Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Nasser Vies
Meet Nasser. He’s internationally renowned, but he’s tucked away off Queen St., thriving in the lost art of bespoke (custom made) shoemaking. I’d always wondered what that little place was when I was doing my morning photo walks through Leslieville last year. Entering the shop, I was transported to ‘old times’ and my memory of Geppetto’s workshop in the old Disney classic, Pinocchio. Instead of wood, there was leather and tools, knives, nails, buttons, hooks, old sewing machines, soles and molds and everything amazing you could imagine in a craftsman’s workshop.
Nasser has been living and working in Riverside for 23 years now. Iranian born, he left before the Iran/Iraq war began in 1980 on an acceptance to York University to study Engineering. Once there, the artist in him felt the pull towards the Liberal Arts programmes, trumping Engineering in the end. Living in the Annex at the time, Nasser met a slew of interesting people, one in particular who was a collector of shoemaking tools. He had influenced Nasser and a friend to study the craft. They left university and began their journey towards master shoemaking – from scratch. While Nasser’s experience was full and he learned a lot, he wasn’t ready to set out on his own and left Toronto in 1981 for Dundas Ontario, to work as an apprentice under ‘Old Tony’, an 87 year old master. There, he acquired all the skills: knife sharpening, thread making (old Irish linen which was waxed and twisted into single strands), bottoming and every detail about how to make a shoe from scratch. After several years under Tony, Nasser moved back to Toronto and opened a small shop in the Annex, but after two years, the owner sold and he moved to his current location.
With so few master shoemakers left in the world, craftsmen like Nasser were well known in the arts world. He worked for both the Canadian Opera Company and the Performing Arts Centre in North York for many years. Some of his work was in the hit stage shows Showboat & Miss Saigon. Later he worked in the film biz, making period boots for Sir Ian McKellan in the first X-Men, tango boots for Robert Duvall, shoe-weapon hybrids for the TV show Nikita, even a pair of boots for Jim Cuddy. ‘There’s very few places to find period and futuristic footwear in the city so I was busy! Sadly many film crews have moved their work west and a few years ago the work started to dwindle’.
A self-taught entrepreneur, that didn’t stop Nasser. People started contacting him from all over the world wanting to learn the craft. Thus began his teaching career. He holds courses throughout the year in his shop which are 3 weeks long, 9am-5pm. He takes a max of 3 students at a time. They learn how to make a Derby and Oxford shoe during the course. ‘I was amazed so many young people were interested in this craft. Several of my students are software engineers who got tired of the desk life’. After 5 years and many students, Nasser is still in touch with them. ‘Some have started small shops, others are still working for the love of it in their basements or a small rented room’.
As well as teaching, a lot of Nasser’s business now comes from the orthopedic world. Anything requiring custom work, he’s the man. All of Nasser’s shoes are of the highest quality and take a minimum of 40 hours to make and cost roughly $1000/pair.
When he’s not working, the man with the attention to detail takes pleasure in his second love, birdwatching. ‘I’m a natural philosopher at heart and one man operation, so it’s perfect: just me, the birds and maybe if I’m lucky a deer or 2’.
On October 25th, the Honourable Cordwainer’s Company (International Boot & Shoemaking) is holding their annual conference at the BATA Shoe Museum. All are welcome. There will be demonstrations of shoemaking, talks and materials available for anyone interested. The date – Oct 25th – is in honour of St. Crispin, the saint of shoemaking. Who knew?