Meet the woman who's bringing old-school shoemaking skills back to Toronto, one handmade step at a time.
Walking in the front door of Sole Survivor in Kensington Market, you’re hit with a wave of smells. The tiny basement shop smells of leather, shoe polish, industrial-grade glue—it’s intense, but Lo Agolli breathes it in every day.
Agolli, a former Urban Outfitters manager, holds two design degrees, but as soon as she made her first pair of shoes, she was hooked. “Ironically enough, I hate feet, but I got so into that feeling of Oh my God, I made these shoes, I wanted to learn more.” She began working under Katie Reed, who sold Agolli the Sole Survivor business in September 2013; she also apprenticed with Peter Feeny at Trent Custom Tailor in Cabbagetown. Agolli, who moved from Holland when she was in her teens, says of that time, “I didn’t have a day off in three months. I came in on my days off from Urban Outfitters, and before and after my shifts there. I just wanted to be here.”
Now, Agolli, 29, spends her days fixing shoes and other leather goods, posting the before-and-after shots to the store’s Instagram feed, and training women to follow in her handmade footsteps. “I’m training two other girls right now, so hopefully they can do the repairs while I start doing custom work. The dream is to open more locations, with only girl cobblers, all across the city.”
Our interview—about handmade shoes, her secret family history of shoemaking, and the power of the internet—is below.
Torontoist: Of all the different ways you can work with your hands, what drew you to cobblering work specifically?
Lo Agolli: Another friend of mine had a pattern for moccasins and was thinking of teaching classes. She asked if she could teach me first so she could practice. I always admired her work, but at that point, I wasn’t in the right mindset to actually pull through with all the ideas I wanted to do. I just wanted to learn so much more.
Someone mentioned Katie [Reed, Sole Survivor’s former owner] on Facebook, and that they had gotten their shoes repaired by her. Urban Outfitters was super close, and I had five minutes left on my break, and I ran down here. I was really nervous and I didn’t know what to expect, but I said, “Listen, do you ever take on an apprentice? I just want to watch you, I won’t touch anything.” She told me to come in the following week. She had had other people approach her, but nobody was serious. People have a different idea of what it actually is. I mean, it’s pretty gnarly work: it can hurt your hands, it’s dirty, and there’s nothing glamorous about it whatsoever—so people assume it’s cool, and they want to do it, and after half an hour, they’re over it.
It’s really funny, because once I got into this, I found out that my uncle was a shoemaker, and he used to make my shoes when I was a child, which I didn’t know. When I met him at a wedding in Italy, he was totally old-school, and didn’t believe that a girl could make shoes. I ended up showing him a pair of shoes that I had made and brought to Italy, and he was pretty impressed. I think it was hard for my mom to hear that I was dropping my salary-paying job to be a shoemaker. To them, who came here to make a better life for their children, it’s like going backwards. But I think our generation is different. Now my mom is super proud.
This seems like a profession where the number of people who do it is slowly decreasing, so how did you go about finding mentors?
I found Katie through social media, but other than that, it was approaching people. When I walked in the city and noticed a shoe repair shop, I would go there. I also looked online. I can tell cobbling is actually becoming—not a trend, but there are lots more people doing it. It’s more in the States, and of course in Europe it never stopped, but I do notice that younger people are getting into it more. It’s great to have the internet, where you can learn a lot of stuff there as well. For this particular trade, it’s a lot about knowing the steps and then finessing it yourself. I tend to do things differently from Katie, but the end result is the same. It’s doing your research and going online.
There are actually five or six shoemakers in the city, but people don’t know about them, or they’re not really willing to take on apprentices. A lot of them are also very hesitant because people think it’s cool to do it, and then they don’t really put in the time. For them, if they’re going to give you their time, they’re hoping that you’re someone who’s going to stick around and maybe take over the business.
Our world seems very disposable, which is the antithesis of what you do here. How do you combat the mindset of throwing away a pair of shoes if the zipper breaks or they no longer fit?
Shoes are made of durable materials because you’re supposed to walk on them. If they’re made from good materials, like all leather, they can last for a very long time. Look at how everyone goes to vintage shops and buys vintage shoes. People will come in and say, “You’re probably going to say no to this repair, these shoes are at a terrible stage,” but I can get bring them back to life. I get a lot of the younger demographic, which I love seeing. I’m assuming that all the older cobblers who have been around much longer have their long-time customers who are around the same age. I kind of miss the fact that nobody’s got anything they can pass on to their children the way our parents did. I think if they have well-made or well-kept things, we can make things last much longer.
You have a very utilitarian vibe—there are the shop’s jumpsuits, and in the space, everything is very out in the open. Is that something that you cultivate, or is it just the best way to do this work?
When I deal with customers, I like to explain what I’m going to do to their boots so that they understand what it takes, and my pricing as well. What you see is what you get: I’m the one doing the work; I have nothing to hide; I don’t go into the back room to do the work. Unfortunately, I’ve had times where someone will bring in work done by someone else, and they haven’t gotten the work that they were told they would get. And it’s not the customer’s fault, because they’re not educated.
I would want to open the shop up more and make it feel more like a studio space. I think it would be a bit more welcoming. Already, people are confused about this little dungeon, so it helps me to not have to explain myself by being out in the open. As soon as I took over the shop, I was really itching to make it my own. Slowly, it’s getting a look, a feel, and an aesthetic. I get these ideas when I meditate. I just envision where Sole Survivor should go, and I hone all that. It’s how my creativity comes to me: it’s about letting go and then it feels natural.
Your bespoke shoe initiative is in the works but hasn’t been launched yet. Tell me a little about that.
I would have to accumulate a lot of the forms, which is what you make the shoe on. Those are really expensive and come in a lot of different toe shapes, so I can’t really afford to buy every single toe shape and every single size. I have a few customers who are waiting for me to have some, and I’m assuming that I’ll launch it with them. Repairs, you can do a quick turnaround; bespoke, you really put your heart and soul into it, and you really need to take your time with it, because if you mess up, you need to start over. It’s money and materials that you lose, and because everything will be made out of leather, it tends to be a bit costly as well. So I want to make sure I have the manpower—the womanpower—behind me, but I’m excited.
I wouldn’t deal so much with orthotics, which is a whole other level. In the beginning, I’ll likely offer a couple styles that I’m good with, and then I would measure a customer’s foot—they would tell me what leather they want, what colour, what detailing, and then I would do that. Hopefully in the future, if someone comes, I can do everything from scratch however they want it, but it would be easier to turn around and teach other girls the classic styles, like an Oxford or a Derby.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
I don’t think that a lot of cobblers are trying to do this, but I am trying to be more aware of fashion. One thing that I brought in when I was with Katie was a collaboration with a store called Philistine where we resoled vintage brogues, and we ended up putting on a really funky, spiky sole. I really enjoy taking on creative jobs, where someone says, “I really like this shoe, but I don’t like the sole,” and then I get to create a sole for them. That’s the stuff I really like, because it takes me to almost doing something custom.
This interview has been edited and condensed.