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Fancy footwork: Gravesend bootmakers turn leather into gold

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These father-son bootmakers are quite a pair.

Ninety-year-old Jose Der and his 45-year-old son Joseph, of high-end bootery Der Dau, make custom footwear for a star-studded client list in their Gravesend workshop, and the son credits their success to his father’s boundless energy and creativity.

“He’s 90, but he doesn’t act it,” he said of his father, who speaks limited English.

The elder Der opened his first workshop on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush eight years after he emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1954, naming the business after his parents, Jose Der and Maria Dau. His first customer at his Flatbush workshop was a Spanish equestrian, he said — a sale that foreshadowed the bread and butter of his brand, which still gets flooded with orders from professional riders for custom boots. But Der soon branched out to create fashion boots — including the Dream Boot, the company’s most popular design — as well as men’s dress and golf shoes.

A little more than twenty years after he first opened his Flatbush workshop, Der moved it to its current Gravesend location, on McDonald Avenue, where artisans make about 3,000 pairs of custom shoes per year — in-house and mostly by hand. The father-son duo attributes their success, in part, to the Italian, French, African, and British leathers, as well as exotic skins — including ostrich, alligator, iguana, shark, and stingray — that they use to craft the shoes.

“We use top quality materials. That’s what sets us apart,” said Joseph, who began helping out in the shop when he was 8-years-old.

But the fancy footwear isn’t cheap — Der’s boots start at $2,000. So naturally, celebrities, serious fashionistas, and professional equestrians make up much of their clientele, who buy boots at some prices that would knock your socks off, according to the Ders.

“The sky’s the limit,” Joseph said of the price points, adding that they once made a $35,000 pair of alligator-skin fashion boots for a client he declined to name.

Many shoes wind up on the soles of stars — both on and off stage. The Der Dau artisans created boots for productions of “The Color Purple” and “Spiderman” on Broadway, as well as boots for Jay-Z, Mary-Kate Olsen, Brooke Shields, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, and Ronald Reagan.

Today, the elder Der divides his time between his Gravesend workshop and a home in Florida, but travels internationally to equestrian shows whenever he has the time — wearing his favorite shoes: a pair of ostrich-hide oxfords.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.

Der Dau [1885 McDonald Ave. between Avenue P and Quentin Road in Gravesend (718) 336–4513] Mon–Fri, 9 am–5 pm.

Updated 5:52 pm, July 9, 2018
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