Ever seen a pair of Horween shell cordovan Nikes? No, you almost certainly haven’t—until now.
I know I haven’t. And who knows, some may be out there! But Bill Wuyek 100% definitely just created these black and color 8 Horween shell cordovan Nikes—which at first look like Jordan 1 lows, but aren’t quite that, thanks to a bunch of original touches in the pattern design from Wuyek—and they are, simply, remarkable.
We don’t often cover sneakers at Stitchdown—pretty much never so far, actually. But as I’m sure is the case with many of you, my own personal obsession with quality footwear was initially driven by a love of sneakers. And Wuyek himself is an Alden and Red Wing devotee, who recently studied under shoecraft/customization wizard Jake Ferrato of JBF Customs fame. 32 hours and a whole bunch of shell later, he created these size-15 masterpieces—and won’t be stopping there.
By day, Wuyek is the owner of Atlanta-based District Leather—at which he crafts leather wallets, watch straps, and accessories—as well as District Leather Supply, which ensures that leatherworking businesses from the hyper-small to medium sized can get the materials and equipment they need to make the good stuff happen.
As soon as I saw the shoes, I absolutely had to talk to Bill about how he made them, what he’s going to make next, and a ton more—including whether or not future shell Nikes will be up for sale.
Stitchdown: So, how’d you do it, and where’d the idea start? Walk me through everything.
Bill: I’ve always had an interest in footwear. One of the reasons why I’ve been so interested in it is because I have really large, unusually shaped feet. And forever it’s been really difficult to get cool shoes. So whenever I found something in my size, I tended to buy it. So I have a gigantic shoe collection.
Stitchdown: What kind of stuff?
Bill: When I used to work in corporate I got 14 pair of Allen Edmonds. And when I started making a little more money, and also when I got into leathercraft and learned more about Horween, that kind of opened up the Alden door for me. I’ve got four pairs of Indys now, one of them is shell.
It all started off with Chromexcel—I got a little sliver of it. And then I got a little piece of shell cordovan and it was like, oh my god, this is amazing. I need to get more of this. And I formed a relationship with Horween and managed to get a pretty decent stockpile of it. And I knew that eventually I wanted to try to make my own shoes from shell, because there were not that many shoe makers out there that either offered Horween shell, or if they did, I couldn’t get something in my size or the style that I like. So I’ve always wanted to make some really cool penny loafers or eventually maybe even sneakers. It was just this far-off idea.
I started dabbling in shoecraft and bought several pairs of Red Wings from eBay. I took them apart, I re-welted them, resoled them. So I’m working on the bottom half of the shoe but the upper was always kind of a mystery. I understood the concept of lasting and what it took to do that, but didn’t really know the rules of the road there. But even before getting to lasting—it was pattern making. How do I start with the last and some tape and get the pieces I needed to assemble to make the actual shoe upper?
And so I realized recently that I should just take the opportunity to go train with somebody and fill in those gaps. And I was lucky enough to find some time to visit Jake Ferrato—I went up to Cleveland about three weeks ago. I bought some Jordans and I removed the upper, so they just had the sole. I already knew how to deconstruct a shoe. I bought the lasts ahead of time, I brought my donor shoes and Jake showed me how to tape the last and basically said, “okay, what do you want to make?”
The donors that I bought—and I didn’t know they were called donors until recently, but that’s the pair of shoes that you use the soles from—were some regular Jordan 1 mids. I figured, I don’t really want to remake mids necessarily. Let’s go for some low tops. And Jake handed me a pencil and I just sketched the design on the tape on the last.
All of this is different than a very popular shoe reconstruction method, which is decon/recon, where you remove the upper from the sole, then you actually disassemble the upper and draw patterns based on the pieces that the upper was made from. It’s really practical if you’re making one style and one size of shoe. But I always wanted to learn how to actually like make patterns from a last. So now with the skills that I learned from Jake, I can get a last, tape it up, and do any kind of design that I want to, and I know how to turn that sketch into patterns to make any style of shoe.
I wanted to kind of take it a step higher and go beyond just me being able to make Jordans. The next pair of shoes I’m going to make is actually going to be a moc-toe, out of shell, on a Jordan sole. Just cause I think it’s kind of cool.
Stitchdown: So what are these then? Because they look a lot like Jordan 1s obviously, but a little different.
Bill: They’re inspired. I kept the same kind of mud guard line and the vamp style. I didn’t poke the holes in the vamp, kept a clean toe. The beginning of the lacing panels, that’s inspired by the Jordan as well. And then the back of the heel counter and the ankle area, if you compare the shell versions of my shoes to the actual Jordan 1 lows, it’s really different. It’s not a direct copy and I’m really proud of that too. We sat down and we sketched out the lines on the last and kind of—I wouldn’t say creating something original, but it’s not something that anybody else has made so far.
And I have almost all the machines that I need here at my shop. So I got home and two days later I was already cutting into the shell.
Stitchdown: Talk me through the construction—what was the process like there? And how is it different than creating, say, shell Indy boots?
Bill: There a lot of similarities. You’ve got a shell upper with some sort of liner, and then rigid heel counters and toe puffs. And then maybe where it’s different is we’re hand lasting versus using a machine. The Indy boots would have a welt, but in this case, once we last we’re going to add a filler and then just glue the upper to the sole. But it all starts with cutting patterns and skiving. Clean stitch lines—it’s really difficult to keep straight lines, and it was incredible to watch Jake. He free-hands all of the stitching, and it’s almost flawless, and I could not get anywhere close to that.
On the shell itself, I made sure I beveled the edges. I burnished them just like I was making a wallet, and dyed them—if you don’t, you end up with raw edges on the shell, and it could stand out. So I felt like that was a pretty critical step in making a darker pair. I still messed up a lot, but it was my first pair, and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out.
Stitchdown: And it’s all color 8 Horween shell?
Bill: Color 8 and black. The vamp, the tongue and quarters are black. There’s a lot of color variation on the pieces of shell, and it gave me a lot more respect for Alden, Allen Edmonds, Viberg—those companies that work a lot with Horween shell. Especially the lighter colored stuff. You look at whiskey shell, it’s really hard to match up the tone and also the direction. If you hold shell at a certain angle, it looks like a different color compared to another piece. I actually pulled some whiskey shell off my shelf, and I really wanted to dive in and start cutting it. But then I realized, oh my god, if I don’t really plan this out, I can end up with this streaky-looking four-tone, brown colored pair of shoes.
Stitchdown: What other challenges or surprises did you run into when you were making them?
Bill: Some newbie stuff. I didn’t have any thermoplastic, which is typical in sneaker-making for the toe puffs and heel counters. So I decided to make leather toe puffs and heel counters. I’d never done that before, I’d never seen anybody do that before. So I just tried to wing it. And I’m pretty proud of myself, but by the time I got the upper lasted and I put it in the sole, I realized that I hadn’t done a great job of construction and it wasn’t rigid enough, so that the heel and the toe started to collapse a little bit. So that’s one lesson I’ve learned.
Also if you look at Indys or Alden dress shoes, or any of that, there’s not any foam in the equation. But in these shoes there’s foam in the tongue and around the collar. I’m still searching for the correct or the type of foam that will give the collar a nice pillowy look, but is also easy to work with. So that’s a little bit tougher than I expected.
Stitchdown: Do you have any expectations on how these shoes, and the shell, are going to hold up? Compared to your Indys or really any other shoes, there’s a lot of pieces, a lot of stitching. What are your hopes for them?
Bill: I have supreme confidence in the stitching. I’m very familiar with the glue that I used to hold the pieces together, and the machine sewing that I did has a high stitch per inch counts—they’re going to hold together really well. I’m really curious to see how shell is going to roll in the vamp. I’m excited to wear them for awhile and see what happens.
Stitchdown: How many hours did these take? Or how many hours do you think the next pair will take now that you’ve got some moves down?
Bill: I did the slow way, with this pair. When I cut the shell panels out, I beveled and burnished every exposed edge. Next time I’d probably just dye. Or if I do a lighter color, whiskey or bourbon or natural, I could just leave the edges exposed, maybe burnish a little bit. But that’ll save some time. I had about 32 hours into this pair up until the photo that was snapped. The next time, I think I can do all of that in probably eight fewer hours. But we’ll see!
Stitchdown: I’ve seen the Red Wings with the Air Force One outsoles. What else have you done along these lines?
Bill: Those are the three pair that I bought on eBay that I decided to take the soles off, that I was going to eventually resole. Those were all wedge soles and I wanted to convert them all to Roccia soles, like the Beckmans used to have. At that time I had actually wanted to make a pair of shell Air Force Ones and I was like, well, what is this going to take? I want to explore it. So I bought a pair of Air Force Ones, I learned how to take them apart and I had actually used the recon method to make pattern pieces of shell Air Force One. I just never got around to assembling it. But it took me doing that to realize that maybe this isn’t the best way to learn how to make a shoe upper. That I really want to work on it from a taped last, and learn how to make the patterns myself.
The Instagram photos of the Red Wings in the Air Force One sole, one day I was like, huh, that looks pretty interesting. Let me just take a couple shots of what this would look like.
Stitchdown: They look cool!
Bill: Yeah, I mean it’s kind of interesting and unique. And I had one set of soles and three pairs of boots and I could never decide which ones I wanted to permanently fix to the sole. So I never ended up doing it. I actually kind of expected to see a few of them out in the world after posting that. But it maybe didn’t catch on, or maybe didn’t make it it in front of me. I don’t know. But it may still happen one day.
Stitchdown: What else are you dreaming up now?
Bill: I’d like to keep making some of these Jordan 1-inspired lows in different shell combinations. I really want to do a single color pair if I can pull off whiskey without there being that color direction issue. I’d personally get giddy about that. And then after that start kind of just coming up with my own designs that aren’t necessarily a reflection of the Nike or any of the other type of shoe. But I definitely want to keep working with shell. It’s fun, man. Having shell at my disposal, and the tools in the shop because I am a leather worker with a supply shop. I’ve got the candy store basically. I’m not a huge sneakerhead either. I’m a Red Wing fan and Alden fan, and I just started getting interested in sneakers recently actually. So all these worlds are kind of colliding and it’s really fascinating. So I’m just going to have fun and see what happens.
Stitchdown: Tell me a little bit about your day-to-day at District Leather and District Leather Supply?
Bill: It’s been a fascinating journey since I quit my corporate job a little over two years ago. I started with the intent of pursuing District Leather full-time, which is my leather goods business, making wallets, watch straps, belts, whatever. About six months into that I ended up selling off some of my surplus leather and tools to recoup some of the money to put towards other projects. And that’s when the supply business opportunity presented itself, and it took off immediately. So I started pursuing that even harder. So my, my primary business now is District Leather Supply.
Stitchdown: So basically you’re a leather supplier? Wholesaler? How’s that work?
Bill: I support other crafters and the community, whether they’re kitchen-counter crafters or small to medium size businesses. I buy lots of stuff and break it down into smaller quantities to make it more affordable and attainable for other folks, to kind of help avoid the trap that I fell into starting off, which was getting like $25,000 into the hole with stuff that I just bought one-offs because I wanted to try. And that came at a pretty hefty cost. So I’m trying to help out and it’s worked out pretty well so far. We’ve been able to drive some innovation and create some new products and help support the community in ways I hadn’t expected. But it’s been a really cool journey.
I’m still a leather crafter, I just don’t do as much of that for business lately. I just want to emphasize the message that this is a supply shop for makers, by a maker. And then I also just kind of make cool stuff like these sneakers. I want to inspire others to continue pursuing their passion and their journey of leathercraft.
Stitchdown: Can you tell me about the boots you made with Mark Albert?
Bill: Yeah, we collaborated on a couple of boots. I had something called the Shop Boot. He has his own line, but I wanted something specific for myself, and that represented District Leather Supply, and we were able to come up with that. We also had the Tannery boot, it’s got a full leather sole, with half rubber sole. They don’t make any boot like that with that sole.
I was a huge Beckman fan, except I didn’t really like that block rubber soul, I wanted to have a stacked leather sole. So this is sort of my dream work boot. Another great part about these boots is that he makes them from leather off my shelf. So we’ve got SB Foot copper rough & tough, just like the Redwing 1907, Horween black latigo, and then also Horween natural talisman, which is sort of a cousin of chromexcel.
Stitchdown: So you’re selling those? Or they’re just something you had Mark make for you to wear?
Bill: They’re sold through District Leather Supply. Similar to what he does, I launch a pre-order until I get a certain batch size and then place the order with Mark.
Stitchdown: Back to the shell Nikes. Are you going to make more? And sell them to people who want them?
Bill: I wouldn’t mind starting to sell these, but my capacity is pretty limited right now. So it would be something like one or two pairs a month.
But also I’m doing this for other reasons. Some of it is the self-edification. But I also want to be able to train others—not in Jake’s style necessarily, but if for example, I sell shoe craft products, I want to be able to speak to them and how they’re used. And if folks have crafting questions, I want to be able to guide them. So I’m not just a typical retailer where I just buy and resell something. I’m gonna have hands-on experience. I’m going to continue to pursue this, so that I have a better understanding, and I have the knowledge to back up the products and to help support the customers.