Saturday, May 10, 2008

Paid Per Pair

Each dancer typically orders her shoes in batches of about 20 pairs. I've recently had to do some major changes to my order because my longtime maker (Club, like the card suit) started becoming strangely inconsistent and produced shoes with increasingly tapered boxes and slanted tips. It got so bad that these shoes were throwing me off pointe and it was nearly impossible to balance. They were also getting so narrow at the tip that I could barely sqeeze my foot in there! Belinda Talbot (who oversees all of our shoe issues here at OBT, including budgeting, ordering all 2,000 pairs each season, and communicating with Freed) tried to send back several of the worst pairs to Freed to have them remade. Freed wouldn't do it, because they did not agree that the shoes weren't up to par. So I was left with no option but to switch makers. This is not something to be taken lightly! There are currently 23 different shoemakers at Freed and each one's shoes have a distinct shape and style. I had to find another maker that would work as well for me as Club had before his downslide.

Before gambling on a new maker with an order of 20 or more pairs, we ordered "trials" from several different makers. Trials are exactly that--- a trial order of just three pairs, in your own specifications, to determine if shape, weight, and style are what you want. Freed provides a list of currently available makers with a vague description of what their shoes are like ("average", "heavy", "square"), but there's no way to know what the real shape of the box is like without seeing and wearing them. I can't even remember how many makers we ordered trials from (they had just started coming in when I got injured), but here's one from Maker C.

Some of the specs are imprinted on the bottom of the shoe. All the symbols and numbers you see show that the size is 6, the width (measured in X's, ranging from no X to XXX) is single X, the maker is C, the insole is 2.5 mm cardboard, and there is a wing block. The date the shoe is completed is also stamped on the bottom (these were from Jan. 15, 2008), and since these are trials, that's also noted on the shoe. My specified measurements aren't written on the shoe, but supposedly they've been made accordingly...

Here's a look down the barrel of the gun. You can see the glue that I put in the tip.

And here is the what the bottom of the shoe looks like after I've worn it. I write the date when I first wear that pair, along with an "R" and "L". (Until they've been worn more than once, it's hard to tell which one was right or left, but you can feel the difference once you've put them on. Writing it on the bottom just saves a moment of having to switch shoes). These ones were maker V, which were another of my trial pairs. I recall liking the V's quite a bit. They're tapered just the right amount and yet have a flat platform (that's what it sounds like-- the flat tip on which we stand). They might likely end up being a big part of my next real order.

Belinda gave me a lot of interesting information about Freed that I hadn't known before. I looked at the official ordering guidelines from Freed, which explain each one of the possible specifications for special order pointe shoes. There are dozens of specs that I had never even heard of! Even with the explanation, I still don't understand exactly what some of them mean: high profile, low profile, six different types of wing block, "hessian EPOT", wide throat, narrow throat. It's good to know I can tinker even more with my order...

I also learned that the shoemakers are an eclectic group of guys, working away in an old-fashioned shoe factory with a stitching machine that dates from 1964 and is irreplaceable. Some of them have been working there for decades, but mostly the makers are now younger and less experienced, which causes concern amongst the old-timers that their trade won't be passed on. Some of them take an interest in the art that they give life to, but some have never seen a ballet and don't care to. The work is physically very hard, and there are a lot of repetitive stress injuries. I'm sure this is exacerbated by the fact that the makers are paid by the shoe and the most experienced makers turn out about 40 pairs a day (the relatively new guys average only 25-30). It's ironic that they are working so hard and trying to do it so fast, but our constant complaint is that they're too slow and the shoes take too long to arrive.

According to the most recent update from Freed, the makers' delivery times range from three months to "unavailable" or "restricted", which means that they're so swamped they won't take new orders. Trials usually come more quickly (I guess you get bumped to the front of the line in anticipation of a big order), which makes me wonder if they really are a good example of the what a full order would look like. For the most part, we're waiting 4 to 6 months for a shipment of shoes to arrive after an order is placed, which is why planning ahead (and foreseeing the future) is so important. An unexpected disruption in the supply line (like my Clubs running off road) makes a dancer's life crazy--- it's like a painter being told they have to produce the same quality brushwork using Q-Tips. (Maybe Q-Tips are great for painting, I don't really know). But that's the idea.

I wonder how the shoemakers feel about the fact that their bread and butter, our pointe shoes, are so dissected and criticized by us? Would they take it personally? Do they care?


  1. I'm curious to know why OBT and so many other large companies get their pointe shoes from Freed??? Is it because they are able to custom every dancer's every need in a shoe??? Like the Russians and their Russian shoes, the Australian's and their Bloch's...

  2. I think the reasons why Freed is the preferred pointe shoe manufacturer are several. A big one is what you mentioned, that we are able to customize our orders right down to the most minute details (and I learned that there are several details I never even knew were options!). Another plus is that Freed's shoes are not made with any synthetic materials, which can make the shoe last longer but don't have the same look. The bottom line, however, is that the look of Freed's shoes is preferable to most of us.

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