The Custom of the City: Shoe Boutiques You Need to Know Now

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The secret stores where made to order is the custom.

Are you addicted to shoes, or simply a shoe lover? Perhaps you dream of bags? Do you want to downplay how many pairs of shoes and how many bags you already own, or do you take selfies in your closets? Accessories have never been more relevant nor more sought after. I want to share a few of my faves, stores that do what others don’t. They have very different design sensibilities, but they offer the same thrill – shoes and bags that are custom made just for you.

Vanessa Noel Shoes
A selection of shoes hanging out in the winter garden.

Vanessa Noel has a shop on the ground floor of a townhouse in the East 60s. It carries shoes, bags and a selection of home goods that are kept in stock. The boutique flows through a series of rooms and ends in a winter garden. Many different styles of shoes, sandals, boots, sable throws and cashmere, bags and luggage are on view. Most of what you see in the boutique can be purchased and taken away on the spot.

Summer sandals at Vanessa Noel store
A selection of shoes hanging out in the winter garden.

The shoes are shown in different types of leathers and fabrics as well as a world of exotic skins. Vanessa has been in business for 30 years, and sells to select department stores as well as from the boutique. She is the designer and the head of production. Skins are sourced from all over the world, and sent to Italy where the designer works closely with her factories to make perfect shoes; and to develop new finishes for many of the skins. She also collects vintage trims, bits and pieces that are used for decorating custom pieces. The more exotic it is, the better Vanessa likes it.

Shoes on a bar in Vanessa Noel Boutique
The bar in the Jamaican-themed winter garden.

The atmosphere of the store is both serene and amusing with a bar in the winter garden that serves coffee during the day and drinks at Vanessa’s parties. But as you wander through the rooms look for  a flight of stairs that leads to the design space upstairs, which is where the new products are born. This is where the art of the custom shoe and bag is practiced.

White satin shoes at the Vanessa Noel boutique
A selection of the white satin shoes.

One of the first things I noticed when I was in the boutique was a complete wall of white satin shoes in a gazillion styles. Satin bridal shoes are not easy to find. The factories that the brand uses are small family businesses that keep the shoes spotless during the manufacturing process. The boutique has many styles in stock, and should you want a special tweak you can custom order the shoes.

White satin shoes from Vanessa Noel
White satin heels and a gladiator sandal.

Brides-to-be can get a fashion fix and choose from a wide range of styles, both classic and edgy. Flats, kitten heels or high heels? All perfectly made for a very special day. Fancy a crystal embellishment? You can have that as well.

White satin sandals in the Vanessa Noel boutique
White satin sandals.

The shoes can also be made to order in many other colors of satin. Have your bridesmaids order their shoes to match their dresses. And jeweled touches can be added.

White satin shoe at the Vanessa Noel boutique
A classic white satin shoe.

The boutique is a must shop stop for anyone planning a wedding.

A shoe last
Designing a shoe.

The design of a shoe starts with the last. The last is a 3 dimensional plastic mold that the designer uses to make the shoe. The last determines the fit of the shoe. Vanessa’s studio is full of many lasts. Fabric strips are attached to these two, one with a heel and one without. When the design is complete, the factory pattern maker will take the materials on the last and make a pattern for the fabric or skin, and then make a prototype shoe.

3 shoe lasts
Different shoes made on the same last.

The last is only the starting point. How many different models of shoes can be made with one last? The possibilities are endless. And here is where the magic begins when you make an appointment to work with Vanessa to create your very own custom shoes. You will work directly with her to pick the last and the shoe model that you want.

A selection of skins at Vanessa Noel
Choose a color and skin for your sandal.

This is where the fun begins. You work with color cards of a multitude of leathers, skins, fabrics and materials. You can make your shoe in one color or skin, or mix everything up. Have a problem making up your mind? Vanessa and her assistants are there to help you.

More skins that you can choose from.

Customize boots and bags as well as shoes.  Vanessa developed stretch alligator, suede, so you can have anything from ankle boots to over-the-knee boots that glide on.

Vanessa Noel shoes
Samples of shoe snap ons.

Why not add a snap-on, so you can customize your shoes on a daily basis. Vintage stone buckles, feathers, fur, and all sorts of fun handfuls of fashion can be added. If you have 3-4 different snap-ons, you have 3-4 different pairs of shoes, but only one pair of shoes in the closet.

The ultimate luxury, an alligator travel set.

New to the collection are travel sets. Only available for custom order, they can be made in alligator, python, and a range of leathers. The roller bag is beautifully fitted out on the inside. Should you really want to splash out, the newest skin is 24 carat gold infused alligator. Now that’s luxe.

Bags at Vanessa Noel
Bags come in alligator and skin trimmed straw.

Are you a bag lover as well as a shoe addict? Bags and totes come in a range of leathers, and exotic skins too. And are customizable. Tucked in the corner is a sable throw. Those are available to order as well.

Vanessa Noel bags
Bags in leather and alligator.

Do you prefer classic colors, or do you want to stand out? If you don’t see the color you want, order it.

Vanessa Noel shoe and tote
A karung snake skin tote.

Each different type of skin comes with its own story. This tote is made from Karung, an aquatic snake that looks somewhat like lizard and is also called an Elephant Trunk snake. The tote is filled with cashmere shawls that are also available at the boutique.

Snakeskin shoe and bootie on translucent alligator.

Python shoes trimmed with leather sit on the newest skin that is being developed, translucent alligator. It is currently a work in progress. and I am eagerly awaiting the finished product.

Vanessa Noel Tote Bag
Snakeskin shoe and bootie on translucent alligator.

Here is a current prototype. It is so sheer that you can see the red shoe inside — and the crystals on it. What I love about this store is that you never know what you will find. Vanessa works with small factories that are willing to experiment with her on new ideas, and works with her to perfect them.

Vanessa Noel red boots
Red boots with a kick.

Summer boots are trending this year. These booties can work summer, winter, and fall.

Vanessa Nole fur boot
If you really want to keep warm, get a fur boot warmer.

I hate to bring up winter, but it’s only a seasons or two away. Maybe you should put these boots on your fall wish list. Get the perfect leather boot, and then add the custom fur boot warmer. On the right is the muslin pattern for the actual fur warmer on the left. Special orders can take 6-8 weeks, and the Italian factories close for the month of August.

Vanessa Noel Boots
Stretch books that glitter.

You can also contemplate the stretch boot in crystal. No zippers, just the ease of slipping them on. Simply glam.

Vanessa Noel shoes
The wall of shoes in the studio.

The shoe wall in the studio is a luxe jumble. These are only a fraction of the models that have been made.  I would love to see the full 30 years of archive. Vanessa is working on opening the Vanessa Noel Shoe Museum, showcasing the shoes that she has collected over the years. The mission of the space will be to show the history of, and the manufacturing of shoes, the creativity involved, and how shoes and fashion go hand in hand. Visiting this boutique is always a cool mission of discovery. The shoes are fantastic, but when you add the sense of discovery and the depth of care and knowledge, it is a real shoe experience.

Vanessa Noel, 158 East 64 Street or

Trippen platform heel boot
The platform heel boot.

Luxe power heels not your thing? Perhaps you should visit another boutique that specializes in custom shoes. Trippen, a  28-year-old German brand, opened its first US boutique on Mulberry Street several years ago. The shoes are all handmade, and the owners aim for sustainability. They prefer to stitch things together rather than use glue; and if they do use glue, it is water based. New collections are offered twice a year. They range from space-age looking platform boots to sandals, and men’s shoes. While in the shop, I spoke to customers trying on the boots above. I was enthusiastically assured that the platforms are extremely comfortable to wear and easy to walk in.  Statement shoes to say the least.

Trippen red sandals and boots
Sandals and boots in red.

The shoes and boots are displayed casually around the boutique. Soles are natural rubber and the uppers are in soft leathers. The shoes on display are in stock, but since the inception of the company they have offered a custom made service so you can have your footwear made in a variety of colors.

Leatehr swatches at Trippen
Pick your color and your leather.

Each season brings a new selection of colors. Staple and fashion colors come in 6-8 different kinds of leather. There are approximately 1600 styles of shoes available to order; and you can combine the type of sole, the material, and color to create your special shoe.

Trippen silver wedge sandals
Silver wedge sandals.

One of the most popular soles is the wedge sole. Once a sole is developed, the owners keep the sole and create new designs for each. The soles come in several colors and you can choose your sole color to match or contrast the leather color.

Trippen Silver Sandals
Silver sandals.

Silver is a featured color this season. These two styles are both flat and have a cushioned rubber sole.

Trippen fringe loafer
A bronze platform loafer.

Loafers are updated with comfy rubber wedges as well.

Trippen shoes
Spring boots and slides.

The boot on the left has a mini-platform rubber sole, and is a hip take on a work boot. The slide on the right has a wooden sole, which is another design option. All the leathers are hand cut. The brand likes to work with materials that age with style, and will advise you on exactly how to care for the type of leather you purchased.

Trippeb Blue sandal
Blue summer sandal.

Why not try mixing different kinds of leather as seen in this sandal? The metallic touch on the bottom of the sandal gives pop. It’s fun to play with the different leathers and come up with unique shoes.

Trippen flat womans shoe
Black flat laced skimmer.

Owner/designers Michael Ochler and Angela Spieth lean towards the avant-garde. While they have their own stores all over Europe and the Far East, the shoes are also carried by trendy boutique owners around the world with the same point of view.

Trippen Boots in white
Corded swan boot.

The Swan boot above is another statement piece. What I keep hearing when I am in the store is how utterly comfortable the shoes are.

Trippen men's shoes
Relaxed men’s shoes.

The shop carries a line of men’s shoes as well. The styling is as cool and casual as the women’s shoes. The leather used for this style is gently distressed to match the mood of the shoe.

Trippen zipped boots
A cross zip boot.

Men can purchase slip on boots, but I kind of like this zipped up style, with the 2 part sole. Not only does Trippen make iconic shoes, it also is ahead of the curve in keeping customers happy. They have an entire department devoted to the repair and replacement of the soles and insoles. Have a 15 year old shoe that needs some help? Not a problem.  Why not visit the store and try a few pair on? I am a big fan of any store that not only cares for the environment and it’s customers and also makes one of a kind product.

 Trippen, 243 Mulberry Street or

Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.

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