Duran’s Dance Shoes of Boyle Heights, an immigrant family business for 50 years, has a long-standing connection with L.A.’s Mexican music and dance community.
But the store also has formed a bond with a different type of customer: superheroes. Or those that want to dress up like them, anyway.
Customers from as far away as Australia have shelled out up to $700 a pair for custom leather boots resembling the pair worn by their favorite comic-book heroes. Most were tipped off to Duran’s services on fan internet sites and message boards, according to owner Isabel Duran, 67, who took over the shop a year ago after the death of her mom, who also was named Isabel.
This time of year is particularly busy for Duran’s as fans get ready for the annual Comic-Con International convention in San Diego from July 20-23.
While you might think that Wonder Woman boots would be a hot-selling item this year after the success of Warner Bros. Pictures’ summer blockbuster, Duran said she has seen no uptick in interest for those particular shoes. The most popular item? Batman’s black boots, which cost $375. Superman’s bright red boots will cost you $600.
“Everybody wants to be a Batman,” Duran said.
Some other pop culture items made by the store include character shoes for “Star Trek” Klingon outfits, which fetch $700, as well as real-life musical heroes such as Elvis Presley.
Duran’s father, Gonzalo, founded the company in the late 1950s after moving his family from Parral, Mexico. His wife took over the business 15 years ago after Gonzalo’s death.
Duran said the business sells about 10,000 pairs of handcrafted shoes a year, with character boots accounting for about 10 percent of sales. The bulk of the business – 80 percent – is tap shoes that go for around $200, with the remaining 10 percent coming from “folklorico” shoes, which include flamenco shoes and boots for mariachi musicians. The company is able to customize shoes in bright colors to match any type of elaborate, colorful costumes.
And Duran has a go-to response to customers who complain.
“It’s hard to find cows that color,” she said.
Should the buyers ask for a discount, she’s ready for that one, too.
“Sure, I’ll take the heel off,” Duran said.
Comic-Con fans discovered the store online in recent years, Duran said, but the first customer seeking character boots came to the shop in the 1980s: local voice actor and former radio personality Wally Wingert, whose voice credits include “The Garfield Show” and the “Batman: Arkham” video-game series.
Wingert, who loved to dress up for various public appearances, asked Gonzalo Duran if he could make Batman boots. The proprietor obliged.
Word of mouth soon spread, and other performers and enthusiasts sought out Duran’s services. Tap-dance superstar Michael Flatley, of “Lord of the Dance” fame, once came to Duran’s for custom tap shoes with extra-high heels. TV’s Batman, Adam West, who died on June 9, also visited the shop. He didn’t buy any Batman boots, but left a signed photograph that hangs on the wall.
Gonzalo Duran saved up enough money working at a shoe factory in the 1950s to buy shoemaking equipment piece by piece, which he installed in the garage at the family’s first Boyle Heights house. Leather workers from Mexico often stayed at the home until they could find jobs or establish their own businesses.
The family moved to another Boyle Heights home, a duplex, in 1986. Duran and her husband live in the rear house, and Duran’s younger sister, Margarett Duran Norris, 55, lives in the front house and handles social media for the business.
The duplex’s two garages serve as workrooms for the company’s two shoemakers, Luis Herrera, 68, who has been an employee at the shop for 40 years, and David Blancarte, 55, who has spent 35 years with the Durans.
Duran’s mother taught her how to purchase appropriate leather and other shoemaking supplies from Saderma Leather in Hollywood, as well as Sav-Mor Leather and United Leather in downtown’s Garment District. United Leather carries specialty leathers and furs as well as cow leather.
“It’s like going into a candy store,” Duran said dreamily.
And while you might find Duran boots at Comic-Con, don’t look for them on the many sidewalk superheroes strolling Hollywood Boulevard, Duran said, with visible pride. Those struggling industry wanna-bes usually opt for less expensive synthetic costumes and footwear.
“My customers have jobs and events where they wear the costumes,” Duran said. “It’s a different income level.”
– Diane Haithman
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