Vintage shoe discovery in Frankfort inspires online retail shop

FRANKFORT – Imagine discovering an abundance of classic, unworn womens shoes dating all the way back to the 1930s. Picture it: Boxes and boxes of vintage pumps, flats and kitten heels-every pair in mint condition. Chances are, if you're a fashion-lover, you'd snag the whole lot immediately, simply out of love. But would you realize the value of the lucrative business opportunity at hand?

Libby Brouwer did. A Michigan native, Brouwer was finishing up her degree at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) in Los Angeles when her mother called from Interlochen. "'You have to see this,' is how she began the conversation," says Brouwer.

Brouwer's parents, Carol and Jim-longtime shoe sellers themselves-had been looking into purchasing an old shoe store in Frankfort. To their surprise, they found the entire basement of the old shop was packed full of boxes containing old shoes-not a pair of them ever worn. Brouwer wasted no time; she boarded a plane home to see the trove herself.

"They were wonderful," she says. "It was like Christmas opening the boxes and seeing what lay inside." Brouwer talked with the store's owner and asked if she could test a pair of the old shoes for durability. She packed them in her suitcase and headed back to Los Angeles to finish up school.

"I wore the test pair to school, out dancing, for parties, you name it," Brouwer says. "Not only did they hold up, they are the most comfortable heels I own!" Upon graduation from FIDM, Brouwer flew back to Frankfort and made an offer to purchase all of the shoes in the basement, more than 3,000 pairs.

Her goal? To launch a vintage shoe store with as minimal up-front costs as possible. As a brick-and-mortar shop wasn't an option, Brouwer and her father, Jim, set out to design and build an e-commerce site for the sale of the shoes, utilizing some outside technical help for creating a database that reflects the ever-changing shoe inventory.

This winter, went live with its inventory of impeccable vintage shoes, making Brouwer a fifth-generation shoe retailer-and one with a keen eye to the past and future. Specializing in unworn, mint condition shoes from the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Brouwer says a Vintage Sole is still establishing itself in the market, but both the website and the product have received a great response already.

To house the physical inventory and shipping operations, Brouwer secured use of a warehouse, a converted pole-barn in Interlochen, which Brouwer's mother, Carol, manages. Brouwer now splits her time between Michigan and California, spending a considerable amount of time in Los Angeles to have better access to the film and fashion industries' frequent call for authentic period shoes.

Today, shelf after shelf inside the warehouse is lined with rows of pristine vintage shoes. Still, even a trove of 3,000 sells out eventually; what of tomorrow? Brouwer says she isn't worried in the least.

"The minute you tell people you own a vintage shoe boutique, shoes start coming out of the woodwork," Brouwer says. "I've gotten some great offers from some of the least expected places." Her favorite moment? The night a woman rolled up to show Brouwer a stash of classic shoes secreted in the trunk of her car.

Brouwer says she considers herself pretty open-minded when it comes to sources, but not when it comes to the shoes.

"If [the shoes] are old but not old enough, such as those from the 1980s, I pass," she says. "However, if the shoes are unworn, in the box, and from earlier than the 70s, I'll take a long, hard look at them."

Quality, she says, is the key to her success: "We only bring in unworn vintage shoes, since that's what distinguishes us from the other vintage retailers out there."

The shoes range in price from approximately $90 to $440, depending on the era in which they were manufactured, the style, the construction and the materials. After evaluating based on those criteria, Brouwer arrives at a price by assessing what a similar shoe would go for in the contemporary market.

"The quality of vintage shoes is very much on par with the designer market of today-or better," she says.

Craftsmanship, of course, is only part of the shoes' allure. They also reflect a social history, something many fashion lovers-Brouwer among them-deem priceless.

"To me, the vintage shoes are art objects in their own right but are wearable fashion pieces as well," she says on her website. "At a Vintage Sole, we believe that quality, comfort, and style don't have to be mutually exclusive.

"And most of all, everyone loves shoes, especially us, so we enjoy sharing our passion." BN