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Kerry Clarkson Valdivia was nervous and excited as she laid out her designs for the shoemaker in Spain. Her shoes are sexy and have a distinct silhouette — as curvy as a pinup girl, with a rounded toe, a shapely arch, a nice heel. The Princesa, with its stitching up the heel and suede bow, is reminiscent of peepshow-appropriate garter stockings. The Chamba Mary Jane and the Babydoll, with its zigzag piping, have a smoldering innocence; they’re the kind of shoes Humbert Humbert would have bought for his Lolita. Her Campera boots, with two-tone suede and leather and white-tipped toes, are like foxy English riding boots. But the Spanish shoemaker wasn’t charmed.
“Nobody makes shoes like that these days, woman!” he scolded. “You can’t get a man in jail to do this kind of work.”
It wasn’t her shoes’ sex appeal that angered the Spaniard. She wanted shoes and boots that are made by hand, and that was out of the question for her complicated designs.
Valdivia, 24, is a first-generation American, raised in Thousand Oaks by a Peruvian mother and an English father. She lived in Peru for a spell when she was 9 and then moved with her family to London, where she went to college at Lancaster University, studying marketing.
“I remember my cousins coming to visit me in London,” Valdivia says while sipping iced tea in a Hollywood Starbucks. “They had never been abroad, so on their first trip, they got a coat and a pair of shoes made for them. I couldn’t believe that someone could say, ‘I had these shoes made just for me by the cobbler on my block.’ Though their boots were very conservative, not my style at all, I saw the possibilities. And you don’t need a huge budget. Their shoes cost 40 bucks, the price of cheap chain shoes.”
After magazine internships and forays into jewelry making and fashion-show organizing, she tried her hand at shoemaking. Valdivia went back to Peru and discovered a niche shoemaking industry. And she eventually found a good cobbler — a master craftsman named José Luis Gutierrez Guerrero.
“He wasn’t exporting; he was just making shoes for his small store, and they were all completely handcrafted,” she says. “I sketched some designs and he made a couple of samples and I loved them.”
Valdivia designed two styles and had them made in 10 different colors. She came back to the U.S. and started selling them at sample sales. They sold like hotcakes.
She began an informal apprenticeship with Gutierrez Guerrero, spending as much as half the year with him. Valdivia speaks of Gutierrez Guerrero with reverence and admiration as her “maestro”: “In Peru, [maestro shoemakers] are given respect — they aren’t just ‘workers.’ ” The maestros, most of them 50 to 60 years old, float from factory to factory, depending on where the work is, mostly at machine-run operations, where their true skills aren’t being used.
“Anyone can put a piece of leather on a machine,” Valdivia says, “but maestros have these special skills that aren’t being put to use at factories. We hope our company grows and we can preserve it. The more work we can offer, the more we can employ their skills.”
Her maestro showed her the entire shoemaking process. She went to all the leather factories and watched the making of the lasts, the wooden shapes the leather is stretched over and nailed to. She watched how the soles are constructed — rough-cut from giant sheets of stiff leather by hand and then glued down by the maestros “so deftly,” she says, “with such flow and ease as they shave away the excess and sand it down to the perfect size.” She sat in on the application of the insole and observed the finishing touches — each handmade shoe takes three days to make.
“I love being in the shop,” says Valdivia, her eyes widening and her speech quickening to the speed of an auctioneer. “I’m still learning. It’s a huge, fascinating process. And the more I learn, the more respect I have for the people who make them. It’s truly a labor of love.”
Gutierrez Guerrero has been a shoemaker since he was 13, his father before him was a shoemaker, and his son will most likely follow in his well-worn footsteps. Valdivia is doing her part. It was very important to Gutierrez Guerrero that she name the company after his youngest son, 6-year-old Marcello Toshiro (Marcello means “little hammer” or “boy who is skilled with the hammer”), as a way for him to keep his family’s reputation for craftsmanship alive. For Valdivia, the name of the company, the names of the shoe styles, and even using manta (traditional Peruvian blankets) in her designs are all ways to remind people where the shoes come from. “So many things are mass-produced,” Valdivia says. “People don’t question where things come from anymore; they don’t think about the people who make them. Even factories have some people in the process; everything just arrives perfect. But it’s good to question where things come from and know the history, so we can make more-conscious choices — are they ethically made? Is this something you want to encourage or preserve? The more machine-made shoes people buy, the less of a need there is for traditional handcrafting. Do you really want a place where everything is automated?” She takes a deep breath after the breathless rant and smiles.