Debra Hovel might have been born with an affinity for fancy shoes, but her talent for making them required some training.
“The first pair of sandals I ever made wasn’t even wearable,” concedes the custom footwear designer.
She clarifies: “I made them out of water reeds. I was 5 years old.”
Hovel’s second pair came decades later, after a few lessons in shoemaking, she says, holding out exquisitely embellished ruby spoon-heeled mules.
“I designed these to wear to my daughter’s wedding in 2010.”
• See related story: Debral Hovel among Three Honorees at 2019 Women Who Lead luncheon.
Upon learning that sparkly red shoes were not appropriate for the traditional affair, Hovel set them aside in wait for another occasion. Their creation, however, spurred Hovel into an obsession — and a supplementary career — with shoemaking.
Her feet hugged in chic cowhide moccasins (“they’re cowboy boots for me!”), Hovel leans over her worktable, tracing the outline of a vintage platform heel. A stack of shelves above it is lined with several shoes, no two pair looking remotely similar and each pair provided with its own name and custom owner’s manual.
“They’re all handcrafted and one-of-a-kind,” she says.
Bags upon bags of lasts (foot molds) line the perimeter of her studio. Bundles of leather and textiles are piled in closets, corners, and on countertops. From stenciled leather loafers to green suede pointed-toe pumps and pale pink mules ornamented with massive pink silk roses, Hovel’s collections for men and women feature a variety of heels, heights, colors, silhouettes, and materials. (“I have a passion for unusual fabrics and trims,” she says.)
Seeking inspiration in everything from tango dreams to world travel to a trip to the market, Hovel finds materials in the most unexpected places, including a sample bin in a New York showroom (her cowhides) and a farm in the Midwest (she once spun a seed bag into sophisticated flats).
Clients will often bring their own materials, such as their grandmother’s upholstery or a remnant of a sentimental garment, that they want made into special-occasion shoes. Some pairs can even be made as two in one: Hovel points to sequined stilettos lined with removable fringe.
“When the client is feeling wild, she can wear the boho trim!”
When an event calls for more conservative attire, the attachment simply unfastens from a peg. From a client fitting to the last finish, each pair takes about 40 hours to construct, on average, and prices start at $1,200. Such exotic materials as animal skins are more costly.
And if a prospective client admires one of Hovel’s creations on a friend and covets an identical pair?
“People often ask and I won’t do it,” she says. “Making the same thing twice doesn’t interest me; life is too short. I’ll tell them, ‘If you like that, then you might like this.”
Visit debrahovelfootwear.com for more information.