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Brooklyn’s best-kept secret may just be a group of master cobblers tucked away under the el on McDonald Avenue.

The legendary Der Dau Custom-made Boots and Shoes, was founded in Brooklyn 50 years ago by Cuban immigrant Jose Der, who named the company after his father’s name, Der, and his mother’s maiden name, Dau. Today, the shop is operated by his son, Joseph Der.

Highlights of the Der Dau history include catering to celebrity clients such as Barbra Streisand, Paul Newman, Charles Bronson and Tony Curtis, not to mention the Prospect Park mounted police.

Joseph Der, the 28-year-old president of Der Dau, spoke to The Brooklyn Papers this week about what goes into making a quality shoe and why the Gravesend business continues to grow - without advertising - just through word of mouth.

"Once you’ve tried custom-made shoes, you never go back," Der explained of his company’s shoes and boots, which are made with the knowledge and skill accumulated by three generations.

The big orders during a tour of the Der Dau workshop on July 13, were clearly black equestrian riding boots. From March through August the shop is inundated for orders to make and repair equestrian and polo boots, explained Der, gesturing to the heaps of boots sent to the workshop. Boots needing repair come out of the boxes with the fragrant remnants of their owner’s walk through the stables still clinging to the soles.

Tom Struzzieri has been a client of Der Dau for 10 years.

"The horse business is such a niche business and they always have the best quality," Struzzieri told The Papers via phone from a Catskills horse show. "The alternative is to get something mass produced, but the kind of clients Der Dau has at the horse shows are discerning and know the difference.

"I wear the paddock boot, and that’s a low-cut boot for exercising horses, but it’s such a lovely boot, you’d wear them when taking your wife to dinner as well."

Der Dau also offers a large line of men’s dress shoes, western boots and ankle boots in an array of colors and leathers. Der Dau clients can choose from French calf, ostrich, alligator, sharkskin, iguana, cowhide and more.

Der says that French calf leather is one of the best leathers to choose when investing in a first pair of custom-made shoes.

"It’s durable - to be worn every day," explained Der. "After 18 years, customers will come in with their French calf shoes because they finally need to be resoled." Der also showed The Papers a shiny rolled up alligator hide that was flown in from France. He says that ostrich is also popular among his customers because it’s comfortable, but he acknowledges that it’s surface, dotted with bumps, may not be as visually appealing as the alligator hide.

Der Dau’s pricing for a pair of shoes is dependent on what variables the customer chooses - the style, leather and orthopedic options, but average at about $500.

Der says he’ll unveil his "Platinum Hip-Hop" design, a haute couture boot, in the fall. This exotic boot of imported French calfskin and alligator with platinum plates in the laces, will average $5,000. These shoes were designed for hip-hop celebrities looking for the most comfortable fashion boots, explained Der.

Der Dau’s storefront is cluttered with a giant horse mannequin in the window alongside a rotating case of polished men’s dress shoes. Once inside the small shop, customers can eyeball the astonishing array of colors, styles and leathers in men’s shoes and men and women’s boots. All of this is nestled among celebrity photographs and animal hides - including a zebra skin.

A tall chair, a throne really, sits on a high block. This is the customer’s seat, where they will remove their shoes and have six measurements taken to ensure the perfect fit for their boots or shoes. The measurements are taken once, then a pattern and molding are made. Those are kept on file, and from then on the customer can place a call for future orders.

Irene Lu, a Manhattan resident, just bought her first pair of custom-made boots from Der Dau.

"I got measured at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden.

"There are three companies that do boots for riding: Vogel, Der Dau and Dehner. But Der Dau is a smaller business, and they’re so sweet. They steer you in the right direction, which is important because there are so many ways to customize boots.
"My field boots broke in easily and they look great - everything you could hope for in a custom boot."

Another member of the staff in the showroom is a giant black dog, named Midnight. The well-mannered pooch also helps to clean the workshop by snatching up fallen scraps of leather and gnawing on them, said Der.

Der, a resident of Gravesend, says that Der Dau is not all about catering to Wall Street executives, though. Part of his business is correcting what Mother Nature got wrong. He described a young man who recently came in - with two different size feet. His parents had to buy him two pairs of shoes every time, one a 10 and the other a 13. Now he has purchased just one pair, custom-fit and probably more important to the young man, explained Der, the shoes have been constructed so as to appear to be the same size from the outside.

According to Der, the shoemakers also take into consideration the client’s height and weight. A heavier customer may require additional padding in the shoes - double soles. A shorter man may require some added height from his shoe.

As for what makes a good shoe, or a quality shoe, Der could go on forever.

"It really depends on the person," he says. "With a big foot, a toe cap will make the shoe look smaller. For a heavier person, a double sole is necessary to absorb the impact. A shoe with good arch support, and laces for ankle support. And of course, the leather.

"Do you need this shoe to go to parties, to dance, to hike, ride horses or just to sit behind a desk?" asks Der. All of these answers go into customizing the shoe for the client.

Since Der Dau shoes last for at least a decade, the company generally shies away from ladies’ pumps and very trendy shoes.

The workshop, primarily staffed with craftsmen from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and El Salvador, is a flurry of activity. The circular assembly line of men works remarkably quietly. Most of the work is done by hand. Each man is an expert at his task. Each cobbler has his own duty - and it’s clear from the look of concentration on their faces that each considers himself to be a master at his duty, whether it be creating the patterns, cutting the leather, trimming the soles, stitching the shoes or molding them.

Der says that many of the craftsmen are descended from craftsmen who have worked for his father.

"This is nothing you can go to school for," says Der. "It’s hands-on training for many years and it’s not easy. Each man has his own tools. They don’t share. They get used to working with them, and they own them."

Though he’s the president, Der doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of company management alone.

"My dad is still active in the business. He’s well known in the equestrian world."

Der, who was practically born into the business, helping out after school in the shop, says he hasn’t yet tired of the shoe biz.

"It was my playground after school. I used to sweep the floor and empty the garbage," he says. Now he handles the clients.

"I like to play around with shoe shapes. I work with the fashion clients to develop their pattern," says Der, explaining that often the clients will rip pages out of magazines and bring them in, with ideas for alterations. "Those are the clients I love, that give me a challenge.

"I’ve always liked working with leather. A lot of people have problems, and they’re amazed at how well a custom-made shoe fits. When the client is happy, it makes me happy."


Der Dau Custom-made Boots and Shoes is located at 1885 McDonald Ave. at Avenue P. For store hours call (800) 337-3286. For more information, visit their Web site,

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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Reasonable discourse

Rob says:
The story is perfectly true and exactly told the way it truly is.

The company is a fine small "papa and mama" store with about 50 years of doing bus. in NY.

I know the whole story because I am one of them!
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