News Column

Shoe designer takes his dream to reality

June 3, 2014

By Lisa Liddane, The Orange County Register

June 03--Inside a nondescript Buena Park industrial building not too far from Knott's Berry Farm, a half-dozen artisans wielding brushes, threads and small knives craft various parts of luxurious leather boots the old-school way -- by hand.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art shop, a pair of limited-edition sandals in blue-green leather and mocha leather that's part of the Wear LACMA fashion project pays homage to a Felipe Santiago Gutierrez painting from the museum's permanent collection.

In Tumi'sSouth Plainfield, N.J., headquarters, new Skittles-colored leather accents give the brand's classic black ballistic nylon luggage a cheerful dollop of style.

The question isn't what these seemingly disparate products have in common.

It's who.

As a boy, George Esquivel thought that dreaming of doing something wonderfully creative was beyond his reach. Today, he is one of the more prolific cordwainers and collaborators in the fashion universe, quietly dividing his work life between Orange County, where his studio/workshop for Esquivel handmade ready-to-wear and bespoke shoes is located, and New Jersey, where he marked a year as creative director for Tumi a few months ago.

Along the way, he also embarked on a long-term collaboration with Fratelli Rossetti and created capsule collections with Zero + Maria Cornejo, Juan Carlos Obando, Timo Weiland and Irene Neuwirth. Last year, he designed special women's pastel oxfords for spring for Chloe and men's blue and grape oxfords for fall for Tommy Hilfiger. His most recent mashup, which debuted a few weeks ago at LACMA and net-a-porter.com, features a summer boot and the aforementioned sandals for women.

He's also designed custom shoes for many celebrities, including Janelle Monae, Yao Ming, Taylor Swift, Ryan Seacrest and Google C-suite executives. Just last month, Madonna wore Esquivel white and black kilties for the cover of L'uomo Vogue.

If it appears that there's little to no fanfare accompanying Esquivel's rise in the design ranks, it's simply a reflection of the low-key manner in which the designer conducts himself. He's painfully aware that his life could have turned out much differently, had he walked in his father's crime-streaked footsteps instead of choosing the path that he's on.

Thus, he is devoid of the self-importance and braggadocio that afflict some star designers. "To go from living in motels to here? C'mon," he said.

Instead, he's thrilled when he sees someone wearing his shoes, whether they're a famous person or not. Even with a year under his belt at Tumi, he's still awestruck about what he gets to do there.

"In my own brand, I have a design assistant, but I'm mostly solo," Esquivel said. "At Tumi, I work with an amazing team of designers. I'm like a kid in a candy store. It's a big brand. The things that I get to request and do, I don't have that ease with my brand."

What Esquivel has done at Tumi is not so much to overhaul the offerings as much as it is to give the veritable luggage and leather goods giant steady infusions of his design DNA. The new Tumi Accents group, for example, enables customers to customize their wheeled bags with leather trimming in a choice of colors ranging from cobalt blue to camel to purple.

"I love color," Esquivel said, grinning.

The bright leather pieces are used for the luggage tag, handle wrap, patch and zipper pull ties. They're not only a subtle way to add personality to a carry-on, they also make it easier to spot one's checked-in bag at the airport luggage carousel.

Esquivel also likes juxtaposing colors and textures. For example, Santa Monica, a relatively new elegant new bag group, mixes black leather and caramel leather or gray canvas with caramel leather, and has X-shaped accents on totes, briefcases and duffels.

The Astor group features texture-coated heathered gray canvas trimmed with black Vachetta leather or a black-and-white spectator combo with retro-looking curved corners. Tumi already was making leather bags long before the designer came on board, but it's since become chic rather than merely utilitarian, and Esquivel-ized.

The walls of one work room in Esquivel's studio illustrate how the worlds meet in his realm: They're covered with fabric and leather swatches, inspiration photos, sketches of what's to come for both Tumi and Esquivel shoes. Among the ideas on display: Tumi traveling flats that fold for easy packing, which are in the works; a piece of vintage fabric that the designer has had for many years, which now is the basis for a Tumi print for spring 2015; and golden Esquivel bedroom loafers with black "piping" for resort 2014.

Remember the bright zipper pull ties for Tumi?

His current women's shoe collection includes a silver penny loafer with a similar cobalt blue leather tie in the coin slot. There's also an espresso mid-heeled lace-up shoe that's been painted with gold dots to resemble an oxford, a tongue-in-cheek tromp l'oeil. Both the bright leather tie and the painted effect are the designer's signatures.

It's been 20 years since Esquivel launched a small made-to-measure shoe business, and where he is now is that much more significant considering that he never studied design or fashion and grew up moving with his mother and siblings from one motel to another. Throughout his childhood, he lived under the shadow of a well-dressed father who dealt and did drugs, went to prison and alternated between leaving and returning to Esquivel's mother.

"I just wanted to get away," Esquivel said. He could not even fathom dreaming of what he wanted to do with his life. He escaped from reality with music and by going to clubs at night and wearing vintage shoes.

While driving a truck for a living and heading to Baja, Mexico, he spotted a sign that said "bootmaker," and on a whim, asked the man working there if he could make shoes if Esquivel gave him a sketch. The bootmaker created a pair of black and white pointed-toe shoes that Esquivel wore to clubs in L.A.

"Everyone wanted them," Esquivel said.

The idea of making shoes stayed with him so much so that he sought out a shoemaker for about a year. He learned the fundamentals from Emigdio Canales, who ran a covert shoemaking operation out of his garage in Commerce. Esquivel started designing and making custom shoes.

"I fell in love with shoes," he said. "I fell in love with designing."

Bands and stores eventually discovered his custom footwear and his clientele grew to include No Doubt and Kings of Leon. But it was after he became a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2009 that others in the fashion industry sat up and took notice. These days, Esquivel's ready-to-wear collections are carried by about two dozen stores worldwide, including Amaree's in Newport Beach, Colette in Paris, Matches in London, Pupi Solari in Milan and Studio Scarpa in Oslo. He also still makes bespoke shoes for a select group of clients, all of whom have their own custom lasts in Esquivel's workshop.

There's no shortage of glamour and globe-trotting in Esquivel's life. But he naturally gravitates toward the forces that keep him grounded: his respect for his humble beginnings, his love for what he does and the creativity that accompanies it, and his devotion to his family. "If I am at the shop, one day, I may box up shoes, another day, I may be vacuuming," he said. "I love getting my hands dirty. I'm not above that."

To find the art that would inspire his recent designs for Wear LACMA, Esquivel toured the museum's permanent collection galleries with Katherine Ross, fashion consultant to LACMA and a member of the fundraising Director's Circle.

"Suddenly, we were on our last stop, in the Latin American galleries," Ross said. "As soon as he saw the painting (by Felipe Santiago Gutierrez), I could tell that it spoke to him."

"He said, 'I really like this one.'"

"I said, 'I know this is the one for you.'"

That oil on canvas was "Indian Woman With Marigold," which depicted a woman gazing at a marigold in her right hand. The painting of a beautiful but unrecognizable woman had a native quality to it, Ross said. Esquivel, in turn, interpreted the essence of the art by choosing simple shapes, natural colors and a distressed finish for the sandal, and a warm hue and touchable finish for the suede boot. At last, he's enjoying the freedom to dream of doing something wonderfully creative -- and seeing it become a reality.

___

Contact the writer: lliddane@ocregister.com

___

(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel



Source: Orange County Register (CA)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters