Of soles and soul

Noah Waxman believes in building shoes “from the bottom up.” Photo: Patrick James Miller 
Upper Westsider Noah Waxman on the “very old art” of designing shoes
By mark nimar

A pair of shoes is a basic part of everyday life: to traverse concrete and asphalt, New Yorkers need them to get from A to B. Shoes, of course, can mean more than just protection for your feet. They can give you the confidence to step into that big job interview, walk down the aisle at your wedding or even just enhance the simple pleasure of going to the grocery store on a lazy Sunday morning. No one knows this truth better than Noah Waxman, a proud Upper Westsider who owns his own shoe store on Perry Street in the West Village. After studying the craft of shoemaking in Holland for 10 years, Waxman moved back to New York and launched his eponymous store in 2013 where he makes classic, comfortable shoes for men and women. We sat down with him last week to talk about the ancient craft of shoemaking, his own design process, and why he loves the Upper West Side.

How did you get into designing shoes?

I had an interesting path into designing shoes. I was living in Holland and when I was there working in film and television, I was riding around on my bicycle and I saw this guy’s window with a lot of really interesting shoes in it. I wanted to know their story, and how they were made. I could tell they were handmade shoes.

So I knocked on the door and I met the guy who lived there and sure enough, he had made the shoes himself. He had a workshop inside where he made shoes and I was really fascinated by it. I asked him, “I’m really interested in shoes and how they’re made. Could you teach me?” He said he couldn’t teach me, but he studied at this little school in the next town over called Utrecht, and he would take me there and introduce me to everybody. So we made an appointment for the following week and took the train there together, and I met everybody there and it was a really cool little school. I really fell in love and decided to enroll there. And I started a multi-year study at the school learning how to design shoes, build shoes from the bottom up.

What is your design process like? How do you approach the shoemaking process?

Shoes are still built in a similar fashion to the way they were built hundreds of years ago. Even though today there are ways that the process has become more modern, it’s still the same basic thing where you start with an idea of what you want it to look like, you sketch it out, you pull together the colors and materials, and then you begin to make it into a shoe.

I have always approached it with a sense of wonder, with a sense of awe. And it is an amazing thing building a shoe, because it is so complicated. We stand in them, we walk on them, we demand so much of our shoes. This is a very old art, and it’s something that’s beautiful. [When] I grew up my family was in the furniture business and there’s a lot of similarity between shoemaking and furniture making. So I have an appreciation for creating things someone is going to use in a very intimate way, and trying to get it right.

How do your customers change and affect the shoes you design?

Customers come back and tell me about moments they’ve worn my shoes that have meant a lot to them. I’ve had people come in and buy shoes for their wedding, or a job interview. What I always felt was important was that even though shoes are beautiful and well made, I think there’s an element of just lifting up the everyday when you put on a really great pair of shoes.

What do you love about the Upper West Side? Why did you choose to make your home there?

I used to live down the block here in the West Village a long time ago, and when I lived here I thought, this was my neighborhood; I really loved it. And then when I moved back to New York from Holland after ten years, that’s when I settled on the Upper West Side. Somehow that neighborhood just feels like home and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Shoemaking’s kind of an old world thing, and I’m kind of an old spirit in a way. The Upper West Side has that same kind of quality of old New York. It really appeals to me. It’s still one of those neighborhoods where you can go to your neighborhood green grocer and people kind of know each other. And there are things that just have been there for a long time, like Barney Greengrass and places like that I think make it a special neighborhood.

Even though you do see things changing and places going out of business, I still feel like it has that old soul of New York which really appeals to me. I also feel like it’s one of the greenest neighborhoods of the city. New York can be a tough city to live in, because it’s really fast-paced, it’s very concrete — and there’s a lot of people. I always joked that the Upper West Side is the suburbs of Manhattan, because it’s a lot leafier, it’s a little slower paced, there are a lot of nice parks around there, and I like that.

If you could make a pair of shoes for anyone from history, dead or alive, who would it be?

Maybe I should just say Noah from the Bible. There’s a lot of rain, he’s on a boat — there’s a lot going on — and I’d imagine that he’d need a good pair of shoes for that.

What do you hope for someone to get out of wearing a pair of your shoes?

I guess just a simple joy. I feel like it can just be really simple, and that’s the best.

This interview has been edited for clarity and space.