The smell hits first as you descend the short flight of steps into the basement. It’s sharp and overpowering; a mix of rubber and old leather. This is where old shoes go to be reborn.
The basement workshop in Tamas “Zen” Pomazi’s Waconia home is filled with shoes: Red Wing work boots, wingtips and loafers overflow the shelf space and sprawl across the floor.
Each aging shoe will go through the same process — Pomazi pulls them apart, then stitches them back together, and finally, outfits the bottom with an eye-popping custom-colored sole.
“I take what is destitute, obsolete and not wearable — and make it wearable,” said Pomazi, 43, whose customers often bring him shoes passed down to them by their fathers or grandfathers.
By the time GQ and Esquire began calling colored soles a trend to watch last year, Pomazi had firmly established himself as the color-obsessed cobbler of the Twin Cities. He sets himself apart by bringing old-world craftsmanship to an industry filled with disposable fast fashion. Yet like the shoes he customizes, the brash, New York-born shoemaker went through his own process of rebirth. He ran afoul of the law as a young man, but now spends his days outfitting groomed professionals who want to rethink classic footwear.
His two-man company, Greenwich Vintage, is primarily an online operation, but the soles are now popping up in men’s boutiques such as Martin Patrick 3 in Minneapolis, as well as at stores in Chicago and Charlotte. His service has become a fixture at NorthernGrade, the Twin Cities’ annual men’s pop-up market dedicated to American-made goods.
Katherine McMillan, NorthernGrade’s co-founder, said Pomazi has cornered the market in Minnesota.
“There’s nobody out there doing what he does,” she said.
At a time when most shoes are constructed on the other side of the world, a local cobbler may seem like an antiquated notion.
“Nobody wants to get their hands dirty and make shoes anymore,” said Pomazi, who likes to attribute his bluntness to his New York roots.
His process is meticulous. In his workshop, Pomazi has four minutes to pour the liquid rubber from the mixing bowl into the mold before it starts to harden. On a recent afternoon, the chosen color is blood red. Ninety minutes later, he pops the crimson sole out of the mold and heads to his second workspace at Papa’s Shoe Repair in downtown Waconia. He glues the new sole onto the bottom of the shoe, then grinds the excess rubber off the curved edges. Bellied up to the large machine, even Pomazi’s linebacker build looks small.
“If you look away for a millisecond you’re going to lose a finger,” he shouted over the drone of the grinder’s spinning wheel.
Fully assembled, a pair of his colored-sole shoes usually costs $225 to $275. If you don’t have old shoes in need of resoling, he’ll source a vintage pair for you.
Pomazi’s hands-on approach is what has got him noticed in the Twin Cities fashion scene, said Erick DeLeon, manager of Martin Patrick 3.
“He’s straight-upfront and honest. He’s got his own style and will tell you like it is,” DeLeon said. “A lot of people know about him. If they don’t know him, they know of him.”
DeLeon thinks that same assuredness translates to people who want to tweak their brown and black footwear.
“Having a little color on the sole of your shoe displays great confidence,” he said.
The ‘sole’ of Zen
When Pomazi steps outside, he’s typically “suited and booted” as he likes to say — his dark gray hair combed back, wearing a dress shirt, vest and pants cuffed at the bottom. Colored soles on his feet, of course.
“He’s got a great idea of how a gentleman should dress,” said Max Miller, Pomazi’s business partner in Greenwich Vintage.
But his look belies his past. Gone is the graffiti artist who wore sneakers, baggy clothes and tracksuits. The son of Hungarian immigrants, the New Yorker moved as a teen to Los Angeles, where he took to spray-painting buildings with his moniker, “Zen.” The hobby spilled over into sneaker culture, where he got his first taste of custom shoes.
Along the way, he tested the law far beyond graffiti.
“I remember coming home every other day in cuffs,” Pomazi said.
In the 1980s, he began selling drugs, eventually landing a five-year sentence for drug trafficking and possession in the Florida Department of Corrections.
“That was the darkest point in both of our lives,” said his mother, Ria Rogers, 62, who lives in Hallandale, Fla.
More than 10 years later, the cobbler leads a quieter life in Waconia with his wife and their Chihuahua, Biggie Smalls.
After moving to Minnesota, his discovery of a pair of shoes from his stepfather’s old-school wardrobe sparked the cobbler’s color-soles endeavor. Pomazi had inherited a pair of old wingtips, but he couldn’t get past how rigid they felt. The shoes needed a new sole. The former sneakerhead thought they could use some color — and his shoe business was born.
Over the past year, several mainstream men’s shoemakers have jumped on the colored-sole bandwagon, including Sperry, Cole Haan, Aldo and Rockport. All the while, Pomazi’s resoling business has been taking shape from his suburban basement, adding him to the ranks of the Minnesota-made menswear movement.
A Greenwich Vintage flag hangs on a concrete wall in his workshop; spray paint marks the other. But the cobbler has his sights set on moving out of his basement and to a bigger workspace, where he can produce his products “in a big way.” But while Pomazi said he wants his shoes in every “mom and pop shoe shop across the country,” he wants them made here, in Minnesota.
“People are seeing what [I’m] doing is coming from a genuine, bottom-of-my-heart place,” Pomazi said.
Indeed, he treats each shoe sale like a handshake agreement, letting customers know they can call him personally if anything goes wrong. Maybe that’s the Minnesotan in him.
“The one thing about Minnesota — whenever we [travel] anywhere, on the way back I have a little smirk on my face,” Pomazi said.
The cobbler smiles because he’s returning to what he calls his little “secret.” He’s not coming back to one of the country’s highbrow fashion meccas. He’s coming back to humble Minnesota — back to his basement.
Morgan Mercer is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.