Going on 30 and still Footloose
Moccasins crafted by Steve DeGouveia have lasted as long as his shop. In Aspen, that’s saying something, given the mortality rate among the town’s retailers. But Footloose Moccasin Makers, which morphed into Footloose & Fancy Things, remains among a handful of shops that date back to Aspen’s revered ’70s. In those days, DeGouveia was “a hippy doing moccasins.” These days, a longtime associate creates the custom-made moccasins that are a now Footloose trademark, and the Mill Street store is approaching 30 years as a purveyor of clothing, jewelry and other merchandise of a contemporary Southwestern flair. The work of some 120 artisans – from intricately woven horsehair bracelets and belts to Western hats and leather goods – are offered at the shop.
Footloose also sells Edward S. Curtis prints on consignment from the collection of the late John Eugster. The historic photographs feature images of American Indians taken from the 1890s to 1920s.The shop is open year-round, except maybe Sundays during the offseasons. “We wanted to be here for the local people, as well as people coming through town,” DeGouveia explained.Nonetheless, tourists probably make up 70 percent of the shop’s clientele. Locals, perhaps scared off by the pricey Aspen shopping experience in general, don’t realize the shop offers items in the $30 and $40 range, he suspects.Whatever the price tag, DeGouveia strives to offer merchandise that shoppers won’t find elsewhere.
“It’s not a typical kind of store – I never wanted it to be,” he explained. “When I opened the store, I didn’t want it to be like other stores you walk into. I wanted people to walk in here and walk out, whether they bought anything or not, with the feeling that they’d seen something unique.”Customers can also walk in with a pair of moccasins they bought from DeGouveia three decades ago and walk out with a pair that has been resoled and is ready to wear for perhaps another 30 years. And they do.”We guarantee the workmanship for the life of the shoes,” he said.
DeGouveia was fresh out of the U.S. Air Force in 1972 when he purchased a pair of custom-made moccasins. The California native wound up working for the man who made the mocs and learned the craft while attending school as well.”I dropped out of college and became a traveling shoe salesman,” he recalls.Living out of a van, DeGouveia hit the road to sell moccasins at craft fairs. He wheeled into Aspen in 1973 to set up a booth at the Mining Days Fair out at the high school. The moccasins sold well, and he returned to the fair for several years. There were also winter trips to town, when he would contact old customers in search of new buyers who, with any luck, would buy enough moccasins to finance a few weeks of skiing. He slept in the van.”The first time I came into Aspen, I remember coming down Main Street and driving through the curves and knew I wanted to move here,” DeGouveia said.
He had an early and loyal patron in the late singer/Aspenite John Denver. Through Denver, DeGouveia linked up with Julie Wykoff, then-owner of Cheap Shots, a consignment store in a long-gone, funky collection of buildings across Hyman Avenue from Little Annie’s.He leased a space from Wykoff that was maybe 8 feet wide and 19 feet long, and opened Footloose Moccasin Makers in June 1977. The rent, $350 per month, took DeGouveia’s breath away.”It was a lot to me,” he said. “You think about it now, you can’t even get somebody to draw up the papers for a lease for that.”The shop expanded into the attic, and DeGouveia had seven people working full time, turning out custom-designed moccasins. Later, the manufacturing operation would move to the Airport Business Center, where some 10 craftspeople stitched about 1,000 pairs a year.
Today the moccasins are made in Grand Junction. DeGouveia sold the manufacturing operation to Suellyn Peña, his former shop manager. Footloose sells perhaps 50 pairs annually, he said.But these aren’t the moccasins you made at summer camp.DeGouveia creates custom-fitted molds of a buyer’s feet in his shop. The customer picks out the material – typically buffalo hide – and the design. Everything from color to fringe, beadwork and decorative leather patterns can be crafted to the buyer’s specifications. Various types of soles can be affixed, depending on their intended use. Moccasins can be lined with sheepskin for winter use, and if the buffalo hide is kept oiled, it’s waterproof. (DeGouveia has been backpacking in his mocs.)”They’re wearable art. We make them very functional to very fancy to everything in between,” he said.
There’s a two- to three-month wait for a pair of moccasins; they start at about $365, and most pairs average $450 to $550, DeGouveia said. On the other hand, a fancy, knee-high pair can run $1,000 to $1,500.
In the late 1980s, DeGouveia relocated the shop to the Tom Thumb Building on Mill Street – first to a downstairs location, then to the upper-level space it currently occupies.He changed the store’s name to Footloose & Fancy Things to reflect its expanded array of offerings. It was “the real rent district,” DeGouveia said. “We had to sell a lot of other things.”A year after the move, DeGouveia made a fortuitous decision. He took out a loan and purchased the space, sparing Footloose from the vagaries of a landlord-controlled space. He still has a mortgage, but were he paying the typical retail rent in Aspen these days, Footloose would probably be relegated to memories of the good old days, DeGouveia suspects.”It’s a struggle as it is,” he admitted. “If somebody had looked at my books along the way … they’d say, what are you doing this for?”At age 56, DeGouveia knows what he’s doing it for: “I still enjoy running the store. I would really miss it if I didn’t do it.”But he’s also eyeing the future. In 2007, Footloose will mark its 30th anniversary.
“I’d like to, at least, do 30 years. That sounds like a nice round number,” DeGouveia said.Then, he said, he may be ready to lease the space to someone else. Selling the business – letting Footloose continue under new ownership – isn’t likely, though.”The business is sort of me,” he said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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