this Brooklyn son fuses heritage and innovation in his family craft
by James Tate • photos by jon Gordon
On a nondescript corner of McDonald Avenue in South Brooklyn, tucked beneath the elevated F line tracks, lies a storied destination in the field of bespoke footwear. The unassuming storefront reads simply, “Der’s Custom Boots & Shoes, Inc.,” and a casual passerby would likely not suspect that at work within are some of the world’s most sought-after craftsmen in their trade. It’s only after reading “By Appointment Only” that the business name becomes clearer, as this is one of a tiny handful of artisan bootmakers—famous world-over among elite horseback riders (including Olympians) and celebrities.
Inside the shop, master cobblers, some in the second and third generation of the trade, work by hand over every riding and daily-wear boot that will be embossed with the distinctive “DD” initials. Each pair, made to order, is fitted to its owner and takes six to eight weeks to complete. This is the way Der Dau has produced footwear since founder Jose Der began the company nearly 60 years ago, after arriving in New York City from Cuba before that country was upended by revolution.
“After 60 years, Brooklyn is home,” said Jose’s son, Joseph Der, the company’s CEO and a master cobbler himself. “It’s where my craftsmen live…it’s where we put a foothold. And I’ll tell you, Brooklyn is really becoming the new Manhattan.”
Joseph personally designs and cuts boot patterns alongside the company’s workers; the result is a multidimensional awareness of process and result.
“The craftsmen who are with me have been with me for twenty-plus years,” he said. “Their fathers worked with my father. It’s something that you’re born into and learn, and it’s something that you need to be passionate about.”
Jose Der apprenticed as a cobbler in Cuba under an uncle, from whom he learned the trade of custom-making bespoke boots and shoes.
“He came to New York in the 1940s and worked at a shoe repair shop,” said Joseph. “There, he actually met an equestrian rider, a guy from New Jersey, who asked him ‘Can you make this pair of boots for me?’ From then, it was word of mouth…even today all of our marketing is word of mouth.”
As word spread, Der Dau established itself as a fashion leader in a highly traditional field, where innovation can be constrained by the needs of buyers.
“An equestrian’s boots are tall, and very simple,” Dau said, made to protect the rider’s leg from pinching by the saddle, and with pronounced heels that prevent them from sliding through the stirrup—riding boots have a form that strictly follows function.
“Years ago, there were no zippers and there was much heavier leather,” the CEO explained. “You see old pictures of equestrian riders, and their boots are big and baggy. They actually used to step into a bucket of water to soften them up. Nowadays, leather is different.”
Even with contemporary improvements available to cobblers, heritage is king among the top riders who make up Der Dau’s clientele.
“Even with the options we have now, equestrian style is still very traditional,” the CEO said, adding that modern changes might seem invisible at first. “Memory foam footbeds, arch
support, and orthotics built into the boot…and for those with orthopedic problems, we specialize in that kind of work. But we’re known as one of the pioneers, as being fashion-forward in the equestrian market.…known for our celebrity and other affluent clientele.”
For example, Der Dau was an early introducer of exotic dyes and skins, such as ostrich and alligator, that complement the calfskin primarily used in the shop (sourced from France and Italy).
“Fashion riding boots might also have cuffs or crystals,” Joseph added. “We take the old techniques, but then put in a zipper down the back to make the boot easier to get in and out of, or put in a long elastic panel for people with fluctuating weight, so that the calf will always fit.”
Despite changing trends and availability of materials, Der Dau’s trade remains anchored to the age-old cobbler’s practice of flawlessly matching every shoe to the foot on which it’s worn.
“It starts with a measurement,” Dau explained. “You have to have a qualified person to measure each left and right foot, because when it comes to bespoke, there are significant [foot] differences; we don’t make the left match the right. Once that’s done, you have the designer make and cut the pattern,” which is, he said, a task that Dau still gives himself.
“Then you have a person who makes a foot molding from the client’s measurements. You have the cutter who actually takes the pattern that was designed and cuts the leather by hand. Then, using all the pieces of leather you have the stitcher, who takes the finished upper, as we call it, and molds it to the client’s cast foot. You also have the finisher, who puts on the soles and heels and finishing touches, the blocker, who molds the leg, and then there are the polisher and detailer, so you have nine or ten people whose hands are on each and every boot before it’s ready to be worn.”
The workers’ commitment to their craft has put Der Dau in the spotlight of a celebrity audience that has included countless professional equestrians, Madonna, Paul Newman, and other Broadway and Hollywood notables.
“We did Tarzan,” Der said. “We did The Color Purple…we did Spider-Man. We make boots for re-enactments and movies, but the soul of the company is the longstanding customers who return after decades. We still get boots back after twenty years to have them re-soled, re-heeled, re-dyed…made to look like new again. The clients who reach out to me are educated about bespoke quality. There are only a few of us in the world who do what we do; we definitely stand out.”
Der Dau Custom Made Boots and Shoes
1885 McDonald Avenue / 718.336.4513 / derdau.com