San Antonio-born shoe designer Selena McCartney creates stilettos destined for the runway and the red carpet, but in a small East Austin studio on a recent Saturday, she taught a handful of students how to make a pair of casual sneakers.
When you’re picking out the leather, punching holes in the rubber insole and using a heavy-duty needle to stitch the pieces together, these custom kicks become more than everyday shoes.
The founder of the Art of Shoes designed shoes for 15 years in New York City and Chicago before starting her own freelance company in Austin, where she is also the head designer for Katy Perry’s footwear collection.
“This is not making a coaster. You are making something that you are going to wear and that’s a reflection of your personality,” she tells the class.
One of the people in the class had flown in from Little Rock for the weekend. Another had driven up from San Antonio, and the third came because his therapist told him he needed to try something new.
McCartney says she loved living in New York, working as a shoe designer at various companies including Calvin Klein and Steve Madden, the company that launched her career when she worked at a Steve Madden store in San Antonio.
The young thrift store-loving fashionista would send trend reports back to the home office in New York, and they loved her read on what was hot or not in fashion so much that they offered her a job even though she had no technical training.
“To this day, I can only sketch shoes and stick people, and I can’t sketch anything else, and I’m really proud of it,” she says. “Don’t ask me to sketch a flower.”
She eventually studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and went on to design shoes that would be sold in stores across the country. About five years ago, she wanted to move back to Texas.
She picked Austin, “the most fun city out of them all,” she says. “There’s just so much music and art here. I felt like I could be myself.”
It’s also a place where strangers talk to each other, with no strings attached. “New York is very rush, rush, rush, so it’s a constant stress,” she says. “So it was very eye-opening to be like, ’Oh, wait, nobody’s trying to get anything out of me? I don’t have to rush to get coffee?’”
In Austin, McCartney opened the Art of Shoes, a small retail store on South First Street, where customers could browse and buy some of her fashion-forward footwear. As soon as she started hosting shoemaking classes, the hands-on part of her store quickly became the hottest part of her business.
The small bungalow that housed her shop was slated to be replaced with a condo building, so McCartney moved out of the space earlier this year to share a studio with fellow shoemaker Chad Kimball, whose company, Standard Handmade, specializes in classic styles of men’s shoes and boots.
McCartney continues to sell men’s and women’s shoes online, but teaching customers directly through these classes has been a surprising twist to her business plan.
Nichelle Harris Terry is a fashion designer in Little Rock who first discovered the Art of Shoes through Instagram.
Terry says she started her fashion company after being a stay-at-home mom for more than 20 years, and it was her children, now ages 22 and 26, who paid for her trip to Austin.
“You mean there’s a place within hours of Little Rock where I could learn about making shoes?” she says. “I figured I had to go to New York to learn that. I always dreamed about learning how to make shoes,” in part because stores so rarely carry her size.
Terry primarily makes children’s clothing, but she hopes to add shoes, both in kids’ sizes and in women’s sizes 10 or larger.
Also in the class was Brandon Christensen, an Austinite who grew up in a family of makers.
“I’ve always been interested in fashion, and I think it’s important to make things,” Christensen says. “But I work for a software company, so there’s never that physical fruit of labor.”
“It’s so nice to do things with your hands,” McCartney says as the students are cutting out the pieces of leather they’ll use to make the sneaker. “But the amount of work surprises people.”
Sometimes people finish only one shoe — or a half pair — in the classes, but they usually get far enough that they can complete the other sandal, sneaker or slip-on mule at home.
The small classes are her favorite, and McCartney has started traveling to weddings and corporate offices to host classes for groups of up to 20 people. She also hopes to launch a sandal-making kit that people can customize and order online to make at home.
Many of her students are curious about her work with Katy Perry, with whom she started working more than three years ago.
“It’s the most creative brand I’ve worked on,” she says. “It makes me feel like myself. It’s whimsical, it’s weird, it’s funny, it’s eye-catching.”
Each season, McCartney oversees a small team that designs 80 styles per collection, which are then sold at department stores and online.
“We have a good connection,” McCartney says of her working relationship with Perry. “If she says, ’I want that shoe to light up,’ or, ’I want that shoe to have bubbles on it,’ I have to figure out how to make that happen,” while still allowing the shoe to be functional.
She says it reminds her of when she was younger and loved to shop at thrift stores, piecing together outfits that were as bright and colorful and unexpected as she was.
Helping other people find that sense of self and communicate that aspect of their personalities is why these shoemaking classes are so rewarding, she says.
“After every class, I tear up,” she says. “I get so emotional because it makes other people so happy. I get to see how excited they are with the product they’ve made. There hasn’t been one person who has come through that I don’t feel connected to in these small classes.”
“New York is great because it is high fashion, but quite honestly, only 10 people are going to wear that high-fashion shoe with the freakin’ plastic bottle cap on it. (Being here) has brought me back to reality.”
That doesn’t mean you’ll catch her wearing flip-flops anytime soon. “Even if they were great for my feet, I wouldn’t wear them.”
With the heat, it’s understandable that sandals would be a popular choice in Austin, but McCartney says wedges are, too, which she hopes to offer a shoemaking class for soon. “Wedges do better on rough terrain,” she says. “You never know when you’re gonna be on the hike and bike trail.”
You can browse the classes, which start at $135 per person for a small group, and buy her ready-to-buy shoes at theartofshoesaustin.com.