It wasn’t that long ago that the shoe repair business in Buffalo was on rocky ground. Then, out of the blue came Brian Gavigan who was looking for a career change. Gavigan began apprenticing with a local shoe repair person, and eventually opened up his own shop on Elmwood called Sole Man.
Since opening, Gavigan has learned the ropes quickly, and efficiently. In fact, he’s become so good at what he does, that he recently entered into his first international shoe competition which was held in Wiesbaden, Germany in March. Incredibly Gavigan came away with a silver at the competition, which is almost unprecedented for such a young artisan to accomplish.
“It was a complete thrill and surprise, packaged into one amazing trip to finally meet my idols of the trade,” said Gavigan. “These are people that I’ve reached out to and admired over the years – we’re a worldwide family of about 1000 dedicated cobblers… there are not many of us out there… it’s like a family to a certain degree. To be part of this group, and to be recognized for my work is very humbling.”
Gavigan told me that taking the silver was beyond rewarding. He also said that he owes everything to the cobblers that came before him, who he learned from, and who inspired him. At the same time, Gavigan has been setting his own precedents and standards in the industry, which is partially why he is on the international radar.
“Four years ago, when I started in this business, I decided that I wanted to find old classic shoes and repair them,” said Gavigan. “I found the best of the best – shoes that had been discarded, but I knew that the shoes could be restored and brought back to life. Most cobblers take shoes in from customers, repair them, and hand them back. I wanted to have a haberdashery at my shop featuring pristinely refurbished vintage shoes, which is a bit unusual in the industry. I began fixing up some of the best shoes from around the world, and then selling them in my shop. Today I have a devoted clientele that comes in looking for these shoes. Unfortunately, in just four years time, it’s getting very hard to find quality discarded shoes. People used to just give them to places like Goodwill, but now they are highly sought after because customers know that they can be restored back to their original quality. There are people going crazy for these shoes online too.”
When I asked Gavigan why someone might buy a restored vintage shoe over a new shoe, he answered that brand new shoes have gone down in quality, yet the price remains the same. Beautiful shoes that are being made today are expensive. So if you can find a beat up pair of shoes that were made by premier shoe makers 50 years ago, then it’s worth it to restore them and resell them. “I think I’ve opened up a little bit of that in the market, which is why I’ve done so well here in Buffalo, and why I’m respected in the industry,” noted Gavigan. “I believe I’ve helped to open people’s eyes to the possibilities. You can travel the globe and not find a shop like Sole Man that has a haberdashery such as this, with the selection of carefully restored shoes. Believe it or not, this type of thinking is relatively new.”
As for winning the silver a the competition in Germany, Gavigan told me that the process of entering involved taking a pair of vintage shoes and restoring one, while leaving the other one in the “as is” state of disrepair. “I chose a pair of old Nettleton shoes (lead image) from the 60s,” said Brian. “It’s a unique shoe with unique construction. I ended up recreating and even redesigning the shoe because the leather was completely shot. I ended up taking layers off the shoe, and turned it into a finely sanded suede. Honestly, I don’t think anyone had ever seen this before – the shoe went from flaking apart to a masterpiece.”
Gavigan told me that he is dedicated to his craft, and remains in awe of the other cobblers from around the world that he has met. He feels that he is helping to preserve the shoe repair traditions, while breaking new grounds at the same time. “In the end,” he noted. “It’s all about educating the customers about what proper footwear is. The more people that know about good footwear, the more cobblers you will see stay in business.”