Perhaps the region’s most accomplished shoemaker was wearing flip-flops.
Grisha Nazarian stood in the corridor of his custom shoe workshop Tuesday and reflected on his initiation into the hardscrabble business.
“My father took me to the nearby shoemaker and dropped me there,” said Nazarian, a Burbank resident and the owner of Grisha’s Custom Shoes. “He said, ‘The kid is yours. Whatever you want him to do, he will do.’”
Nazarian, 60, has spent 53 years making shoes the way few people still make them — from start to finish, by hand. When he’s working around the shop, though, he often prefers simpler footwear of his own — a store-bought pair of walking shoes, or even beach sandals.
He is among a handful of custom shoemakers still operating in the country. Sure, there are Internet start-ups that promise custom-made footwear, said Karlo Nazarian, Grisha’s son. But with them, customers must choose from a list of cookie-cutter designs to work off of.
There are no templates at Grisha’s. Clients often bring in sketches and designs, or even a pair of their favorite kicks, and ask the cobbler to recreate them.
“It’s the process he enjoys,” said Karlo Nazarian, 36. “But really, it’s what he does. He cannot do anything else. Grisha is a shoemaker.”
The Iranian-born Armenian spent his formative years apprenticing for a small Armenian shoemaker, learning how to pick leathers, and later how to construct custom oxfords and brogues. Today, he charges between $2,500 and $6,000 per pair, and said that well-heeled clients cannot get enough.
From Nazarian’s Beverly Hills office, which he operated out of in the 1980s and ’90s, the artist designed shoes for some of the country’s brightest stars. Today, the walls of his Burbank workshop are covered with signed photographs of celebrities, from Dolly Parton to Rod Stewart to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He makes leather outfits and boots for Janet Jackson. Nazarian made the famous outfit for the artist that resulted in a memorable Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004.
Paula Abdul, Suzanne Somers, Marilyn Manson and Prince have all sought out and donned his footwear.
It got to the point where so many celebrities regularly marched into the small storefront at 2807 N. Glenoaks Blvd. that the family installed window shades to keep out the flashbulbs of paparazzi. When Nazarian agreed to make George Clooney’s boots for the movie “Batman & Robin,” he was also agreeing to custom-fit all 25 stunt doubles, 44 pairs in all.
Each pair follows a similar process: Nazarian measures clients’ feet, creates molds, designs patterns, constructs the top portion of the shoe, assembles it onto the mold, works the sole and then smooths over the edges.
“As a longtime customer likes to say, ‘You have to wear your own shoes, not somebody else’s,’” Nazarian said.