J.D. Gabbard Sweats the Small Stuff
To most of us, shoelaces are trivial things. Small, functional, inexpensive—not usually a top-of-mind concern unless they need replacing. Not unlike toothpaste. One only thinks about it when it becomes critical. Sure, shoelaces can be found in different colors and threaded through the eyelets in a number of ways to bring some small measure of individuality to a pair of shoes, but for most of us, they’re simply functional.
For J.D. Gabbard, bootmaker and owner of Kreosote, laces are decidedly not trivial. He cuts, hammers and dyes his leather laces by hand for every pair of boots he makes. He’s proud of this level of detail, and it speaks to how meticulous and exacting his methods are.
Gabbard does everything himself, by hand, down to the laces.
This is a time-intensive process, though. Gabbard points out, “I can only make 50 pair a year. And that’s all I want to make.” Why only 50? Because each pair requires more than 50 hours of labor to complete. To make more boots, he would then have to employ methods, materials and people that may or may not hold up to the level of quality that he, by himself, can ensure.
But there is an obvious problem that the business can only grow so much. More boots would equate to more money if only the 50-boot cap could be breached. But this is an admirable position: quality over quantity at the exclusion of all else. In this respect, Gabbard’s efforts are well spent; the quality of the product and image of the brand is solid.
A quick perusal of the Kreosote website or Instagram page shows Gabbard has built a spot-on visual vocabulary around the image of his brand. This is no accident or intuition. His professional journey began as a photo assistant in Chicago and then Los Angeles. Eventually he made a career as a fine art and commercial photographer in Los Angeles and New York and lived in Italy for a year.
He spent the next dozen years in Hong Kong as a club manager, promoter and VJ. Eventually his path took him to Texas Custom Boots, a custom cowboy boot shop in Austin. It was there that Gabbard started to learn this craft. “It was a big shift from running night clubs,” he recalls.
While this isn’t a “family business” per se, family tradition has made its way into the Kreosote aesthetic. Kreosote defines itself as “American-built folklore boots.”
“My grandparents lived through the Depression, the Dust Bowl and the stories I got when I was a kid … they wore it like a badge of courage,” Gabbard says. “My grandmother’s very mystical. I grew up with a lot of unique, ritualistic, American heritage folklore.” For Gabbard, Kreosote is a creative space where he can take the stories of the mysticism of his family traditions and fuse them with the modern pluralism that he’s lived for so long, both in the States and abroad.
“I live my life from my experiences. And Kreosote, to me, is a combination of all those things: the walks of life, the people that I meet … and where I can take this into the future. It’s a heritage style, European influenced, midcentury modern, retro-punk type style. It’s a combination of history going into the future.” For an example, look to the 36 Crow model. This is a boot modeled after one Gabbard’s grandmother actually owned but modified and modernized.
And we come to what is perhaps the most potent element Gabbard brings to anything he does: authenticity. Be it making boots, dying laces or updating his Instagram, there is purpose in the details. Some Instagram posts are heavily informative, showing exactly how the channels in the soles are cut, what tools are used. Sometimes, it’s simply a pair of completed boots. The Kreosote website explains in granular detail what exactly makes these special, the science behind the materials and their function to the wearer.
And then there are the boots themselves.
Gabbard says over and over when describing the shapes he uses, “I don’t want to say ‘elegant.’” But that is precisely what they are. Balancing durability and the perception of “toughness” with a lyricism of form is difficult to pull off—but Gabbard’s boots do just that. The lines of the toe box are dramatic without being garish, and they blend smoothly into the sides of the boot. The contour from the toe to arch to heel is fluid, the proportions deft. Details like contrasting stitching or cobalt patina identify them as unique but subtle and understated enough to be versatile. Most of Kreosote’s boot could be worn with a suit or jeans alike.
Form is just a part of the brilliance of Kreosote boots. They are, after all, footwear. They are made to be worn, made to last. Their primary attribute is durability. And yes, even the laces have a purpose, securing the boot so that the fit is snug, not tight. Often, we think of things as having aesthetic or utilitarian purposes—or that some amount of concession must be made by one to get the other. Kreosote proves this is not so.
Gabbard calculates that he could probably make more than one extra pair of boots if he didn’t dye and cut his own laces. But then they wouldn’t carry all the detail and care that would make them Kreosote boots. This is the precision Gabbard’s clients expect and what drew them to Kreosote to begin with.
Images courtesy of J.D. Gabbard.