So they're coming to us for that. It also could be the historical part. That you know Charlie Dunn, me, they might be enthralled with the story and come here for that reason. I think ultimately the bottom line is that doesn't change what we have to do. As boot makers, we have to, everybody who comes in here, we have to fit their feet and make them what they want. And that's the the bottom line, is just to continue to do that every day and to make sure that it continues after I'm gone.
I'm Kirby Allison, founder of The Hanger Project. And we love helping the well-dressed take care of their wardrobes. Thanks for joining us today here at Texas Traditions I hope you enjoyed learning about Lee Miller. If you have any questions about what you saw in the video today, feel free to ask them in the comments section below. I enjoy getting back to all those questions personally. Most importantly, if you enjoyed the video let us know. Give us the thumbs up or subscribe to our YouTube channel so you can receive future notifications. I'm Kirby Allison, founder of The Hanger Project, and thanks for joining us.