If Kevin Leffler has walked a long and winding road to get to Tahoe City, at least he’s done so in a darn good pair of shoes.
“I was working as a cobbler and Western leatherworker at Carter’s Boots and Repair in Bozeman, Mont., when I started making my own designs,” says the South Lake Tahoe craftsman. “Having come from the San Francisco area originally, I quickly learned I was interested in fashion and classic styles considered timeless.”
“The reason it’s interpreted as a lost art is indicative of a general trend of how disposable everything in our society is today. … When there is a lost art, there is found opportunity. What I do is classic, timeless and elegant.” –Kevin Leffler
Leffler was taking shoemaking classes and designing his own line at home after work when one day he called up master shoemaker John Allen Woodward of Boulder, Colo. “He gets up to $10,000 for a pair of cowboy boots so I thought this was a good place to start,” Leffler says.
Woodward ever so kindly gave him some sound advice.
“I told him I was searching for apprenticeships and I was willing to go anywhere to learn how to make shoes,” Leffler says. “He told me, ‘No shoemaker in their right mind has any time to train an apprentice. It takes five to 10 years of experience to become proficient. You’re going to learn more working for the biggest shoe repair operation you can find than you will apprenticing with an independent shoemaker like me.’ ”
So Leffler found the biggest shoe-repair operation west of the Mississippi at Dardano’s Shoes in Denver, Colo., hoping to learn all he could.
“It’s a family-owned-and-operated, shoe-repair facility that’s been around since 1938,” he says. “I worked with a Mexican guy named Alberto Pallares who didn’t speak a word of English. He and I alone were responsible for 30 to 50 pairs of shoes a day. I learned most of my technical skills from Alberto. He was so good with his hands, so fast, so crafty.”
After working at Dardano’s for 15 months, Leffler took a journeyman’s approach to shoemaking. He studied with distinguished craftsmen across the country, from Frank Beneduci of San Francisco to Perry Ercolino of Doylestown, Penn., who is known for making shoes for President Obama and boots for Leonardo DiCaprio’s role in the movie “Titanic.”
“I learned from the best,” says Leffler. “I took something different from each one and moved on.”
Then one day Leffler was at lunch with Woodward when his mentor offered him a job.
“ ‘You’d be a fool not to come work for me,’ he told me,” Leffler recalls. “I was the first employee he’d ever officially hired. He took a chance with me that he never took with anyone else. That’s when I took a jump and stepped into the world of fashion and exotics. I went from being a cobbler to luxury shoemaker.”
Leffler opened his own shop in July 2016 at Lakeview Plaza in South Lake Tahoe offering bespoke shoes, custom-made belts and wallets of leather, alligator, string ray and other exotic materials.
“Bespoke means ‘made to measure and custom made for one,’ ” he explains. “The whole concept is really more about service. If the belt doesn’t fit, send it back.”
Every shoe starts with a customer’s measurements. The shoemaker then makes a form of the client’s feet out of hard plastic. This is called a last. Leather is stretched and formed over the last and reinforcements are added. Finally, soles are installed before the shoes are hand painted and burnished with a selection of custom dyes.
“When you get a pair of Leffler Shoes, you’re going to have a one-of-a-kind product from any color of the rainbow,” says the craftsman.
Leffler teaches an Introduction to Leatherworking class at Lake Tahoe Community College where he believes there has been a rejuvenation of interest in lost arts such as shoemaking.
“The reason it’s interpreted as a lost art is indicative of a general trend of how disposable everything in our society is today,” he says. “But this doesn’t mean there is a loss of interest. When there is a lost art, there is found opportunity. What I do is classic, timeless and elegant.”
Now a master shoemaker himself, Leffler recently expanded his product across the lake into Tahoe Taylord men’s clothing and alterations store at Cobblestone Center in Tahoe City.
“We work in similar ways with our clients by doing things uniquely and creatively and by focusing on customer satisfaction with all our goods,” says partner Kate Taylor. “So, I think it’s going to be a good fit, so to speak.”