Stitching Out a Revolution

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Stitching Out a Revolution

On a hot Saturday afternoon on Aug. 6th, in a small workshop across the street from the Gowanus Houses, a pair of students took part in one man’s manufacturing revolution.

They are pupils in Olivier Rabbath’s class “How to Make Boots from Your Garage”, a 16-hour, 8-session class that teaches, as the title implies, how to make shoes, from concept to prototype. The artist founded the class during a dissatisfying stint teaching in a prominent design school in New York City. With a class of his own creation, Rabbath is passionately challenging the entire fashion school industry and American manufacturing, one boot at a time.

Shaheen Roberts, a 20-year-old African-American man, travelled nearly two hours from Maplewood, New Jersey, to attend Rabbath’s lastest session. He is studying business marketing, but family members convinced him to pursue his fashion interests at the same time by taking Rabbath’s workshop. After gluing two pieces of dark butterscotch leather together, he was ready to stitch them in place on the Post machine, one of the small factory’s six stations dedicated to complicated, tight sutures.

Shaheen Roberts uses a Post sewing machine to stitch pieces of leather together. (Melissa Bunni Elian / The Brooklyn Ink)

Roberts sat down and confidently began stitching, shifting the position of his materials with each curve. Roberts had unknowingly created a complicated zigzag design on the top of the shoe. The foot powered needle of the antique Singer sewing machine moved smoothly in and out of the leather, pulling the pieces together until it snagged.

Rabbath, a 55-year-old tall, French man with long, white and black hair pulled back underneath a ponytail and baseball cap, walked over causally in his white undershirt and blue jeans. After just barely examining the apparatus, he fixed a few levers. “Now start to stitch,”Rabbath instructed. The machine immediately began to function again.

“How did you know to do that?” Roberts inquired so he would know next time. Rabbath didn’t have an exact answer. After years of doing something, you just know when something isn’t right. The shoemaker says he has created over 30,000 shoes – 300 a month for the last 10 years.

“It’s not stuck,” he said after some thought. “When you have a little thickness you have to help it a liiiiitle bit.”

“Oh, so you have to give it a push?”

Rabbath wags his finger “No, no, no,” and held the materials to demonstrate.

This was the kind of hands-on exchange that Rabbath had hoped for when he began teaching at Parsons School of Design in 2012. Instead, he was placed in a classroom without machinery to teach eager learners how to make shoes, in theory only. Though Rabbath was once pleased with his position, he grew unnerved about the structure of the curriculum.

When he left the school Rabbath focused on the class he created on the side. “I cut very much, I would say, the crap, which means that I don’t have to stretch the hours,” he says of the differences between his courses and that of a university. Rabbath is also a critic of the profit motives of schools. “They make a business and that is not nourishing.”

Rabbath loses $20,000 dollars a year to run the program. His accountant calls him crazy, but for him it is the only way to truly educate people. “The first question is ‘Am I stupid?’ because usually I am supposed to make a profit. Wrong! When the mother gives you the breast and feeds you, does she ask ‘show me the money?’.” He says he models himself after Earth, who gives, as he explains it, “without counting.”

“When you talk about educations, you are not here to make a profit,” he explains in his thick French accent. “If you start making profit you are not doing your job. You are making a business!”

The undergraduate cost of attendance at Pratt is $46,000. Parsons’ graduate design program costs $23,000 and FIT, the most affordable, costs just over $13,000. Much of the curriculum of each school is focused on design theory. For Rabbath, this is where the issue lies. He believes that the schools do a good job of creating the next generation of employees. He is more interested in developing creators. “If you can transform material, you can transform your circumstances.”

The “How to Make Boots in Your Garage” class is run more like an independent fellowship program than a traditional school. The classes are deliberately small so Rabbath can focus in on the needs of each student.

Olivier Rabbath encourages his student Anna Proger to envision her design. (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian / The Brooklyn Ink)

For one student in the class, shoemaking has become a chance at a second career. Anna Proger, a 53-year-old web designer is in the beginning stages of the boot creation process. She came to class equipped with two leg casts that earned her a few stares on the train ride over. Her next task was to sand the plaster surface so that it would be near smooth, but rough enough for the masking tape to adhere. Then she could draw out her vision.

Once Proger finished with the masking tape, she sat down with design books to see what she could create. Changes in way websites are designed and developed have put a strain on her industry. She tried freelancing, but the work was not coming in fast enough. She now works in medical billing to make ends meet. “When you’re creative, everything else looks boring,” she says. Her goal is to create a sandal boot comfortable enough for someone like her who has back and foot problems.

As she approaches old age, it is getting harder for her to find work. Proger says she has an entrepreneur’s spirit and hopes that Rabbath’s class will be a turning point for her. “I don’t know what’s next for me,” she confesses as she flips through the books of shoes.

Rabbath gives her his books to browse for inspiration. His teaching style? Instruction, a little demonstration, and then he leaves each student to their own devices, only returning when his assistance is requested. He works on his own projects alongside the others. “The teacher is here to help you express yourself, not to make little Oliviers,” he tells Proger. He wants her to find something she wants to create. Design is an inquisitive process and there is a lesson in demanding and seeking more information as opposed to sitting around and waiting for the next step. Everything in Rabbath’s class is earned through initiative, once students reach out, he seems to give all that he can.

Rabbath works side-by-side with a student. (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian / The Brooklyn Ink)

Rabbath is not just out on a path to share his craft of shoe making, he has a greater mission – revive American manufacturing. “When you don’t have a job you start to panic,” Rabbath explains. But if people like Anna Proger have a skill they can fall back on, there is hope. He wants to raise the next generation of job creators and “empower people … and give them the tools to control their life.” For him having a job is like begging for money and devalues a person’s sense of self-worth. “If you don’t have enough job, you start to doubt on your own capacity.”

Rabbath is now on a mission to increase his own capacity to instruct students. Over the past few years he has taught over 500 of them. He tried to expand his reach by teaching over Skype, but doesn’t think it’s an effective way to teach. His next plan is to transfer his entire workshop into a converted school bus so he can go across country and setup up shop anywhere at least four people sign up. He will fashion the tour like a political campaign. Instead of making promises, he will spread nourishment.

Rabbath loves America and its optimism and sheer will just to begin working. “Everything here starts in the garage and I love it,” he says. He believes in the idea of self-determination and with his class he’s teaching people how to create boots they can actually pull themselves up with.

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