If you had to spend a day stopping in at every shop in Brooklyn that hawks bespoke menswear, by sunset you’d need a very tall glass of whiskey indeed. Custom, handmade shoes, on the other hand, are a tradition that’s relatively hard to find around these yrts, even as a hipster revivalist thing.
That probably explains why Eric Pitzer– a guy who back in 2010 ditched his unfulfilling corporate day job in Ohio and ran away to Santiago, Chile (a place he’d never been before) to work in a tire factory– felt like he had come across something really special when he met Jaime Cardemil. “Here, shoemaking is kind of a lost thing,” Pitzer said.
While searching for a new pair of shoes, he met Cardemil, a guy making quality goods that stood out from widely-available cheap imports. “He had about four styles set up in his living room, and said he’d have the shoes ready in about two weeks,” Pitzer recalled. “The shoes, they were beautiful, they were comfortable and I was curious about the guy, what he was doing.” Pitzer kept up with the Chilean guy’s work, and eventually found that Cardemil had opened up “this little tiny store– about half the size of this rug.” Pitzer pointed down to an area rug with dust-colored flowers. “That corporate job I had, it was in fashion, and my first thought was, people in Ohio would really like these.”
So the two teamed up and founded Sitrana in 2011, both seeing an opportunity to eventually get the shoes into markets outside of Chile. First, they opened up a shop in Santiago, which also happens to be home to the workshop where each pair of Sitrana shoes are made by hand. Now, the company is expanding not to Ohio but to Brooklyn, betting that people in the U.S. will be just as won over by the footwear as Pitzer was. After spending about six years living as an American expat in Santiago, Pitzer has returned to the U.S. to open the very first Sitrana flagship store outside of Chile– a modest, rustic little storefront in Williamsburg right along the BQE that he renovated with the help of his family.
The partners’ goals are simple. “We’re not trying to change the footwear industry,” Pitzer said. “Honestly, we’re not trying to change anything, we’re just doing something that’s been done for many generations.”
The footwear– comprised of about a dozen styles including boots and shoes– is relatively simple, honest stuff, constructed from cowhide with a natural leather sole and rubber-capped heel. “Menswear doesn’t change that much,” Pitzer said. What sets his shoes apart is not only that they’re handmade, but with a broken-in style and super-light weight, providing an alternative to most styles we’re used to seeing in the States. As you might have guessed, these shoes aren’t cheap– a pair of custom-made loafers will set you back about $345, while a pair of their lace-up boots ring in at $445.
“Men’s boots here are designed after work boots, they’re heavy-industry inspired and so they’re these heavy boots,” Pitzer pointed out. Sitrana’s products, on the other hand, are a little bit sportier, inspired at least in part by Cardemil’s rodeo roots. “His uncle is like the seven-time national rodeo champion of Chile,” Pitzer explained. “Our shoes are much more lightweight, because it comes from that rodeo lineage which is more performance based, so it’s much lighter.”
The shop, decorated with old wood planks and well-worn leather chairs, also harkens back to that Chilean, old-West style. Of course, there are some nods to Brooklyn-grown design, because you’re literally not allowed to open a shop in this borough without at least one vintage incandescent light bulb hanging from your ceiling. “I think it represents Chile well,” Pitzer said. “Chile’s a very natural place, the construction of the wood in a lot of the buildings is really rough, but really beautiful.”
If all this is starting to sound like an outsider attempting to morph a legitimate tradition into a bloated marketing campaign while exploiting a comparatively rundown or “behind” place for its relatively cheap labor and cool factor without having any real connection to location or history (*cough* Shinola), don’t fret– I don’t think Pitzer is playing us like that.
When I stopped into the brand new Williamsburg shop yesterday, however, I found only one pair of boots sitting on top of a leather display platform. “The rest are arriving on Monday,” Pitzer explained. They’re being shipped straight from Chile, where Sitrana’s old-school workshop will remain. Each pair of boots are made by hand there, something that’s super unusual in an increasingly globalized fashion market. “Jaime literally picks out the leather by just pointing to it,” Pitzer said of their materials which are sourced in Chile.
Like Boerum Apparel’s “farm-to-closet” fashion, Sitrana is closely connected with not just their materials, but the workers too. “We’re in the workshop all the time. The salaries we pay are better than the rest of the industry, it’s a stable, good job, and we want to train younger people to do this too, because average age in the workshop is something like 55 years old,” he said. “So we want to create great, long-term jobs.” Pitzer said that the workers stick around and tell Jaime that they’re happy with their jobs, and people tend to stick around at the company.
“That’s one of the things that attracted me to this in the first place,” Pitzer said. “I mean, it’s a real thing.”
Sitrana is located at 455 Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, and will have its soft opening Friday, May 6, noon to 8 pm. Stay tuned for a grand opening in the coming months. Regular hours: Monday through Thursday, 4 pm-8 pm; Friday, noon- 8 pm; Saturday 11 am- 8 pm; Sunday 11 am-6 pm.