“It wasn’t until I started combining sneakers with dress shoes that a lot of people started taking an interest in me,” says Randy Lucas, also known as Randy the Cobbler. He’s a third-generation cobbler whose family owns Broadway Shoe Repair in Tempe, Arizona, a traditional shoe repair shop by day and a custom cobbling shop where Lucas makes his own streetwear-inspired hybrids by night. And through the latter business, he’s cultivated quite the following.
For the last 55 years, his family has owned Broadway Shoe Repair, and Lucas himself has worked there for the last 14. He learned how to shine shoes, repair rips and change heels and soles from the shop’s previous owner, Jesse Martinez, whom Lucas considers to be his grandfather (his paternal grandparents live in Guatemala). As Martinez grew older, Lucas took the more fashion-forward, customizable projects that his teacher wasn’t interested in. When Martinez retired, the shop was passed on to Lucas when he turned 18, who ran it for years runs until his biological father took over after retiring from his other job working at Honeywell. Today, Lucas’s father still does most of the traditional shoe repair at the shop, which has has freed up Lucas to grow “Randy the Cobbler”.
“It’s just like the sneaker scene: You always see that they bring out really cool new designs, but they always go back to the classics.”
The name “Randy the Cobbler” is sort of an alter ego for Lucas, which has grown out of his passion for combining dress shoe uppers with unique one of a kind soles, such as Vibram. Before 2013, Randy the Cobbler was Lucas’s side project, repurposing the beat-up shoes that he found at Goodwill stores. His girlfriend (now fiancée) then saw his creations and encouraged him to create an Instagram account, which he named “Randy the Cobbler”. The photos that he posts are process shots of the shoes being made, but they’ve also become a marketing tool for him to reach new customers.
Broadway Shoe Repair and Randy the Cobbler are run out of the same 1,200-square-foot shop. Both are family run, by Lucas, his father, mother, brother and sister. They work with the same machinery that they’ve been using for decades: two sanders, two table stitchers and two patchers, which were built between 1930 and 1980. “A lot of the equiptment we work with is older because it’s hard to replace,” says Lucas. “But they are strong and still work really well. They don’t make machines like that anymore.”
Both businesses are busy. Locals come in for the traditional shoe repair while orders for Randy the Cobbler come from all over the country. Lucas’s popularity has grown organically over the years, one customer at a time, through word of mouth or discovered on Instagram. When taking on new clients, Lucas asks what they’ll use them for, what style they want, if they want their shoes to “shout out” or have “a simple clean design”, and other basic questions about how they dress. In this way, Lucas says he can create a shoe that fits a person’s specific style. Of these clients, Lucas says that about 75 percent ask for him to make the design. The rest know exactly what they want.
When customizing, Lucas breaks down each shoe into three parts: upper (insole, upper design, laces, tongue), middle (welt, shank, midsole) and bottom (the actual sole of the shoe). For the most part, he only works with the middle and bottom. There are two reasons for this. The first is that he’s trained as a cobbler, not a shoemaker. The second is that he just likes the way they look. “The classic uppers is what I love,” says Lucas. “It’s a traditional look (monk-straps, brogues and saddle shoes) that will never change. They’ve stayed the same since, like, the 1930s. It’s just the bottom styles, the materials used and technology that they keep updating.”
Lucas is fascinated with the materials used in the midsoles and soles. “They have all these different synthetic foams, polyurethanes and luminous soles,” he says, predicting that these technologies will eventually be used in the midsoles and soles of future dress shoes. But the uppers of dress shoes — those, he says, will never change, and that’s why most of his creations feature traditional uppers. “It’s just like the sneaker scene: You always see that they bring out really cool new designs, but they always go back to the classics.”
“A couple of years ago, people didn’t really think of cobblers as being an interesting trade,” says Lucas. “But right now, with the interest in craftsmanship and being unique, it has many thinking of a career as a cobbler.”
As a cobbler, Lucas believes not much has changed from his grandfather’s and father’s generation other than price and material. The problem is that many of today’s cobblers only work with what they know: basically leathers and rubber heels. But not Lucas. Along with a few other cobblers — Lucas credits Dominic Chambrone, The Shoe Surgeon, as a mentor and friend — they push the boundaries of cobbling using streetwear’s more contemporary materials and designs. “We can talk to each other and see what works and what doesn’t,” says Lucas, who sees it as a friendly competition. He says they inspire each other. “There’s plenty of work and shoes to go around.”
Lucas is currently working on specialty lines with several footwear companies, like Vibram and the Two Ten Footwear Foundation. And most recently he’s collaborated with Minnetonka on a collection of Moccasin Hybrids. All this takes up a lot of his time that isn’t devoted to making custom shoes for clients. In the future, Lucas will be going to shoemaking school (Two Ten has offered him a scholarship to go to Arssutoria in New York), which will allow him to build completely new designs from the ground up.
Right now, the shoes Randy the Cobbler creates are more collectables than everyday shoes, perhaps meant to be shown off rather than worn. But by grabbing people’s attention, he’s pumping new life into the cobbler profession. “A couple of years ago, people didn’t really think of cobblers as being an interesting trade,” says Lucas. “But right now, with the interest in craftsmanship and being unique, it has many thinking of a career as a cobbler.”