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Originally published January 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2008 at 2:01 AM

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Couple uses traditional methods to craft custom shoes

The handmade mock Oxfords, in cognac-colored calfskin, will be Martin Stieglitz's first pair of dress shoes in six years. The retired Boeing manager...

Seattle Times staff reporter

About Rubaiyat

The shop at 219 James St. in downtown Seattle is open 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and by appointment on Saturdays. Information: 206-551-3986.

The handmade mock Oxfords, in cognac-colored calfskin, will be Martin Stieglitz's first pair of dress shoes in six years.

The retired Boeing manager has chronic foot problems, yet he wouldn't be caught dead in a pair of orthopedic shoes. There was a time when it seemed he was doomed to wear nothing but athletic shoes, as he did on a recent trip to Paris.

Then he heard about Melinda and Louis Whisler.

"It's just impossible to find dressier shoes off the shelf," Stieglitz, 64, said as Melinda Whisler knelt at his feet, checking the fit of the Bellevue man's so-far-sole-less right Oxford.

From their cramped, cluttered shop called Rubiayat, tucked between a barber shop and a Mexican restaurant on James Street in downtown Seattle, the Whislers are carrying on a 40-year legacy of designing and handcrafting sandals, mules, pumps, Mary Janes, boots and casual slip-ons.

With a 60-year-old Italian sewing machine, a grind sander and decades of know-how, the couple have brought their "wearable art" in flamboyant leathers and exotic skins to rock stars, famous athletes and an anonymous Microsoft executive — not Bill Gates — who once ordered a pair of red Superman boots.

Their shoes aren't cheap, but they're made to last. And the Whislers see themselves as "shoe artisans," among the last of a dying tradition of custom shoemakers who still follow traditional methods with a shared philosophy and social conscience to fight what they call "overpriced, throwaway shoes."

"This is our small contribution to what's real in a cardboard, synthetic world," said Louis Whisler, 68. "We're trying to do something with gravitas, something with substance, something real in a superficial world."

A love of shoes

Louis Whisler is the son of Hungarian immigrants who owned a shoe store in Ohio. As a young man he worked for a large shoe company and traveled around Europe, seeing how some of the finest designer shoes were made and bringing trends from London, Amsterdam and Paris to the U.S.

In 1964, on a bus in Monterey, Calif., he spied Melinda, a young Bay Area native with an artistic streak.

"Every time the bus would stop, she'd slide into me and say, 'Whoops!' " Louis Whisler recalled.

They were married six weeks later. They have seven children, and their 12th grandchild is due in the spring.

The husband-and-wife team shares a love for shoes, so they blended Melinda's artistry and Louis' shoemaking know-how to build their family business.

Eventually, the Whislers had three stores in the San Francisco area. Over the years, they say, they've shod rocker Tina Turner, opera star Renée Fleming and ice-skater Peggy Fleming; and they put Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane fame into a pair of reindeer boots.

But in time they were priced out of the Bay Area. So they packed up and headed north to Seattle in the early 1990s, settling on Capitol Hill. When rent there became too pricey, they moved to their 440-square-foot spot at 219 James St., around the corner from the King County Courthouse.

"A lost art form"

In Seattle, their clients tend to be lawyers, writers, artists and other professionals looking for unique footwear they're not about to spy on another pair of feet. Customers participate in the design of their shoes, choosing toe shapes and heel heights and selecting from more than 80 colors of leather — or lizard, alligator, python, shark and stingray.

A pair of shoes usually takes about six weeks to make and ranges in price from $345 to $1,300 or more for exotic skins.

Still, their $1,800 alligator shoes are a steal considering stores in Los Angeles and New York charge $3,500 and up, Louis Whisler quickly points out.

"We like selling shoes everybody can afford," he said.

A thin layer of leather dust coats everything in the tiny shop.

Melinda Whisler, 62, measures customers' feet and uses a wax pencil, butcher paper and a razor blade to create shoe patterns. She stitches the leather pieces together, then passes the uppers off to her husband.

He spritzes the leather with water and lets it mull overnight in a paper bag. Then, using pliers and a hammer, Louis Whisler tacks the leather upper to a form.

They take the forms home to their Capitol Hill apartment and bake them in a 110-degree oven for 20 minutes to shrink the leather just enough so that they will form-fit to the customer's feet.

Finally, the bottoms are grinded and the forms removed. Louis Whisler pounds and glues the soles to the bottoms and glues on molded, nylon heels.

"It's an art form, a lost art form," Melinda Whisler says.

"Nobody can do what she can do," Louis Whisler adds. "I do the pick-and-shovel work — she's the artist."

On Thursday, as Melinda Whisler and Martin Stieglitz discussed tweaks to his $550 Oxfords, Stieglitz's wife, Ann, browsed the shop. She picked up a red leather pump with black detailing.

"There's nothing I wouldn't wear in here — they're just gorgeous," she said. "I never knew there was so much work, engineering and craftsmanship [involved]. This is craft and skill."

The Whislers announced that Stieglitz's shoes would be ready the first week of February — just in time for a trip to California.

Ann Stieglitz kissed the top of her husband's head and smiled.

"You can take me out," she told him.

"Ah, jeez," he said with a grin. "Now I have to take her to an expensive place."

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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