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Toronto teen shoe designer puts best foot forward

By Renee Ghert-Zand

Daniel Charkow is not looking to step into anyone else’s shoes. He wants others to step into his.

The 17-year-old Toronto high school senior shoe designer and maker is quickly gaining attention for his fanciful footwear since he started his own business, Charkow Shoes, selling his creations — many of them custom commissions.

Specializing in women’s shoes and fascinated with unusual materials, the imaginative Charkow has made high-heeled footwear out of everything from an iconic blue IKEA bag to a broken chair to molded plexiglass.

‘Frakta’ by Daniel Charkow. Recycled IKEA Frakta bag, nude goat skin lining. (Matt Feinstein) Although Charkow’s shoes are eye-catchers, they don’t appear to be the most comfortable footwear around. Then again, comfort isn’t necessarily the point.

“High heels are not healthy no matter how comfortable you make them, but there is something undeniably beautiful about a high heel,” Charkow told The Times of Israel.

“If I am making a shoe mainly to be modeled in a photo shoot, then I’ll go with a high heel. But if it is a custom shoe, then I will be more concerned about health and comfort,” he said.

It’s hard for Charkow, a student at Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, to remember a time when he wasn’t fascinated by footwear. From a young age, he would help his mother choose the right pair of shoes to match an outfit.

“The right shoe can not only change an outfit, but it can also change the wearer’s outlook and attitude,” the young designer said.

It wasn’t long before he was ripping apart his mother’s shoes (with her permission) and rearranging the components to make new design prototypes.

When filling his school notebooks with shoe design sketches and reconstructing his mother’s shoes wasn’t enough, Charkow, then a young teen, enrolled in shoe making courses at Toronto’s famed Bata Shoe Museum. There he learned how to make both women’s and men’s shoes, using traditional techniques from a century or more ago.

“It’s vigorous and taxing on the body, especially the hands and forearms. Sometimes it’s also hard on your back,” said Charkow, who puts around 30 hours of hand labor into making a pair of shoes.

In summer 2015, when Charkow was 15, he was invited to participate in an internship with the design team at Steve Madden in New York.

The following summer he participated in a sneaker workshop at Brooklyn Shoe Space, and last summer he interned at the Aldo head office in Montreal. He also learned how to make a man’s dress shoe at Pedlar Stock, a private workshop in Hamilton, Ontario.

Charkow said his use of upcycled materials reflects his personal views on sustainability. Having made little sculptures out of found objects and other people’s trash as a younger boy, he applied the same concept to his shoemaking.

“I designed and hand-crafted a pair of high heels made out of an unwanted, broken old chair with beautiful upholstery and wooden details. Though this chair could not serve its original purpose, it did not belong in the garbage. I took the chair and used the fabric for the upper of the shoe, the chair leg for the heel and the foam for the shoe’s interior padding. I believe if we can bring these views to large fashion companies, we can reduce our carbon footprint on the planet,” Charkow told the Canadian Jewish News Charkow believes materials like these have sufficient durability. He even carried out a proof of concept by making for himself a pair of “Converse” high-top sneakers using discarded foam underlayment (a floor protective material) for the upper.

There are many shoe designers Charkow admires, including the French Christian Louboutin, known for his stiletto heels and shiny red-lacquered soles.

“His red sole is timeless and classic. And I love his motto. He says that the shoe should make a woman feel more confident and powerful,” Charkow said.

The young designer also likes United Nude, a Dutch shoe label founded by Rem D. Koolhaas, nephew of celebrated architect Rem Koolhaas. Charkow likes how this company incorporates new technology like 3D printing and molding architecture into its shoes.

“They merge architecture and footwear, which really interests me,” Charkow said.

Charkow admires Israeli shoe designer Kobi Levi for his whimsical, colorful designs, many of which emulate everyday objects. Charkow, who has visited Israel three times, also keeps an eye on what Israeli design students are producing.

Daniel Charkow admires the creations of Israeli shoe designer Kobi Levi. Clockwise, from left: Watermelon, Miao, Banana and the Madonna-inspired Blond Ambition (Courtesy of Kobi Levi via JTA) “They are very innovative in their designs, construction and materials,” Charkow said.

For Charkow, shoe design and shoemaking go hand-in-hand, and he doesn’t prefer one over the other. So far, he’s sketched hundreds of designs and made around 40 pairs of shoes, which go for anywhere between $400 and $1,000.

Despite the fact that Charkow spends almost every free moment working on his shoes, he manages to keep up with his studies and to pursue hobbies like photography and collecting vintage cameras. He also directs his school’s annual fashion show. Charkow has enjoyed full support from friends and family, especially his physician father, teacher mother and older brother, who is in university. No one was surprised when Charkow announced that his next step would be fashion studies in either New York or London.

 “I’m hoping to go to the London College of Fashion, where they have the exact program I am looking for. It’s a bachelors of fine arts in shoe design,” he said.

Charkow’s long term goal is to have his own brand and line of shoes with a bespoke division.

“I want to make handmade shoes, not outsourced ones. I want my customers to know that a craftsperson has actually touched their shoes,” he said.

It would be as much for Charkow’s sake as for the purchasers’.
“I love to see a shoe come to fruition from the work of my own two hands. It’s the best feeling ever,” he said.