Shoemaker in Barcelona

BARCELONA, Spain -- In February while studying shoemaking I got to meet designers, entrepreneurs and makers living the slow fashion life in the Catalan capital. One such maker, Tina Ihlenfeld, exchanged thirty years of experience in logistics to pursue shoemaking. I visited Tina at her studio to learn what enticed her to swap her stable career for a creative business. 

“I have always been interested in shoes,” Tina shares while we tour the Forest Shoes, a studio she co-founded with her friend Patricia Tamargo. “But I was in the habit of going to work. I was like a hamster on a wheel and I got tired. It was time to leave. After working for thirty years in a company it was not an easy thing to do,” she says. However, that was the defining moment that brought shoemaking into Tina’s life.  

Learning Shoemaking

"At first, I just wanted to do something with my hands,” she says remembering the first days at the workshop. “It felt like therapy. Shoe therapy. It was not all smooth sailing, though, as it required her to learn a new set of skills and a new way of thinking. “When we started with the shoe last, I asked Christian [the teacher and head of Taller de Calzado] - Are you sure there is a shoe coming out of this?”- she says, laughing.

It felt like therapy. Shoe therapy

When asked about what is it about shoemaking that Tina enjoys, she explains, “I like the craft, the work, building a shoe, I like the smell. I like the dirty work,” and adds, “You never stop learning with shoes, because every pair of shoes is different, every material is different. You start from scratch with any shoe you start working with. That’s the good thing about it. You can work on this for forty years and it will probably never get boring. It’s new every time you touch a shoe.”

Tina attended several courses at the Taller de Calzado, which fuelled her love for shoemaking and introduced her to a community of like-minded individuals, one of whom was Patricia, the future co-founder of the Forest Shoes. She then moved to Elda in Alicante to study orthopedic shoemaking.

Orthopedic foot moulds

Orthopedic foot moulds

The towns of Elda and Elche are the shoe manufacturing centres of mainland Spain and a good place to learn the craft. As the four months of studies neared the end, Tina even considered staying there. Taking over a shoe repair shop just around the corner from the academy, honing her craft. After years of city life the idyllic lifestyle appealed to her, but her friend Patricia had other plans for them. The two met at the shoemaking courses and although exhibiting different strengths and interests (Patricia specializing in high-heel occasion shoes, while Tina focusing on flats and orthopedic shoes) shared a shoemaking chemistry that was hard to ignore. It fuelled the start of the Forest Shoes – an atelier and a design studio, that brought Tina back to Barcelona.  

At the entrance of the Forest Shoes with Tina

At the entrance of the Forest Shoes with Tina

With the Forest Shoes Stamp

With the Forest Shoes Stamp

The Forest Shoes

The Forest Shoes studio is nestled in the heart of Barcelona, the craftsmen district of Gracia. “We got the place, painted it and then we bought the basics,” she says, “There is always stuff missing, there is an open world of shoes. You always have to generate, evaluate, progress. We decided to start with the basics and here we are.” The space is shared between the two co-founders and some jewellery makers. There is an assembly, pattern-making and an office area, with a separate machine room and a meeting room at the back. Being at the Forest Shoes studio you can feel the brimming energy of a start-up.

Tour of the studio

The Business ModeL, Financing & Customers

After the tour of the space and a cup of coffee I asked Tina about their business model. Tina explains that besides making handmade and bespoke shoes they also offer help in organizing small shoe productions for other designers. Also, they are hoping to get more out of the studio space by organizing events, workshops and renting out some co-working areas, anything to keep the place buzzing and the rent paid.

The Machine Room

The Machine Room

Regarding financing, they kept it lean, buying just the essentials second-hand tools allowing them to self-finance without taking a loan. “We don’t have any debt with anybody, which is a good start,” she says. For now, they just hope to cover their basic costs, like rent and materials before beginning to discuss salaries. “We have to be low budget” Tina explains.

When it comes to customers, a key to any business, Tina explains that they have two type of clients: those that need orthopedic footwear because they do not fit the standard model due to old age or a certain physical condition; and then there are others that wish to have a pair of shoes made especially for them for a special occasion, usually a wedding. Patricia is the designer of bridal shoes, who believes that the dress is important but a well-fitted shoe can make the day.

Their duo follows a customer-centric approach in their design process by first meeting with the client and discussing her wishes and the dress and then preparing at least 2-4 proposals from which she picks one and a made-to-measure prototype is built. The prototype is necessary to make sure that the size fits, is comfortable to wear and is of course, what the soon-to-be bride envisioned. Then the final color and material is selected and the shoe is carefully handcrafted for the special day.  The right size is imperative to the success of the shoe, "Once we made a wedding shoe for a girl, who was sure she wears EU size 41. When we measured her foot it turned out she is size 39.5, but the standard model is too narrow for her forcing her to go two sizes bigger," Tina says, adding "She has also never worn high heels, but with the pair that we designed for her she was comfortable and spent ten hours on her wedding day on her feet."

Although people are coming back to appreciate the handmade craftsmanship, finding the right clientele is still an issue, especially those that are willing to pay for a quality product when the market is saturated with cheap items. “You can’t sell a handmade pair of shoes for a hundred euros. It’s impossible,” Tina explains.  

Some Forest Shoes prototypes

Some Forest Shoes prototypes

As I leave the Forest Shoes I can’t help but feel inspired. Taking a walk through the neighbourhood, filled with independent designer shops I feel hopeful for slow fashion and studios like Forest Shoes. I can't wait to see how they evolve. -- Greta. Happy Gallivanting.


To learn more about The Forest Shoes follow them @theforestshoes