This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Missouri Life magazine.

J. D. Gabbard has had many lives. He’s been a professional photographer, a night club manager, and for a twelve-year stint, both of those things simultaneously while living as an expat in Hong Kong. But for the last seven years, Gabbard has been in the shoe business.

When he arrived back stateside in 2012, he landed in Austin, Texas, and faced a challenging economy. A career change was in order, and Gabbard, as his friends call him, approached Noel Escobar, owner of the esteemed Texas Custom Boots, about a job. He began as a finisher, manning the sanding machine, polishing and finishing the heels on high-end cowboy boots. Gabbard has always been a leather boot aficionado, but working for Escobar opened a new world to him. He began reading books, watching tutorials, and arriving early to the shop to test out ideas. Two years later, he began working with Lee Miller at Texas Traditions, the legendary boot shop opened by Charlie Dunn in 1977.“I developed my skills working with these guys, and I decided, well, I learned enough about a certain aspect of shoemaking and boot-making to start my own business,” Gabbard says.

J.D. Gabbard

In 2014, he moved back to his hometown of St. Louis and started his custom leather boot company, MYG Handmade. MYG uses the initials of his daughter’s name, Mingus; his wife’s name, Yanny; and his last name, Gabbard.

At the time, he had just started teaching himself pattern-making, and he spent a year building his own boots. There are a lot of technical aspects to shoemaking—measurements, balance, cutting, and stitching—that modern companies accomplish with computer-aided design (CAD) machines, but to Gabbard, those factory line products look odd.

“The geometry is too perfect, and the boots don’t have life to them,” he says. “When you cut leather and sew it together based on European traditional techniques, the shoe looks a lot different.”

The shoes that Gabbard began designing have more in common with motorcycle or hiking boots than they do cowboy boots. For his inspiration, Gabbard tapped into his passion for post-World War II Americana. “Throughout World War II, America kind of changed its pattern of dress and feeling and emotion,” he says. “People wanted a pair of boots that could either run from trouble or confront it head-on. I inherited a pair of my grandpa’s military boots that he wore working the fields. It was a boot you could wear all day long, and then put some nice polish on it and not look like you just walked out of the garage.”

After a year of perfecting his product, Gabbard released his line on his website. He picked up clients at motorcycle shows, maker events, and online via Instagram. After four years in business now, MYG Handmade produces about fifty pairs a year.

It takes Gabbard at least forty hours to build a single pair of custom boots, and considerably more time for clients who have particular needs or requests. There are over 140 production steps from start to finish, and Gabbard does everything himself in his converted basement studio. But for the clients who are willing to spend between $750 and $1,300 for their bespoke boots, the months-long wait is worth it.

“When you look at a custom shoe or custom boot, someone who is truly making it with their hands and not in a factory where you can make a shoe in ten minutes, the quality shows,” Gabbard says. “The clients that I have, they don’t really think about the money they’re spending. Yes, it’s a lot more than they’d be paying for a factory-made shoe, but they’re getting a shoe that is 100 percent custom-made to fit their feet. Most of my clients say the same thing: They are really shocked to find out how much better this boot fits their feet than anything they’ve stepped into, and they say they should have done it sooner.”

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