I followed an endless stream of cars through the winding turns of Interstate 10, seeking out the creator behind a bespoke engineer boot praised for its world-class design and uncompromised craftsmanship.
A dense coating of graffiti and street art fought for attention on buildings along the roadway. Just a few blocks to my right, a towering skyline of high rises casted shadows over Skid Row.
I had entered the heart of one of the largest cities in the world, Los Angeles.
I exited the freeway and was now in a dense urban neighborhood known as South Central LA. Latin music played over the speakers from a nearby corner market.
I parked my car in front of an old brick building with the words “botas” and “reparacion de calzado” hand painted on the entrance. I trusted my GPS that I had in fact arrived at an internationally known purveyor of high-end boots, Role Club.
When I walked inside, I was immediately struck by what I can only describe as warm and welcoming chaos.
The walls were in various stages of decay, but the surrounding patchwork of patinated metals and mismatched woods felt as though I entered a room with historical weight. The space was filled with decades old heavy machinery and hand built workbenches.
In the back, the 31-year-old owner and boot artisan, Brian Truong, was quietly sweeping the concrete floors.
Truong appeared to be a man of intentionality. He welcomed me into his sanctuary donning an unfussy pair of blue overalls. He told me the simple outfit is practical in his line of work and more comfortable than wearing an apron during the hands-on and at times dirty process of building boots from scratch.
We sat on two wooden chairs in the tight space between the entrance and front counter, and we talked about his design inspiration and footwear philosophy for 45 minutes.
When asked a question, Truong would take a moment before answering. He was precise with his words, not in a guarded way, but rather of someone who appreciates exactness from life.
Truong built up his bespoke boot business, Role Club, using elbow grease and jet fuel. He started his brand of boots designed, assembled and sewn stitch by stitch with his own hands in 2010, and leveraged social media to spread the word.
Needless to say, the world took notice. He’s most known for his beautifully crafted and strikingly classic engineer boots. A pair of these run north of $2,000: a steep price that’s worth every penny for the customers lining up in his current six to eight month-long waitlist.
Engineers are an unmistakable and iconic boot that’s rooted in American culture. They were first designed in 1939 as practical footwear for firemen working on steam locomotives.
Their original design was geared towards protecting the legs of people putting in long work days in dangerously hot conditions. Engineer boots typically extend up the calf, and include a buckle design that allows the wearer to easily remove the boot in case of emergency.
The extra protection they afforded became popular far beyond the railyard, as many motorcyclists found the engineers were perfect for long rides through the rugged American landscape.
Their laceless design didn’t have the risk of catching in the engine, and the long reach of the leather prevented potential burns from the exhaust. In the 1950s, the social movement of leather jackets and slicked back hair, known as the Greasers, adopted engineers as a signature style.
This was a staple in all-around American badass James Dean’s wardrobe, and he can be seen wearing these boots in Rebel Without a Cause.
Over the decades, the style of the engineer proved to be timeless. It was picked up by punk-rockers in the 80s and has recently made a resurgence in popularity among men looking for a distinguished boot that’s style is rooted in the working class people who built America.
The story of the engineer boot is one that speaks to Truong. He was not born into wealth nor does he have any family roots in bootmaking. Truong comes from a working class background, and his humble demeanor shows it.
He grew up in the LA area, and ever since he was a kid, he’s been drawn to the quiet legends in the working class and the art of footwear. His passion for perfection and drive to success is a story that can only be described as the American Dream.
“You just put everything on the line and don’t have a plan B,” Truong said. “I think it’s honestly true that if you give it your all and you just stick to one goal and you go for it and you don’t cut corners and give your honest hard work, it will work out for you.”
Truong’s journey to crafting highly sought after boots started in high school. That’s when he began customizing his friends’ and family’s sneakers. He would take apart and reassemble Nike shoes and paint them with one-of-a-kind designs.
One day he was looking for additional shoe scraps and threads for his latest creation. His grandma recommended he stop by the boot repair shop two blocks down the street from her house. Truong walked into Jalisco Shoe Repair that day, and his life was forever changed.
“That very moment when I stepped into the shop, it just blew my mind because I never even understood that people repaired shoes,” said Truong. “I just told them, ‘Can I come and just watch you work?’”
The boot repair shop was staffed by local hardworking cobblers, notably Ignacio “Nacho” Palacios, a man who has been crafting and repairing boots since he was a child growing up south of the border. Palacios graciously took Truong under his mentorship, passing down decades of knowledge only known by masters who have dedicated their life to the craft.
Despite finishing aviation school with plans to take up a career of fixing airplanes, Truong knew his heart was grounded in building boots and dove head-first into perfecting his craft.
He absorbed as much knowledge as he could: fitting customers precisely to size, resoling workwear and polishing worn boots until they shined like new. Palacios taught him how to use the tools that would guide him to create work he could take pride in.
Truong soon began taking on jobs of his own, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to open up his own business in the same shop he walked into as a teenager, naming the new endeavor after his ‘role’ model Palacios.
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“That’s why I called it Role Club,” said Truong. “[This business] can’t exist in the mainstream world because it’s such dense quality and detail that we can’t mass produce it. And that’s okay with me because it’s just a club for those who appreciate quality.”
When ordering boots from Role Club, customers are commissioning a pair of footwear specifically designed and created for them by one man. Truong has taken on the moniker “Boots by Brian” and stays true to his code that no outsourcing of work will be used in production.
He orders his raw materials from Horween Leathers in Chicago but recently has been experimenting with Italian leather shipped overseas from Maryam Tannery.
Solid brass roller buckles and a woodsman heel add a vintage flair to his engineer boots. Up to four rows of hand stitching artfully flow up and down the leather.
From start to finish, Truong estimates it takes him about 45 hours of cutting, hammering and sewing to complete a single order for a pair. His commitment to quality means only about 150 new pairs of his boots will be walking the earth by the end of each year.
Truong has experimented with a few boot styles over the past decade, including a 1940’s inspired lace-up with a roughout finish called the Boondocker and a whiskey shell cordovan lace-up called the Underdog. But his heart and soul goes into his signature engineer boot.
This is the boot that he used to repair under the watchful eye of Palacios, it’s the boot that launched his career with his first sale, and it’s the boot that has lured both locals and international clients alike into his personal sanctuary for a fitting.
“I think the engineer boot is the epitome of classic,” said Truong. “It’s like modern and vintage meet together in a perfect unison where it’s not too traditional, and it’s still rebel.”
Truong flipped a switch, and an old machine rumbled to life. The reliable polishing wheel held just as true for Brian’s engineer boots as they did for countless boots under repair over the decades. Truong described his tools as old but good, and said they all date back long before his time.
There are no computers in his shop, which is a blessing because when a motor goes down, it’s just a quick trip to the hardware store for a few “nuts and bolts” to get everything up and roaring again. It’s important to Truong that he honors the honest bootmaking legacy of his predecessors.
He once found an out-of-service cashier’s box filled with old pay stubs in the building. They showed cobblers punching in long days repairing boots in this same space dating back to the 1930s.
The only difference between then and now is Truong’s ability to use the internet to showcase his talent to the world.
“Social media changed my life. I think it changed lives of many craftsmen and many artists,” said Truong. “It gave us a voice and let us speak truth to our work.”
At the start of his business, Truong didn’t even have a personal Facebook page, but his friends convinced him to start an Instagram to share photos of his work. He decided then and there he would try to utilize the power of the web to build community and spread the message of his craft.
He committed to posting once every day at 11am, and to his surprise, complete strangers showed up to appreciate his craftsmanship and attention to detail. His first sale was from a Canadian named Daniel.
“I started posting my work, telling my story and telling my journey on becoming a bootmaker and what I’ve learned, and people were slowly just gravitating toward my social media and asking questions,” said Truong. “I never took marketing. I just created and just let it happen.”
Thousands have since flocked to his pages to get an authentic look into the life of a modern bootmaker. Truong has rewarded his fans with daily doses of infectious positivity.
He said his videos channel the former beloved children’s television host, Mr. Rogers, to uplift his community. As of this writing, Truong’s Instagram has grown to more than 78,000 followers and more than 167,000 YouTube subscribers.
His global reach is why new customers are discovering him online every day. Recently, he had fans of his work fly in from as far as the UK and from Japan to get fitted for his next creation.
While the image of LA has recently taken a beating on the airwaves of pundits, Truong takes great pride in his hometown. The city’s complex culture of steadfast resilience and working class neighborhoods are all baked into his brand.
His South Central neighborhood has welcomed him in as one of their own, and LA’s creators have selflessly shared their deep knowledge of the art of bootmaking with him. That’s why each boot is proudly marked on the tag, “Handcrafted in Los Angeles.”
“I feel like I need to stay here and really show the world that Los Angeles still has and cares about quality,” said Truong.
Truong told me he was raised a Buddhist, and I can’t help but think the belief system is fundamentally intertwined with his philosophy of business and boots.
He rebels against the idea of fast fashion and get-rich-quick schemes. He told me, at one point a surge in online popularity caused his waitlist to hit up to three years long for a pair of his custom boots. It was scary. He could have hired outside help. He could have contracted a factory to sell his brand.
He was sold out of his boots, but he didn’t sell out on his principles.
Truong got to work, and boot by boot, chipped away at the orders. To this day, Truong has no plans to compromise the perfection of each order shipped out. He strives to live true to the code of honest hard work ingrained in each engineer boot that walks out his door.
“The artist always fights the businessman,” Truong said. “I want to keep Role Club exclusive because of the quality, and I’m going to continue doing that until the end of time.”