We visited the Gus Mayer shoe department for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes peek, just as boxes from Europe arrived bearing shoes for their fall collection. “Right now we’re busting at the seams,” says David Kraselsky, president of DKShoes, the company that leases the Gus Mayer shoe department. He surveyed the unfolding inventory among the shelves of the stockroom, where employees unpacked impeccable Italian-made shoes, marked inventory sheets and shelved the pristine boxes. The real magic of Gus Mayer’s Birmingham shoe department doesn’t happen amidst the shelves of the stockroom, though. It happens when David puts boots on the ground in Milan twice a year. There, he pores over hundreds of thousands of shoes from all over the world at Italy’s premier trade fair for shoes. He visits Italian factories to understand the inner workings of shoe production and follows the cutting-edge trends that adorn the window displays and fashionistas on Milan’s fashion-forward streets.
“I’m always looking at what people are wearing,” says David of his trips to Milan. “Via della Spiga is probably one of the great fashion streets in the world. It has all the great shops, and there are people taking pictures of the shoes and fashions.”
About 15 years ago, David was invited by the Italian Trade Commission to attend the internationally acclaimed shoe trade fair, which is so massive that the ITC’s intention is to groom retailers in the art of navigating the shoe mecca. “I’m the poster child for what the ITC is trying to do with their trade fairs. It’s a really intricate process just to maneuver the place. If you can imagine, it’s seven buildings, each the size of half a football field, each filled with 200 to 400 vendors. So I will spend three days just going through all of them. So just learning how to do that is difficult. I mean, there’s only about 10 of us in the United States who are going over there and doing what I’m doing. It’s an arduous process, but it sets us apart. We’re passionate about it.”
And he comes by his obsession for high-quality footwear honestly. His father, Nathan Kraselsky, ran a a couple of family shoe stores in Dothan—Nathan’s and Kraselsky’s. “He was a pretty amazing merchant,” says David. “He carried all high-quality, high-end footwear in this small town in Alabama about 50 or 60 years ago, which was unusual.” Seeking out the finest in fashion-forward footwear seems to be the common thread in this family business, and that legacy is evident in the Gus Mayer shoe displays, where the styles aren’t watered down for the U.S. market. Each stitch showcases the perfection of Italian craftsmanship, and each curve captures Europe’s cutting-edge style. “London is super-strong and leading the way in a new wave of footwear, a little more aggressive and street-savvy,” says David of the fall trends. “I call them ‘downtown,’ not grunge, but cool, gutsy stuff.”
David admits to pushing the envelope with the shoes he brings back to Alabama, but he praises the Birmingham customer’s level of taste and sophistication, attesting that his customers have really embraced what he’s doing. He also credits his daughter, Katie, who ushered in a more trendy energy and youthful direction when she joined the family shoe business five years ago. “Actually, Katie taught me a simpler way to do this,” he laughs. “I’m very analytical, and all the stuff I’ve learned is good—precision buying and how to buy merchandise—but she really kind of showed me a way to a new consumer. We would spend a lot of time trying to anticipate what the customer would want six months in advance. I’d say, ‘Katie, the vendors are telling us this is what’s going to be in fashion next year.’ And she’d take a magazine and say, ‘Well, this is what they are going to want right now.’ She’s taught me how to respond to an immediate need.”
At his father’s store, David manned the work bench for the first several years, doing a lot of orthopedic work. Since then, he’s cultivated a vast technical knowledge of what’s going on inside a shoe. He has the ability to pad and stretch shoes, hammer down seams, and add new holes for laces, but he contends that he looks for brands that avoid the orthopedic issues. He explains the scope of the store, saying, “We are like four shoe stores in one: We are a high-fashion house; a young, trendy store; that European boutique that I love and a fancy comfort shoe store. Within all those themes, I try to remain aware of what’s going on in the guts of a shoe. We tend to be conscious of what works.”
David recalls the challenges of taking over the family business, saying, “It was trial by fire, and I was 22, and the family business was in trouble. I was there and I wanted to help. You learn a lot in leaner times. When things are great, you never learn as much as when you really have to work.” A sign hangs among the shoe stretchers and hammers that have been in the Kraselsky family shoe stores for decades now. It says, “When there is no wind, you row.” Business is booming for David and Katie, but you get the sense that the concept of rowing—of doing the best quality work to find the best quality work—is at the heart of this family business. This unrelenting quest for quality definitely sets them apart from shoe stores across the country, but it is David’s determination to bring Europe’s “wearable works of art” to Birmingham that adds intrigue and complexity not only to our closets, but to the cultural fabric of our city.