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If the first thing a woman notices about a man is his shoes, then why do so many Sacramento men leave the house in flip flops? After meeting with Benjamin Schwartz, a local custom shoemaker, the sentiment echoed without provocation.
“I love Sacramento – but I feel like there’s a really common occurrence where women dress up really nice to go out and men show up in flip flops,” Schwartz says. “So I’m hoping [my shoes] will be something that changes that.”
If the flip flop represents ease and leisure, it comes at the cost of debonair. A guy can still allow a flash of his ankles in the breeze without subjecting us to funky toes. BENJAMINS slip-on loafers have a simple, somewhat traditional silhouette with a touch of sophisticated cool, which means no socks.
BENJAMINS enters a local landscape as part of a small group of designers making over this city’s men, and has earned regional attention in the San Francisco Chronicle and international prestige in Monocle. Schwartz has emerged as a dedicated craftsman whose interests and influences are present in his products.
His shoes embody a California-wearable style bridging the gap between caszh and dressy. In this way, it does seem “ahead of its time” as the tagline totes on the website. It fits nicely into the unoccupied territory of footwear that’s more formal than – but as comfortable as – a sneaker and, according to Schwartz, “the shoe you own 10 of and constantly throw out.” Details like craftsmanship, luxe materials, and the silhouette elevate the design.
In many ways, Schwartz is our own real deal, genteel millennial, so to speak. Someone who exhibits a certain level of chivalry, exudes a polite confidence, dresses the part. This Friday marks his last day at his day job in the State Treasurer’s office, allowing him to shift his attention to BENJAMINS full-time after six years of making them on the side out of his East Sacramento house. His new digs will be a retail space at the base of the new Warehouse Artist Lofts (WAL) where he will craft and sell his shoes. When we meet for the first time, he comments on my utilitarian, army green jacket, not unlike the one he is wearing over a grey crew neck sweater, a sign that his eye for fashion never sleeps. He’s collected and humble, yet throughout our conversation his speech becomes more excitable when he’s describing particulars like obscure machinery, the menswear industry, and the design details of his eponymous line.
Schwartz describes the details with historical aplomb: “The toe is kind of inspired by a classic dress slipper, a Prince Albert slipper, they call it. A lot of shoe brands are going all sneakers and all leather. I’m trying to keep us the other way where at least the uppers of our shoes are textiles, all luxury fabrics. It’s a waterproof cashmere that’s 100 percent cashmere and treated so it’s water-repellent.”
Over lattes at Temple Coffee on S St, I ask him if that might take people by surprise, that some may hesitate to wear such a precious fabric on their feet. He delights in that element being part of the appeal.
“Wearing cashmere shoes is kind of like a middle finger to caring about stuff like that.” Prince Albert with a punk spirit.
For Schwartz, the fascination with fine clothing began with his father’s penchant for old fashioned ideals.
“When I was growing up, my dad’s side of the family was always old school about etiquette. My dad gave me this book when I was 12 or 13, this etiquette book that his dad gave him when he was like 14. That’s how I learned how to tie a tie.”
Custom tailoring, a somewhat rare indulgence for our generation, was a part of Schwartz’s upbringing in a family of fifth generation San Franciscans. “When I was younger, I remember getting my first suit. We went to this tailor that my dad went to, and my dad’s pretty short – like 5’3″ or 5’4″ – and we had to go to this guy to get it sized up just right. This one guy was really cool and he gave me an industry catalog and I just remember thinking that was the coolest thing.” A menswear geek was born.
Schwartz has two partners – Mike Salazar, a financial worker for the state, and Jannik Catalano, an attorney with a law practice in San Francisco. Each handle business aspects of the brand, while product creation, marketing, and any remaining creative pursuits fall to Schwartz’s faculties. The trio met through DeMolay, the largest young men’s leadership fraternity in the world, which Schwartz refers to as “like Boy Scouts with less camping.” At this point I can’t help but conclude that his cultured character has a very un-Sacramento quality. Not to question Sacramento’s level of class or make Schwartz out to be a prince, but as a Sacramento native, his breed does seem to be a rarity. A creative voice like his and like R. Douglas creator Ryan Hammonds, his friend and sometimes collaborator, seems to be one that is unique and ready to be embraced by Sacramento’s urban sophisticates. Nevertheless, his creative pursuits are not uncharacteristic of the exciting, new artistic group on the rise in Sacramento.
“I feel like it’s a really good time to be in Sacramento in general,” Schwartz remarks. “The place we’re in as a city – we’re growing a lot. There’s a lot of really enthusiastic people who have a lot of energy, who are trying to do new things.”
Like a true millennial, Schwartz is embracing the collaborative spirit and joining forces with local artists in similar industries and otherwise. A huge Miles Davis fan, he and local photographer Raoul Ortega based a recent ad campaign called “Kind of Blue” around recreating a photo of Davis sitting backwards over a chair. Referring to his personal admiration for the artist, he shares, “It was the first time I tried to incorporate something from myself. And I wanted to do something that was in response to this coming up of women-in-menswear that’s become really popular.”
He’s referring to the fact that, in the ad, the role of Miles Davis is modeled by a woman. “I also wanted to let people know that we are making them in women’s sizes.” Hear that, ladies?
Other collaborative endeavors include talks with R. Douglas and a small run of shoes dip-dyed in Temple Coffee, packaged in burlap coffee sacks.
The opening of his shop at WAL is the awakening of a curator’s dream, the treasures that have inspired his sensibility and shoes like a timeworn family influence and his collection of soul records.
“I’m bringing in a lot of things that are personal to me from my family, like some old sketches. My great grandfather was an architect in San Francisco so I’m trying to bring in some of that stuff.”
In addition to a rich, artistic atmosphere, it’s important to Schwartz that the shop maintain that workshop quality. “There’s no back of the shop so there’s nothing like ‘behind the curtains.’ Everything’s right there. We have this giant machine that stitches the soles on the shoes – it weighs 600 pounds – that’s going to be right there in the shop.” Complementing the impressive machinery will be furniture made by fellow local makers. Designer Steve Tiller, whose furniture you’ve probably perched upon at Block or Low Brau, is making tables for the shop.
If Cinephile describes someone obsessed with film, and Francophile someone enthralled with French culture, (each of which Schwartz is a fan) there needs to be a new word created for a men’s fashion enthusiast. The dude knows all sorts of tidbits about his industry. Weeks later, from a business trip to New York City, he texts me a photo of himself, clearly stoked and posing next to a dashing, scarfed gentleman. I hate to break it to him that although I recognize by the man’s perfectly disheveled hair and impossibly chic trench coat that he must be “somebody,” I have no idea the nature of this fellow’s trade or celebrity. After some Googling, I find out he is Nick Wooster, men’s fashion retailer and overall street style king. It seems that Schwartz’s dedication, fixation, and love of his craft has catapulted him outside these Californian borders, to the heart of the menswear industry. Pretty cool that we have him to bring some of that NYFW energy to a brick and mortar corner in Downtown Sacramento.