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Thursday, Oct. 14, 2004 01:55 am

Sole man


In high school, Joey McMakin began assembling a collection of fashionable 1950s and '60s shoes, salvaged from thrift stores or purposely purchased in their original tissue wrapping from older downtown department stores. For his senior project at Springfield High School, he created one beautifully styled original shoe, decorated like a piece of sculpture, recalls art teacher Jim Edwards.

Doug Mayol, a close friend and neighbor, says McMakin was precocious in his tastes. It was McMakin, Mayol recalls, who first introduced him to the theatrical style of Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis, the grace of Dinah Washington, the vibes of Billie Holiday. "We were sort of children of another era," Mayol says. "I didn't appreciate it as much at the time, as I do now." Mayol and McMakin were never really into sports, Mayol says: "We were busy designing floor plans for imaginary houses and erecting miniature models of buildings."

"Like other grade-school kids, we played Gilligan's Island, but we created art in the basement and planned to start a business together -- though none of us was old enough to work at the time." The young entrepreneurs had planned to call the shop the Nutshell but lost interest in the project as they entered their teens. (Mayol, who is few years older than McMakin, did fulfill the dream, and in the 1970s began the shop which has morphed into a successful, hip downtown gift-and-greeting-card enterprise, the Cardologist.)

Even though he was the littlest kid on the block, McMakin was a daredevil bike-rider and the one with the moxie to go to the bowling alley and try to buy cigarettes. Mayol says that when they made prank phone calls to random households, they conducted surveys about beauty products and personal grooming, ingeniously connecting a loudspeaker to the phone so that all in the room could hear and laugh atthe replies.

McMakin, for his part, never lost his fascination with footwear. Augmented by his innate artistic talent and keen design skill, his sense of shoe style began to shine after he completed a degree in painting at Illinois State University and traveled to Paris in the early 1980s. A two-month visit stretched to three years as he mastered French conversation, then landed his first job designing shoes for the largest footwearcompany in France, Stephane Kélian.

Twenty years later, McMakin, now based in Paris, is still designing shoes, now for an Italian footwearcouture company that produces shoesselling for $500 to $1,000 a pair.

McMakin, who returns to central Illinois occasionally to visit family and friends, says that much of his success came from being in the right place at the right time. Kélian was just opening its first boutique in New York and wanted an American influence. "I had studied the French language for a couple of years in school, but speaking it every day was a different experience," McMakin says. "I learned the jargon while learning about making shoes."

McMakin has designed sport and daywear shoes for large companies such as Nine West and worked in the design office of Ralph Lauren. Experience has taught him that although many companies manufacture shoes in Spain, Brazil, and China, it is France and Italy that are renowned for producing the finest haute couture footwear.

As an independent contractor, McMakin is now the principal outside designer for Renè Caovilla, a family-owned shoe company that offers a few dozen new styles of women's dress shoes, sandals, and boots each season. The company is considered "high-end confidential" (meaning that it engages in exclusive, not mainstream, marketing) and sells its shoes in Europe, Japan, and Australia; the cities of Beirut and Jeddah; and the emirate of Dubai.

In America, Renè Caovilla shoes are available to shoppers in New York and a handful of other large cities through Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and the like. Many of the rich and Hollywood famous hire "dressers," to whom shoes such as McMakin's styles are promoted directly. Dressers for Ashley Judd, Sharon Stone, Beyoncé, Tori Amos, and Catherine Deneuve are such customers. Caovilla shoes decorated with a draping of real jewels have been custom-made for an Arabian princess as well.

For inspiration, McMakin has looked to vintage shoes, using his own collection and window-shopping at the Shoe Museum at Romans-sur-Isère, at the gateway to Provencein France. That's not uncommon, he says: Designers such as Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren buy or rent all sorts of fashion pieces from vintage collectors in New York.

But ideas must translate into designs that fit the needs and expectations of the buyer. McMakin says one of the main challenges of being a freelance designer is adapting to a given company's culture: "Learn their language -- what they think is modern or sexy. Sometimes what one finds commercial the other might find unsalable."

"Wearable architecture"

Looking at a pair of artistic and elegantly flamboyant sandals or pumps designed by McMakin, one might wonder, "How are such shoes actually made?"

The design begins with a sketch combining various toe shapes, ankle straps, and fastenings, perhaps with the shank narrowed for a vintage look or delicate feminine air. McMakin takes the drawing to a last-maker, who crafts the support structures of shoes, and together they create a prototype. At this stage the duo decides whether the new creation can actually be made for a pair of feet to wear. "This involves problem-solving and a calculation of time, money, and effort. It boils down to how much the factory wants to invest," McMakin says.

Each season, McMakin produces a handful of new sketches, selects some sample jeweled or velvet ornaments and fabric swatches, and makes the trek from his home in Paris to the factory in Italy where most of the prototypes will be produced within a few, hectic weeks.

"There are egos to deal with, and companies are different -- there can be competing objectives with designers and number-crunchers," McMakin says. Over time the designer has seen that many industry buyers are not in love with the product, as he is, but instead care about the bottom line.

"What's nice about the company I currently work with [Caovilla] is that they like styles that are over the top and can produce a small quantity of each style -- as few as 10 pairs." This means McMakin is free to experiment with exotic materials, ethereal colors, radical cutouts, and spiky heels that give the illusion of walking on air. Most companies, he says, standardize for the majority and so aren't able to produce every style with a different lining and insole with satin-stitch trim in contrasting colors, purely for aesthetic purposes.

McMakin says he sees shoes as wearable architecture and adds details to a great piece to make it "pop!" This is possible in his realm because Italy is home to the factories that provide the suede and goatskin in an unearthly array of colors, unique high-quality buckles and bows, handmade trims, and fine beadwork, and the Coavillas possess warehouse stockpiles of satin and shoe fabrics that would make Imelda Marcos salivate.

For McMakin, it comes down to selling each new design to the company. "It's all about look. Our company goes beyond fashion -- 'dream shoes,' I like to think." The owner and the family members who work with him in the business often remind McMakin, usually in language that blends French and Italian shoe-industry jargon, that the combination of material, color, and style must "sing." McMakin says he has worked for companies that focus on being commercially successful and want beauty that is understandable. But now, he declares with a smile, "The Coavillas don't want anything too simple, because that's not their niche. The sky's the limit -- you can go as high as you want.

"A lot of women really like themselves in beautiful shoes. High heels change your presence, your comportment, the way you hold yourself." McMakin notes that the human foot is malleable, butjust a few millimeters in the height of a shoe can mean the difference between ecstasy and agony. Although McMakin has designed shoes in a range of styles, his current milieu is three- to four-inch narrow heels, but even with lower midheight spiked heels he is able to create an optical illusion of stature: "To wear high heels like this, you have to change your center of gravity. If you put all your weight on your feet, it ruins the effect, and clomp, clomp, clomp."

McMakin explains, "These are not everyday shoes. These are very special shoes for special occasions, like, to wear for a couple of hours out to a restaurant or party." And as for walking miles into town from the "frontier," his customers don't. These women are gracefully chauffeured to the doors of their luxury destinations.

Though many people have accepted the notion that comfortable shoes liberate women, McMakin says his female friends enjoy wearing stylish high heels, including his cutting-edge designs. "I think fashionable shoes are something that most women, whether or not they fit with a stereotype or ideal, recognize as the pinnacle of femininity. It makes them feel like a goddess who can defy gravity," he says. He says women friends have told him that they aspire to that because it makes them feel good. "There's no reason to feel victimized by it," he says. "I think more and more women are willing to explore their schizophrenia: We're not always the same person."

For both sexes, McMakin says, wearing fashionable shoes is like putting on a new hat, lending what he calls a "transformative" quality.

Fashionable shoes certainly helped change Joey McMakin's life.

"From that first single red patent leather shoe sculpture he turned in as a senior project, little did I know Joey's life would be transformed," says Jim Edwards, McMakin's Springfield High art teacher.

"His going on to build a career in fashion as a recognized footwear designer has brought a sense of gratification to me, as a teacher."

Catherine O'Connor, also an alumna of Jim Edwards' art class at Springfield High School, works in the Preservation Services Division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, managing programs for local government constituents. Including those of her daughter, Mary, who is also a footwear fanatic, Catherine once counted more than 200 pairs of shoes in her house.

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