This Kansas Shoe Designer Is Living a Childhood Dream
Aida Stenholm's classmates in Peru laughed when she declared as a child that she wanted to make shoes for a living—but today she does, with imaginative flair, at her shop in Wichita. Interview with Debbie Leckron Miller.
DLM What sparked your love of shoes?
AS My friends had many pairs of shoes— for school, church, everyday—and many colors, but I had only one black pair of hand-me-downs that I wore for everything. My mom bought them from a shoemaker. They were high quality so they would last, but I was jealous. At church, I’d study what people were wearing. I told Mom, “One day, I’m going to fill my whole closet with shoes.”
DLM Do you recall your first new pair?
AS For graduation in Peru, the class has a big party and travels together. I knew I’d have to wear my sister’s shoes, but they were so big. So I started working at my mother’s grocery stand to save money. I went to a market in Lima, full of different leathers and colors, and I bought oxfords that looked so shiny, with three shades of brown and two buckles. I’ll never forget those shoes!
DLM What happened next?
AS I was the first in my family to go to college and studied printing and communications. I eventually worked in the Bahamas, where I met my husband. On vacation in Peru, we visited a shop with cute but horribly made shoes. That’s when my dream came true: “I am going to makes shoes!” We moved to Peru, and I attended shoemaking school for a year and learned the old ways.
DLM And how did you get to Wichita?
AS I opened my shop here in my husband’s hometown three years ago. I custom-design and hand-make shoes using leather and bolts of fabric from Peru and other countries. You’ll find me with glue on my hands, leather all over the floor and shoes piled on the table waiting to be sewn. It’s messy!
DLM What's the process for ordering?
AS I make men’s and women’s shoes— loafers, ballerinas, oxfords, booties and driving shoes. Customers come in by appointment for measurements and to pick the style, leather, fabric and color. Bright fabrics, hand-woven by Peruvian artisans, accent many of my one-ofa-kind shoes. Some people request custom designs, like the Wichita flag or a person’s name on the heel.
DLM How has the reaction been?
AS People were very conservative at first, only wanting black and brown and rarely the bright blues or purples I prefer. Now people know me and that I’m crazy colorful, and they’ll finally let me make them a pair with color. My boots with fabric are the most popular. I also sell jewelry, belts and backpacks.
DLM Your heritage certainly shines through in your work.
AS In Peru, we didn’t have an easy life. We had to fix and make everything by hand, so I learned hard work by example. My brother lost his business and now makes shoes for me in Lima. He hires others to come to my parents’ house, and they work in my old bedroom to make booties and oxfords. I’m happy I’m giving back to my people.
DLM Now that you have a closet full of shoes, what’s your favorite pair?
AS It’s my oxfords with two buckles, like my first pair. I have one in every color, by the way! They remind me of the first time I bought something for me.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Visit the shop in Wichita, or check out Aida Stenholm’s moccasins, oxfords and loafers at aidastenholm.com.