But even after 25 years of business — East Village Shoe Repair opened in 1994 at 1 St. Marks Place before moving to Bushwick five years ago — cobblers Boris “the Shoeman” Zuborev, 46, and Eugene Finkelberg, 48, still see echoes of their original downtown designs everywhere from Brooklyn to Bergdorf’s. And they’ve gone from creating custom platforms for ’90s club kids to outfitting major celebs — Madonna, Rihanna and Lady Gaga have been clients — as well as supplying shoes for fashion editorials in the pages of GQ, Vogue and Nylon.
“I did the first Timberland with the high heel, the first Converse platforms,” Zuborev tells The Post of some of his most famous ’90s creations. “At first, people were laughing at my experiments — extremely high, striped platforms — but soon all the cool kids were coming by.”
Zuborev studied art and wood-sculpting in Belarus before coming to the US in his late teens. In 1990, he worked as a black market tattoo artist downtown (tattooing was illegal in New York until 1997) before learning how to make shoes from scratch.
1073 Broadway, Bushwick, Brooklyn.
1073 Broadway, Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Inspired by Japanese style and the fashion scene on St. Marks, Zuborev started experimenting with designer shoes and reworking them into bespoke pieces of wearable art, with bold colors, sky-high heels, fringe and even, at one point, “dry ice shooting out of boots,” he says.
The look was extreme, the hours were late and sometimes, “people were so high on drugs” that they had trouble describing what, exactly, they wanted done to their shoes.
“We used to work until 4 a.m.,” Zuborev says of the days with his hard-partying clientele, who would regularly drop by at 10 p.m. to place their outrageous last-minute orders for pickup after midnight.
Today, the hours are less daunting — they’re open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily — but the celebrities still come around. Ciara wore a pair of lucite-bottomed converse heels in her 2010 music video for “Gimmie Dat.” Hip-hop duo Mobb Deep shot their 2011 music video “Dead Man’s Shoes” in the old St. Marks spot and the bearded Zuborev plays a significant part.
Zuborev says he was disappointed when a landlord dispute forced the team out of the East Village spot, but he found the silver lining. “Our customers started moving from the East Village to Williamsburg and then over to Bushwick, so eventually we did too,” he says.
And he’s taking the opportunity to revamp the store’s old-school systems, in which “filing” means stapling old receipts to the walls. The store, which has neither a website nor a company email, created its very first social-media account on Instagram in December 2017.
“People are constantly stealing from us,” Zuborev says. “They know who they are . . . it’s the influencers who are the worst. They are racketeers. They want everything for free and then give you bad reviews when you say no. What is their talent?”
Now, with ’90s-era looks back in style, he’s feeling especially wary of deals that don’t directly benefit the East Village Shoe Repair brand. A recent low point, he says, was being commissioned to create prototypes for a big-name footwear company. After submitting his work, he discovered it was being sold under a pop star’s label. Although he didn’t approve, he had no recourse; he had failed to notice a confidentiality clause in his contract.
But he says he’s finally wising up. Armed with a lawyer, an Instagram account and a brand-new never-before-seen prototype, Zuborev is finally ready for the spotlight. He’s applied for his first-ever utility patent on a new design he’s calling the ZUBO. It’s an adjustable-height system in which one pair of shoes can quickly morph from a platform to a wedge to a chunky heel.
And after years of changes, business is finally picking up. Halloween is the busiest time of year, Zuborev says, and since sky-high platforms were abundant on last month’s runways, he’s seeing a flood of new, young customers coming through.
“It’s great,” he says. “The kids now are all copying and adding to the look of the ’90s.”