Friday, January 21, 2011

Sara McIntosh of Sara's Shoes and Krispy Fringe

This week has been a pretty cold one, even for Chicago, but I braved the bluster and hustled over to a new shop on Damen Avenue in Chicago, to interview Sara McIntosh, veteran maker of custom footwear.
Sara made time to meet me on her day off, and we stepped into Krispy Fringe, the hybrid boutique and workshop that she and her business partner, Kristy Kladzyk, just recently opened together. The space is a feast for the eyes, feeling more like a place for vintage collectibles, than for custom-made shoes and clothes. After oogling the shoes and clothing, discretely nestled amid random objects - from dismantled violins to a Bionic Woman action figure - we sat down at the workbench in the cobbler shop that Sara has set up in the rear half of the space.

Tell me a bit about the things you've been making and selling...
Well, mostly I've been focused on making shoes for the past 37 years. I started in the 70's from a kind of self-sufficient life perspective. We were just making everything we possibly could. So it was kind of in our mindset to create, rather than go out and buy. That's why I stayed in the custom-made niche. It's not the most lucrative niche, because it requires somebody that has a significant amount of money to invest in a pair of shoes. But, it's been very satisfying in that I focus on just a line of about a dozen styles, but then I let people pick their leather color, the details -whether or not the want brass highlights or silver buckles, and the kind of sole they want. And I measure each foot, so my guarantee is that each shoe will fit to be comfortable.

I've come out with a couple new styles in the past few months that are more city-fied. Because I moved here from Santa Fe, and what they wear out there, and what a tourist expects in a handmade shoe is different from what Chicagoans expect.

Now I'm on the cusp of a new adventure with this store (Krispy Fringe Vintage Couture), and it's exciting because, though I have a wonderful relationship with the shoes - I adore making shoes - I've been feeling the need for some new creative input and challenges. It's almost like I'm too close to my subject. Kristy and I will collaborate on a vintage dress or skirt, or whatever, and we will add pieces of leather or hardware I have from the shoe studio, or a zipper up the side, in a decorative way, that makes it a more interesting piece. That is really exciting to me. That's the zone that I like to be in.

So how long have you been making shoes in Chicago?
Since '07.

So you're still in that transition?
I am, and I'm still kind of locating the people who really will respond to what I'm doing.

Do you live off of your income from this, or do you have another gig?
I have been living off my income from this. I also, now, am a hypnotherapist, and have some clients, but shoes are clearly still my primary source of income.

How long do you think you've been self-sufficient from this?
You know, I would say from the very beginning. I've never had a job other than this job, although at times, when I've had to, I've washed windows. It's not really an option to say, "oh, I'm not making money", I just find a way to find clients to make shoes for.

Do you think the term Indie Maker fits what you do?
Yeah, Yeah, not being tied to some corporate entity that requires you to fit inside some box.
I've thought about mass production, but I don't see any benefit to it, because I don't want to do the production myself, or manage it myself. That's just not a skill that I have yet [laughs].

What criteria do you think qualifies someone as an Indie Maker, and what disqualifies others?
I think an independent maker is qualified by the fact that they're drumming what they're doing up from their own creativity.
And I think the disqualification comes from that edge of saying, "I have to make this because it's the only thing I think will sell, but I'm not passionate about it". A true artist is true to their heart.

So maybe it's doing things that you are convinced are useful, enjoyable or satisfying to others?
Yeah, It's that connection, more and more, to the people. I think that's where we're going as a culture, to find that soul connection.

What do you like most about being a maker?
My first thought was touching the materials, but it's more about getting into that zone where time stops, you know, making the first of a new thing is clearly the most fun. Having an idea for a new style of shoe, and making that first shoe. Going through the process of figuring out how it's going to work. That's the most fun.

What's some of the hardest parts of being an Indie Maker?  
Doing it when you don't feel like doing it. I thinks that's the same for all creatives, you just have to keep standing in front of the workbench, you don't have the luxury of saying, "I don't feel like working today".

What do you think is most unaffordable to get as an Indie Maker, as in material, tool, service, whatever?
I'd say help - labor. Some of the aspects of what I do, involve cutting out large numbers of a thing, because I'm gonna use them for every pair. I would love to be able to pay someone what they're worth, to do that. That's hard - skilled labor that's affordable.

What turned out to be the easy or cheap things or services to get? 
Well, people gave me tools, because how many people do you meet these days who are shoe makers? Early on, people would give me the tools from their uncle who came over from the old country, and they knew I could use them. it was really rewarding to have that happen. And finding reliable suppliers of quality materials has been easier than you might expect.

Was there any invaluable resource or service that you discovered?
The most valuable has been asking people in similar businesses or services - whether they're leather workers or suppliers - what I could do to solve a challenge, like, "How can I turn this edge without this happening?" Those people were really valuable to me. I didn't have any mentor or teacher. I've been self-taught.

Is there something you would do, if you had more time, money or resources?
I would hire people to help me - absolutely! [laughs]

What do you think prevents alot of makers from being self-sufficient?
Belief in themselves, and a commitment to their passion.

What kind of things or services do you wish existed to help makers become self-sufficient? 
I think the cultural mindset that values artistic expression. We had that in the 70's, were so moved by being our own people, so the culture rose to meet that. So, seeing more people who want to buy from makers, knowing there's a market, makes a big difference in the type of commitment you can make. I think Etsy has done that, absolutely.

Is there any question that I haven't asked?
How do you keep going, when you're not getting the monetary feedback you need? How far should you push yourself?
I think that support groups are wonderful, any kind of co-op or whatever - when I was in the artist co-op, I was the one who was there all the time, because this was my job. I think that provided alot of encouragement to those who just dropped in, seeing someone always creating. Being around other artists, staying away from complaining about what's not working, and finding solutions with each other. There's too many people just complaining about not getting what they want. That's a very strong opinion of mine. Just complaining doesn't get you anywhere.

You can peruse Sara's handmade wares at Sara's Shoes
Or visit her new digs at Krispy Fringe, 4725 N. Damen.

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