If you’re looking to find one of L.A.’s finest bespoke shoemakers while gallivanting along Robertson Boulevard or window-shopping on Rodeo, it’s time to recalibrate. Tucked on a nondescript corner near La Brea and Olympic perhaps better known for auto mechanics and body shops, you’ll find Willie’s, a shoemaker operated by true craftsmen using time-tested techniques rarely seen in today’s mechanized, one-size-fits-all society.
The Mid-City cordwainer has had a few homes around town since its opening in 1956, with owners Raul Ojeda and Sal Castillo (pictured, from left to right) moving it to its current location in 2012. Ojeda studied under founder Willebaldo Rivera, also known as Willie, a Hollywood shoemaker who crafted footwear for the likes of Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, John Wayne, and Steve McQueen.
Ojeda and Castillo have since bought the business and added their own polish and finesse, imparting a stylish, modern aesthetic to the storefront that stays true to the company’s roots. Walking into Willie’s is almost like stepping foot in a time capsule, with its custom cabinetry showcasing vintage footwear from around the globe, floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with wooden lasts (shoe molds), and a beautiful last-turning lathe dating to the 1890s—one of the few still in existence in the U.S.
Though Willie’s does garner a lot of local business for their shoe repair services, they do so much more. Ojeda and Castillo operate two brands under one roof: Willie’s functions as the cobbler side of the business, and Don Ville is their custom shoe-making label, whose name pays homage to their founder’s Mexican heritage. They haven't lost the Hollywood tie-in, either: recently, they made the boots for the upcoming Elvis movie and the Wonder Girls TV show, and serviced shoes for CSI.
Willie’s team uses their unique tools and skill set to construct custom-made shoes in two categories: made-to-measure (the more affordable option) or bespoke, which takes the customer’s anatomy, gait, and aesthetic preferences into consideration in making a personalized last. A pair of bespoke shoes starts at about $5,800, admittedly a far cry from a pair of Nikes, but Ojeda says there is a small but consistent market for their one-of-a-kind wares.
“Expensive is spending a fortune on something that doesn’t fit you right,” Ojeda says. He believes that there’s a growing group of people wanting to invest in owning fewer, but finer, things.
The bespoke shoemaking process takes about 5 months from the time measurements are taken to lacing up your boots, but it’s worth the wait. Many loyal customers have been coming to the shop for more than 20 years, and some are generational.
Clients are returning not just for their artistry and craftsmanship, but also for their convivial, almost barber-like relationships they forge with each customer. And possibly to pay a visit to their darling terrier, Suede.
Krista Simmons is a culinary travel writer and native Angeleno; she covers the Southern California beat for Travel + Leisure. You can follow her adventures bite-by-bite on Instagram.