HOUSTON (AP) — The first ones were simple: ostrich, unembellished.
Twelve pairs later, James Painter can illustrate his life’s highlights by lifting a pant leg. The Louisiana State University logo stitched in purple and gold. Oil rigs. And the Lone Star flag, sewn onto the boots he had made for his wedding day.
His enthusiasm began nearly two decades ago, when the executive vice president of Cobalt International Energy found himself in need of custom cowboy boots to accommodate the quirks of aging feet. A friend offered a single suggestion: Maida’s.
“I’ve been in love with Maida’s boots ever since,” Painter told the Houston Chronicle.
For years, Houston’s six-generation boot maker has crafted footwear in a workshop where lifelong artisans pull premium hides over custom-made lasts.
Many of its customers, like Painter, have had money to spend, concepts in mind and word-of-mouth recommendations to visit a bright, leather-clad showroom in a nondescript industrial area near Spring Branch.
Now, Maida’s is working to broaden its appeal to those less familiar with the gratification of custom footwear. It’s in the midst of opening two design shops, in Rice Village and the River Oaks area, where more casual shoppers will be likely to encounter a concept wholly different than that of ready-to-wear shoe retailers.
“If we don’t do it, we’ll lose this business,” said Sal Maida, who now runs the business with help from his father and son. “We’ve been waiting on that guy to make that decision, and that’s not going to work. We have to put it in their face.”
The Rice Village shop opened last month, and Maida said he expects the River Oaks location to open around Thanksgiving. Both locations will offer fitting services and virtual design consultations using video technology.
It’s all part of an effort to keep the decades-old business alive as its craftsmen grow older.
Interest in custom cowboy boots has endured for generations among those who can afford them, but there now are relatively few people who practice the craft, said Maida’s son, also named Sal.
“It’s a dying art,” he said. “The world has changed, and the footwear industry has changed dramatically.”
Maida’s began more than a century ago, in the 1880s, when an Italian immigrant named Sam Maida began making shoes in downtown Houston at a time when most footwear was custom fit.
He sent for his son, John, who traveled to the U.S. and took over the business after Sam’s death at the turn of the century.
By then, mechanization had upended the craft of custom production with a cost-effective process that produced shoes more quickly.
To capitalize on the changes, John established the Houston Shoe Hospital to repair cheaper, mass-produced shoes and ran that business alongside his custom shop.
Upon his death, his son inherited both businesses just as the boot-clad cowboy actors of the 1930s became cultural icons. Western film stars such as Tom Mix, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry popularized splashes of color with their custom designs and embellishments.
“Those three marketed the boot,” Maida said.
The business, passed from father to son twice over the remainder of the century, continued to carve for itself a niche in the industry as shoe manufacturing migrated overseas. Instead of instant gratification, it promised a perfect fit and decades of wear.
Today, the boot workshop encapsulates the company’s history. Its walls bear photos of Autry and other cowboy greats who bought Maida’s boots, and its aging machines have worked longer than some of the boot makers.
At 75, Ramiro Gonzalez is the oldest craftsman in the shop. His seasoned hands expertly tool sturdy soles and pricey leathers.
Like others who work there, he learned the craft in Mexico, a country with its own storied tradition of boot making.
“He is the best in the industry,” Maida said. “He is never, ever fearful of change or creativity on the artistic side of what we make.”
But Gonzalez is among a dwindling number of artisan boot makers. Maida’s son Sal said he and his father are working to find an apprentice to learn the profession as the older generation phases out.
“No one does it anymore, and you’ve got to find people who really want to learn,” he said.
It’s labor-intensive work. At Maida’s, a pair of custom boots requires an average of 65 hours to make. The boots start at $2,000 and last for years.
Under Maida’s guidance, the business has intensified its focus on design, and many of its boots cost thousands of dollars more as a result.
Customers can choose leather from animals as docile as calves or as predatory as alligators, and from there, the design options have few limits.
“People love anything that’s couture or high end,” Maida said. “We gravitate, even if we can’t afford it, to the beauty and essence of high quality.”
The appeal of custom boots, deeply rooted in Texas, has continued to support other craftsmen throughout the state.
Generational businesses such as Houston’s Wheeler Boot Co., Fort Worth’s M.L. Leddy’s and San Antonio’s Little’s Boots have cultivated loyal followings.
“Texas has such a long tradition of boot making and boot wearing,” said Jennifer June, a cowboy boot expert who has written a book on custom designs. “Custom boots are not about what style is in or out, it’s about what you want.”
Recognizing this, Maida said the newest shops, meant to make the luxury of custom boots more accessible, will emphasize that idea.
Painter, who has designed new boots for himself almost every year since slipping his feet into that first ostrich-skin pair, said he hadn’t expected to be so involved in the process.
“It’s a piece of art that you wear every day and for men, we don’t wear a lot of it,” he said. “I probably won’t get any this year, but I have a hard time thinking I won’t get any next year.”