At Colorado Shoe School, you can make your own custom sneakers

Well-worn leather jackets. An old bowling bag. A drop cloth splattered with multi-colored paint. A bike tire inner tube. The leather from a beat-up couch. Tennis balls that are past their prime.

All of these materials might normally end up in a landfill, but at the Colorado Shoe School just outside of Fort Collins, they’re being upcycled into colorful, whimsical, one-of-a-kind shoes you’ll literally never find anywhere else.

Since April 2018, Annabel Reader and Dan Huling have been helping people tap into their artistic sides and learn a completely new skill: how to build a pair of shoes — including sneakers, sandals and fashion boots — from the ground up (pun intended).

If you go

Colorado Shoe School, 2829 N. County Road 23, Bellvue. Workshops range from $190 to $890. coloradoshoeschool.com

Reader and Huling, who are married, are both accomplished creatives who specialize in sculpture, costume design, print-making, juggling, vaudeville, magic, theater and just about everything in between.

When he’s not teaching people how to make shoes or working on other projects, Huling also helps with Handsome Little Devils, an experiential live performance and events company he co-founded with his brother, Mike Huling.

Reader, a professional dancer and stilt performer originally from New Zealand, is a talented costume designer and artist who first began dabbling in shoes while working as a wardrobe assistant for Cirque du Soleil.

“I was in charge of maintaining the shoes, repainting, resoling, resizing, replacing laces or whatever, just making them safe for the acrobats,” said Reader, 43. “While I was on the road with them, I started experimenting with making shoes and just kind of playing. It just lit a fire in me.”

Not long after, Reader and Huling traveled to New Zealand to visit family and, while searching for things to do while they were in town, stumbled upon an online listing for a shoe school. They booked a workshop and instantly knew they’d found the next step in their creative careers.

“We don’t want to manufacture anything; we want to help other people express their creativity through the making of shoes,” Reader said. “We’re not manufacturers who can replicate items. We’re artists who like to do something different every time. The shoe umbrella is such a wonderful way of enabling people to come in and express themselves through a medium that is useful and kind of magical in some ways.”

They were already in the process of building a studio on their home’s property in Bellvue, a small community northwest of Fort Collins, but after the trip to New Zealand, they decided to finish it with the goal of opening a shoe school.

Today, the 600-square-foot light-filled space is decked out with everything you’d need to make a personalized pair of shoes from scratch — roomy worktables, sewing machines, various wooden shoe lasts, bottles of adhesives, scraps of fabric, colorful threads and paints.

As big advocates for recycling and reducing waste, particularly in the fashion industry, Reader and Huling always have a versatile supply of rescued, repurposed and well-loved materials for students to choose from.

“You can use recycled anything to make shoes that are fashionable and that you want to wear,” Reader said.

The shoe school closed down last spring at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic — during which Reader applied her impressive sewing skills to making cloth masks — but has since reopened with limited class sizes and private workshops.

The Colorado Shoe School offers a variety of classes ranging from a one-day sneaker-making workshop to a more intensive five-day shoe- or boot-making session. Prices range from $190 to $890, which includes all supplies and hands-on instruction for eight hours each day.

“Students show up without any real idea what’s going to happen and they walk away with their own pair of sneakers,” said Huling, 43, of the one-day workshops.

More recently, the Colorado Shoe School designed an eye-catching float for the Dairy Block’s “Petite Parade” in the middle of February in celebration of Mardi Gras. Reader and Huling’s small float contained a life-size replica of a shoe that could’ve been worn by the late Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man. They made the giant shoe, which was a size 37 and measured 18 inches long, to be functional, just as they make all the other shoes in their studio.

Reader and Huling infuse that same type of imaginativeness and originality into every one of their classes and workshops. They encourage their students to be themselves, take risks and make shoes that make them happy, whether that’s a pair of rainbow high-tops, sleek dress oxfords or a dreamed-up design no one’s ever attempted before.

“It’s empowering, it’s daring,” Reader said. “I’ve always thought that even if you have to wear a uniform, your shoes can be weird. In costume design, if you nail the shoes, you’re going to nail the rest of the character, and it’s kind of like that with your personality as well. If you have a pair of shoes that really fits your personality, it almost doesn’t matter what the rest of you is wearing.”

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