Lauren Stowell loves historical shoes so much that she designs and sells them through her online company, American Duchess, Inc., founded in 2011. She researches and designs each shoe, investigating its original construction and integrating the hallmarks of design to make the shoe true to its era. Whether its Victorian button boots, Regency slippers or Edwardian shoes, women can find them, as well as shoe buckles, silk stockings and buttonhooks, on her website at AmericanDuchess.com.
Her blog, American Duchess Historical Costuming, (americanduchess.blogspot.com), showcases her exploration into historical costuming, and details the process (with pictures!) from project conception to completion, whether that's a stunning English marigold gown or a red 1830s dress. Her costuming group, the Great Basin Costume Society, has 15 to 20 core members and attends regional events together, such as Hot August Nights, the Carson Rendezvous and Valhalla Renassaiance Fair.
"My favorite local event is the Gatsby Festival at Tallac in South Lake Tahoe in August," she said. "It's charming and relaxing, and a good opportunity to wear some cute 1920s tea dresses. I also love the Steampunk Ball in Virginia City in the fall. I helped create that event four years ago, and it was just a tiny thing back then, but it's grown into such a huge deal."
Her bachelors of fine arts degree, in animation and illustration, was obtained in 2007 from San Jose State, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude and also received the President's Scholar award.
"My professional background is in illustration and graphic design and since launching American Duchess, I've expanded my professional skillset to include overseas manufacturing, branding and photography," she said.
Q. Perhaps the most important question, how did you learn to sew and obtain the necessary skills to be able to conceptualize these historical shoes?
A. I started sewing in 2003, when I wanted to make a costume for Renaissance Fair. I was "bit by the costuming bug" and have been scratching that itch ever since. I didn't have any formal lessons in sewing -- it's been trial and error from the get-go.
As for shoes, I design the shoes, but don't make them myself, as that's a skill that takes years of intense training to even begin to master. When I design, though, I draw on my experience working with factories and prototypers, and try to make the technical drawings as detailed as possible. My education in illustration helps with that, as I can draw out a spec to explain something that would be difficult to illustrate in words.
Q. Most of your shoe prices range from mid-$100s to more than $200? Is that because the materials are authentic and the shoes are handcrafted?
Yes, and it's also because we have very low manufacturing runs. We only run 200 per style or per color at a time. Factories want orders for 1,000 or 10,000 pieces, and the higher your quantity, the lower cost-per-piece. Our highest single material/component cost is actual the soling we use, which is 100 percent leather and between 4-7 mm thick. They make our shoes more expensive, but it's a demand our customers make, so we oblige.
Q. How many different shoe styles to do you have and what is popular among the choices and in high demand?
By this fall, we'll have about 35 styles and colors to choose from. The most popular have been "Astoria" Edwardians, with the crisscrossed straps, which are very Downton Abbey, "Tavistock" Victorian Button Boots, which are the only authentically-recreated button-only boots in the world and "Pompadour" French Court Shoes, which are from 1680-1760, and the ones Whoopi Goldberg loved and wore on the Seth Meyers Show back in April.
Q. You also do historical costuming from the 16th century on forward. Tell us about the period that appeals to you the most.
My favorite period is the last quarter of the 18th century. I don't really know why I am drawn to this period, but I just adore the style, the history, and some of the goofy things going on in fashion throughout the 1770s, '80s and '90s. I never tire of it.
Q. Who purchases your shoes? Is it just women into costuming or also those looking for shoes to go with a vintage dress or otherwise unique outfit?
Our primary individual customers are historical seamstresses and re-enactors, but we do have ladies who wear our shoes to work or with vintage items. We also cater to quite a few brides who want something special for their wedding day. Our major clientele is actually the opera/theater industry and television/film. In March and August, we fill a large number of orders for costume shops working on shows that will come on in summer and fall.
Q. What is your favorite outfit to wear that you designed and created?
Another hard question! It changes, because every costume I work on is always a "bigger, better" one than the last one. I think my favorite now, though, is the 1880 green silk bustle gown I made last year and wore to the Steampunk Ball. It's flattering, heavy, and a joy to wear, because it has this absolutely huge train covered in ruffles, pleats, and all sorts, that's rather fun to drag around. It's some of the best work I've done — so far.