The highly skilled labor of artisans migrating from Mexico and Latin America are the backbone of high-end design and retail in Los Angeles, producing exquisite furniture, textiles, and design goods. But they represent a creative force that seems invisible to the city. Artbound uncovers their stories and their role in making Los Angeles and Southern California the creative capital of the world in a new documentary "Artesanos/Artisans," debuting May 17 at 9 p.m. on KCET. Check for rebroadcasts here.
While shoemaker and designer Raul Ojeda has managed to carve out a thriving career running two successful businesses in Los Angeles before the age of 35, he’s the first to admit that his ascent is not exactly a dream realized. “For me, it wasn’t where I conceptualized it and then searched for it,” he says. “I landed onto shoe making by coincidence, just by continuing to evolve in the type of work that I was doing.”
But now that he’s taken over the historic Willie’s Shoe Service and launched his own bespoke footwear line Don Ville, Ojeda can stand back and survey the impressive arc of his own career, especially since it’s gaining steam now more than ever.
Helming Willie’s has meant taking over one of the great, historic businesses of Hollywood: a storefront that’s been in business for over 50 years, meticulously repairing shoes and hand-crafting specialty designs for TV and film, dating back to the golden age of Hollywood. And then there’s Ojeda’s own brainchild, Don Ville, which has nabbed plenty of attention on its own for being one of the premiere destinations for artisan shoes designed and perfectly fitted for your foot and your foot alone.
A decade ago, he was just a kid from Mexico in his early 20s looking for work in the endless sprawl of Los Angeles. A friend from El Salvador who’d done particularly well as a shoe shiner pushed Ojeda to try out that line of work and see where it landed him. Ojeda was reticent at first, but decided to set up shop at the Century City mall adjacent to numerous office towers teeming with professional types. It was a wise move and one that instantly garnered him a steady flow of work, so much so that he was quickly scrambling to keep up with demand. “It’s one of those things that if it gets too busy, people are not coming anymore because you have to wait for an hour to get your shoe shined,” he said. “Who’s got an hour and a half to wait for shoe shine?”
Raul brought on a handful of employees and expanded to several shoeshine stations scattered around the west side, turning customers around within 10 minutes and garnering a devout clientele as he went. And over time, his customers began encouraging him to expand from just shining shoes to also repairing them, planting the seeds for a career to come. “The thing is that a lot of my business ideology really comes from talking to people and listening to advice,” he said. “A lot of my clients are businessmen and entrepreneurs -- big, successful people -- that just talk to me about opportunities and say, ‘Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?'"
Little did Ojeda know that the full crystallization of his career would come purely by chance. A woman he was dating at the time happened to live in Hollywood and when he would drive across town to visit her, he would pass a curious shoe repair shop called Willie’s. When he finally stopped to peek in, he was bowled over by what he saw. “I fell in love with the way Willie’s looked,” he said. “[It] looked completely different than every other shoe repair shop because it wasn’t some franchise. It was just old wood panels and actual sewing machines -- tabletop sewing machines -- that you don’t really see in shoe repair stores. I was so curious and I just started to come in slowly and build a friendship with Willie, who by the way said that he didn’t want anymore work. ‘Too busy.’ Because I liked him and was interested in getting to know him, I just started coming in every week.”
Willie was well into his 80s at the time and not particularly interested in apprenticing any heady young startups. But Ojeda happened to notice the shop was suffering from a pretty tragic lack of organization that he could easily start to chip away at. He began coming in regularly on his own without pay, tidying up, and, most importantly, learning how to make shoes from one of the last great masters.
“That’s how I saw an opportunity of me making myself useful,” he said. “I was brought up by makers and merchants. Back home in Mexico City, right now, my dad has a carnitas stand and he’s got his own pigs growing in the back. He’s got a batch of 10 or 15 and he works the whole week grooming his pigs. And then on the weekend, he’s gonna kill one and he’s by himself. That’s how you earn your living and that’s the mode that you’re in 24/7. It's not like you can clock out at any point. Your pig gets sick in the middle of the night and is making noise? You gotta get up and see what’s going on. You don't wait until eight in the morning when it’s your time to go to work. So, I just started to come into the shoe shop regularly to just pick up things and work regularly.”
And that’s not to say things went swimmingly once young Ojeda began inserting himself in the day-to-day of the business. He pushed for shoes to be repaired within one week, compared to the unchecked window of time that Willie and his employees had grown accustomed to. The shop rarely issued tags to their customers or took down phone numbers to reach them. In fact, when Ojeda finally cleared out the back of the shop some years ago, he found over 500 pairs of unclaimed shoes, covered in dust and filth. “No one ever picked them up and no one ever called anybody about the shoes,” he said. “So, today whenever we encounter people who’ve been longtime Willie’s customers, the two things they remember clearly is that, number one, ‘Willie was such a nice man’ and, number two, ‘I remember going in the back and looking for my shoes.’”
Eventually, Willie and Ojeda’s bond grew to the point that the aging storeowner approached his young apprentice about taking over the business. They agreed on a price and, at just 25, Ojeda was suddenly the owner of Willie’s Shoe Service. It was a crash course in business owning and wasn’t without its moments of utter panic. “I had no business education,” he said. “I didn’t even fucking finish high school. But, thankfully the response of me taking over the business was just drop dead amazing.”
Ojeda was far more interested in designing and handcrafting shoes than repairing but the realities of keeping a small business afloat meant holding on to whatever steady stream of income he could. “One of the things that was a big slap in the face was that I was ambitioning to take over the shoe shop and just start making shoes,“ he said. “That’s where the beauty is and that’s what excites me the most: Talking to someone, making shoes for them, trying the shoes on, making the shoes really pretty and then out the door they go. But you can’t survive on shoe making alone because it takes so much time.”
And that became especially true for Ojeda, given the unique promise he and his employees make their clients. “We had to learn with blood sweat and tears that it’s not just making a shoe,” he said. “Making a shoe is one thing: You cut it, you sew it, you stitch it real nice and here we go, such a beautiful shoe. But we guarantee that it’s going to fit your foot. That is what makes us different than most shoemakers around the globe. That statement. We are going to do whatever it takes.”
Finally, in 2011, he saw an opportunity to launch the business he most longed to open. He founded the bespoke shoe line Don Ville, named in honor of his mentor, Willie, who had long since retired to live with his family back in Mexico. The shop brought together everything Ojeda had learned from the charismatic storeowner over the years while allowing him the time to truly design a unique piece of footwear for his customers, sometimes taking as long as six months from start to finish. Detailed and lengthy, Ojeda's process all starts with one simple question that he asks every one of his Don Ville customers: “What’s the reason you’re having these shoes made?”
From there, he moves into the design stage, tailoring the specifics to as fine a point as you could imagine, from toe length to heel height to leather selection to stitching. While being incredibly gratifying for both Raul and his customers, he does admit that there are nerves when his customers come in to try on the finished shoe after so many months. But when they’re happy, “it’s glorifying,” he said. “It definitely feels good to get that reaction.”
And what did Willie think when he learned his young apprentice was planning to name his very own shoe line after him? “That meant a lot to him,” Raul paused, “and also the fact that I got his face tattooed on my arm.” He laughed and then remembered, “When I showed him the tattoo he just said, ‘Hmm. Only sailors and prisoners tattoo themselves. And why you tattoo my face on your arm? I’m not dead yet.’ But I know he felt tickled.”