There's magic afoot in Orange County that has nothing to do with a giant mouse or a legendary berry farm and everything to do with George Esquivel and his band of craftsmen who, for more than a decade, have been hand-cobbling high-end shoes for a who's who of the well-heeled, including rock stars, NBA players, politicians and Hollywood heavyweights of every stripe.
In a nondescript building off I-5 in Buena Park, pieces of white leather destined to become booties for singer Janelle Monae are being meticulously hand-stitched at one table. A pair of very big shoes for Milwaukee Buck Joel Przybilla is slowly taking shape on a shelf, not far from pairs in progress for fellow NBA players Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudemire. On an inspiration board upstairs, the name "Emma Stone" is tacked above three possible styles under consideration.
And, on this particular day, the workbenches are rapidly filling up with the first of 950 pairs of two-tone brogues Esquivel is making for Tommy Hilfiger's fall 2013 collection.
Esquivel got on Hilfiger's radar as a Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund finalist in 2009, and he was one of 10 designers included in an "Americans in Paris" showcase sponsored by Vogue and Tommy Hilfiger 2011.
"Before that I had a few stores and I was doing mostly made-to-order, but I wasn't really a brand. What Vogue did was really show me how to become a brand," Esquivel says. The exposure also got him noticed by luggage maker Tumi, which named him creative director in January, adding to his already full plate. (The first collection with his input is scheduled to go on sale during the holiday season.)
Hilfiger, currently traveling in Asia, is glad to have showcased Esquivel's work. "George brings a fresh take to timeless pieces," he said in an email. "His designs use unique details that give the classics an updated look."
"It all comes out of here," Esquivel says, standing in the middle of the leather-scented tumult of his 3,500-square-foot workshop, which annually turns out 3,000 to 4,000 pairs of shoes with retail prices that start in the $600 to $4,000 range. "How cool is that?"
The combination of Esquivel's rhetorical enthusiasm, dark hair and slightly cherubic cheeks makes the Orange County native come across as younger than his 42 years — and hardly the traditional image that comes to mind when thinking of old-school practitioners of the cobbling arts. Esquivel seems to genuinely relish confounding those kinds of expectations, as well as the notion that high-quality, handmade shoes have to come from Italy or England.
He's been rooted in the same location for 11 years, a choice of convenience and proximity to home. Growth may eventually force him to move, but everything about his brand is so much a part of this place, even decamping to the dark side of the moon wouldn't distance him from it.
That sense of place can be seen in the high-low vibe of the shoes: high-quality European leathers pebbled, painted or pummeled into laid-back luxe. "We're not so precious about things here in California," Esquivel says. "It's a more relaxed atmosphere ... [and] it's a little rebellious too."
He describes being shaped by a childhood spent shuffling with his mother and four siblings from motel to motel and school to school, thanks to a ne'er-do-well father who Esquivel says was anything but a role model.
"But my dad always looked good. We were homeless, but he always looked perfect. He always wore those cop shoes — the spit-shined shoes — 501 jeans and a perfectly pressed shirt, and the cuffs were perfect. There were some things I picked up from him."
Esquivel credits his mother for instilling faith and a work ethic. "She always said, 'Trust in God and work hard,'"
He was bitten by the shoemaking bug in the early 1990s. "I was somewhere between Ensenada and Tijuana, and there was a guy who made custom boots. I sketched out a design for a shoe, and he made it."
Esquivel started looking for someone closer to home to make shoes, inquiring at shoe repair shops he discovered while working as a linen delivery truck driver. He eventually found his man in Emiglio Canales, who would cobble shoes in Esquivel's garage while Esquivel hung out at local clubs and bars wearing his vintage-inspired shoes.
"That was when the whole punk/rockabilly thing was happening," he explains. "This was Orange County, so there were all these cool bands [wearing my shoes] — Social Distortion, No Doubt. The small bands would go on tour with the big bands, and the guys in the big bands would ask about their shoes and they'd hand them my card and say: 'Call my guy George.'"
He wouldn't land his first retail account (Fred Segal Feet) until 2002, and even today his bricks-and-mortar footprint remains surprisingly small, currently selling in just nine U.S. stores (Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and A'Maree's in Newport Beach among them). His shoes are also in a dozen international stores and online at Bonobos for men's and Net-a-Porter for women's.
Those stores stock Esquivel's off-the-shelf offerings, a range of ready-made styles and sizes that retail from $600 to $800. The next step up is made-to-order, which offers standard sizes but allows customers to specify a particular style, material and color (roughly $950 to $1,500). The top tier of the line consists of shoes fully custom-designed and made from the sole up that start at $4,000.
In addition to his own line of shoes and the occasional small leather goods (think bags, business card holders and lapel pins), Esquivel is a frequent collaborator with other designers, including Zero + Maria Cornejo, Juan Carlos Obando and jeweler Irene Neuwirth. Coming up next is a collection of hand-painted, hand-cut leather watch bands for Westime.
Esquivel says the size and flexibility of his all-under-one-roof operation make filling one-off orders and collaborative ventures "super easy, because we have it all downstairs. I wouldn't be able to do that if I was making a hundred thousand pairs of shoes a year."
Another thing it makes easy is the development of new and unusual finishes, all meticulously cataloged in a three-ring binder labeled "recipe book."
For his fall-winter 2013 collection, inspired by Pablo Picasso, that means hand-painted details that resemble buttons, seams and wingtip perforations. For an upcoming resort collection, it means a woven pattern tanned into sandal straps. And by tanned we mean by the sun.
"I'm trying to have some fun with shoes," Esquivel says. "And you can't get more environmentally friendly — or Southern California — than sun-tanned leather, right?
"How amazing is that?"