The left boot felt stage-ready. The right one, not so much.
Tucked away on the third-floor of a building on 46th Street with no form of store sign, Brandon Louis Armstrong was pointedly tip-toeing and hopping around, trying to get a feel for the shiny knee-high black boots. It was 10 a.m. on a recent October day, and the actor was straight off a plane from Los Angeles, wearing sweat shorts and a faded grey T-shirt. But this was no “slide a finger between your heel and the shoe” fitting. Gino Bifulco and the shoe-makers of T. O. Dey Custom Made Shoes custom-crafted the leather boots for his feet. While Armstrong considered whether his new boots needed any tweaks, three crew members joined Bifulco and stood in front of the dozens of signed musical posters and dazzling pumps on the walls, ready to make any last-minute changes for a perfect fit.
“Where does it feel tight?” Kim Sorenson asked with a frown. “You’re not rolling out?” She’s the assistant costume designer for Armstrong’s show, and she checked the length, the width, the gap at the toe, the slip in the heel. “Everything needs to be just right,” she said. A couple of weeks from now, when Armstrong is wearing breeches, a tailcoat and a ruffle shirt on stage as Hercules Mulligan, his new boots will need to support a lot more than tip-toeing. The choreographers of Hamilton are counting on it.
Standing behind the actor, Bifulco didn’t look anxious, though. The boots just needed a couple more days with the wooden forms in, he said. . “They’ll stretch.” In his thirty years of crafting shoes for Broadway stars, Bifulco has seen his fair share of concerned designers, unconvinced performers, and demanding choreographers. But it had been more than a year since they last crowded his shop.
When the coronavirus pandemic dropped the curtain on all shows in March 2020, performers were not the only ones out of a job. A whole industry working away from the stage, but still supporting it, was also brought to a standstill. And since then, the shoe-makers at T.O. Dey have draped, skived, and stitched a tenth of the shoes that they did pre-Covid-19.
Despite a federal aid package of $15 billion for shuttered arts organizations, many in the theatre industry had to reevaluate their careers in New York City due to the pandemic. Employment rates for people working in the arts, entertainment and recreation industry dropped by 66%, leaving many Broadway workers to rely on stimulus checks and unemployment.
But since former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave Broadway the green light to resume performances starting September 14th, the whir of the sanding machine and the smell of leather and polish have taken over the factory again. This month, Bifulco’s custom-craft stage shoes will feature in shows including “Hamilton,” “Kinky Boots,” “Aladdin,” and “Ain’t Too Proud.” The turnover of production is rushed, with costume designers pushing the glass door, often asking for same-day repairs. But what might be a frantic return to work for some, Bifulco finds “a happy sign that we’re back in business,” he said.
They were never fully out of work. But in the spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, so few people came in that the 95-year-old establishment relied on its other specialty, orthopedic shoes.
“It was very quiet,” Bifulco said. “There was more money going out of the door than coming in.”
With Broadway gone, the pandemic laid bare the decline of the made-to-order shoe trade, he said. Bifulco remembers that back when he was just 17 and learning the trade, and his father ran the shop, employees would come to work in a white shirt and tie. On the streets, people were “dressed to a T,” and those who could afford it, had their loafers or high heels hand-manufactured. Now, “everyone is dressed down,” he said with a disappointed look at his own jeans. “Even old people wear sneakers,” which T.O. Dey doesn’t make.
Bifulco has watched the footwear industry change around him, and his business with it. Today, 99% of all shoes sold in the US are imported. Leather, soles and other materials are harder to find in American factories. “We even have to get the buckles and the shoelaces from Spain,” Bifulco said. At 63, he’s glad to see his children pursuing college degrees in other areas. “I’m not sure I want to know where our industry is headed next,” he said.
Still, while business men and women on Zoom may opt for comfy slides to match stretchy joggers while working from home, T.O. Dey’s production numbers are ramping up again. “Broadway will never go for retail store shoes,” Bifulco says.
And theatres’ demand for these shoes is high enough to support a thriving business. That’s why the owner turned to Broadway in the first place. Count up to 200 pairs of freshly handmade shoes for a show like Hamilton, said Sorenson, the assistant costume designer for the show Hamilton has about 33 people in the company, each who need two pairs of boots and two pairs of loafers, and they’re highly specific. A pair can take up to 16 weeks to make, from the designer’s first idea to their stage debut.
Each show comes with a “shoe Bible”, Bifulco said, referencing the roughly hundred-page binder that includes a detailed description of all the shoes, sample materials, pattern and sketches by the designers. At T.O Dey, Bifulco meets the innovative designs and ornate details with a very practical question: “How’s this going to work?” Or, in other words, how does the actor get in and out of the shoe? How much time do they have to do it in? How long will the dancer wear it?
“You need to understand feet to make it work,” Bifulco said. Some designers have tried to push a design forward despite his best advice. One was set on making dancers wear ballerina pointe slippers in which the pointe was 10 inches high. Bifulco warned them it wouldn’t work, but they didn’t listen. The dancers had to hold on to a pole for the whole show, because “Obviously, they were falling forward,” Bifulco says.
He still keeps one of them in the shop as a reminder.
Once on stage, performers have to worry about their next lines, where they’re standing and how they’re moving. “My job is to make sure they don’t worry about their feet,” Bifulco said. “The shoes need to be part of their body.”
Kevin Smith Kirkwood agrees. As an Angel on “Kinky Boots” for more than six years, the dancer has worn some of Bifulco’s most extravagant creations. His glittery thigh-high red boots even appeared in the Walk This Way exhibition at the Taft Museum, which featured historical footwear spanning 200 years. “When you’re dancing in them eight times a week for several years, it just behooves everyone to have the sturdiest, safest, most well-crafted shoes you possibly can,” he said. “Especially when you’re a man dancing in high heels designed for women.”
Even with the shoes made for his feet, “it took some getting used to,” Kirkwood said. During rehearsals, the Angels started with friendlier heels, and worked their way up to the six-inch stilettos. “We didn’t just jump into the Kinky Boots,” he said.
And it’s more than a safety issue. Somehow, shoes can also help the actors get into their roles. “Having that comfort and support frees you up to play your character fully and authentically,” Kirkwood said. “You can really focus on giving the best performance possible.”
Some performers even develop an emotional attachment to their shoes. For Nathan Lane, it was suede period Greek-style shoes that did it. Twenty-five years later, David Schaffer, Lane’s shoe-maker at the time when he was director of theatrical sales and fittings for Capezio Dance, remembers that Lane did not want to let them go.
“Wardrobe panicked because he was wearing his shoes out very quickly and kept ordering new ones,” Schaffer said. They made four different pairs before the costume team realized Lane was stacking them up in his dressing room, and still wearing the old ones on stage. “They were his lucky charm,” Shaffer said.
For all the hard work and emotional weight, spectators rarely focus on shoes when watching a Broadway show. That is, with the exception of Bifulco, who sits in the audience for the opening of each show he worked on, and tries to spot the tiny details he spent hours crafting – if only to confirm they’re invisible from 20 feet away. To everyone else, shoes are often lost in the layers of satin and silk, the glittery sets and the excitement of the show. Even then, though, “they are a foundational piece of the costume,” Sorenson said, because “they give actors confidence.”
The past year seems to have dented Bifulco’s own, however. Before the shutdown, he proudly wore custom-made boots to work every day. He has more than 60 pairs, all different shapes and shades of leather. But, since the pandemic, he has traded them for brown nondescript work boots.
“The reopening still feels uncertain,” he said. The tourists aren’t fully back yet, and he can sense the theatre companies are being cautious. “I’m waiting for when we actually get up and going, and everything is back to normal,” he said. Then he’ll start wearing the handmade boots.
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.