Sandra Wheeler has always been obsessed with shoes. When she played Monopoly as a kid, she always had to be the shoe token. When she dressed up for work, she paid close attention to the shoes she picked to stand in all day. One day, fed up with the lack of comfortable high-heeled shoe options, she decided to start making them herself.
“If you go to the store, you can get an old lady shoe, or you can get a stripper shoe. Not really a lot in the middle, and while both are fine in different settings, it’s nothing that I want to try to build an outfit around,” Wheeler said. “So, since I couldn’t find anything that I wanted to buy I did have a lightning bolt of inspiration to go ahead and figure out how to do it myself.”
In 2010, Wheeler began to research shoemaking and that’s when she came across Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking and Design in Ashland, Oregon where she studied in 2012.
“It was an eight-day course and it was a full nine-hour day,” she said.
When she returned from her studies, Wheeler felt confident in her dreams of being a shoemaker. “If anything, it showed me that I could move forward,” she said.
Wheeler then practiced shoemaking from her home in Kansas City, working to master the art of pattern making and sewing leather. She returned to Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking and Design in 2014 and again in 2015 to assist her instructor. She said the school taught her the entire process of shoemaking.
To make shoes, Wheeler first orders the last – a foot-shaped device the material is shaped around – and other materials like kangaroo and goat skin. Then she works to create a custom insole board with three layers of materials and a reinforcement shank and allows the material to sit on the last for at least 24 hours.
Wheeler reinforces that each shoe type is made a bit differently. After she gets the supplies, it takes about 18 days to fully make a shoe.
“Initially, finding suppliers was a hurdle,” Wheeler said. Something she had to conquer before moving forward with her shoe making business.
“Every heel height, every size, every half size, every toe shape has to have its own last,” Wheeler said. “My supplier is in Finland and he does the design work but the machine shop that actually makes these out of a high resin material is in Portugal and then there are some components that I have to learn how to make myself because I’ll never be able to get them from overseas.”
To officially begin her business, Wheeler recently purchased a shop in historic downtown Excelsior Springs, Missouri. She plans to open Shelby’s Stiletto Factory in mid-January. Her shop is named after her dad’s classic 1970 Shelby Mustang.
“The ‘S’ in the cobra was just always something that stuck in my head and when I first started doing a logo for my business, the heel was always an ‘S’ and I was like, ‘Man, I gotta make it an ‘S’ like the Shelby cobra’ and then it just became Shelby’s,” she said.
She said she plans to make Shelby’s Stiletto Factory a safe space for people to create without worrying about what others think. She plans to host shoemaking and tutu creating classes and even install dancing poles.
“Make your tutu, bring your own wine – I can’t provide wine but I’ll be able to pour it for you and then make your tutu and then go twirl,” Wheeler giggles. “Sounds like fun to me!”
Aside from shoemaking classes, Wheeler plans on making custom and handmade shoes. Handmade shoes start at $650. Custom made shoes – where the leather, toe shape and heel height are all decided upon by the customer – start at $1,000.
“The price of your leather is going to drive the price,” she said. “So, if you want a really exotic eel skin on the front with ostrich on the back, you’re looking at another $400 to $500 in leather.”
Wheeler said someone who’s going to pay good money for a good shoe has a different mind-set than most people.
“If somebody said, ‘Oh that’s a great top,’ I’ll go, ‘Yeah, it was on the clearance rack at Macy’s, originally 60 bucks and I got it for 18,’” she said. “Those who shop for custom shoes have the opposite mind-set. They want to say, ‘I had this custom made for my foot and I picked out everything about it. That’s my favorite color and it took me sixth months to get it,’” she said.
Wheeler said one of her slogans is “She doesn’t have everything. Women who would receive a gift of a diamond tennis bracelet at $1,200 probably have a diamond tennis bracelet already. She doesn’t have this (custom heels),” she gleamed as she held her foot up to show off her high-heel.
Wheeler adds she wants to make shoes that are stylish and comfortable – more than something that’s just trendy on a runway.
“I want to make something that’s as high as can be and as sexy as can be but you’d still be able to wear it,” she said. She adds she’s interested in making both men and women’s shoes.
“I’m doing just what I call a fashion shoe because I’ve found I can’t really say this is (just) for women because anybody can wear it,” she said.
Photos by Denise Elam