Shoe Business: Q&A with Jeff Churchill

We are checking in with our friends in shoe-related businesses to find out how they got interested in shoes, where the journey running a niche business has taken them, and what the future holds in a post COVID19 world. Sheila Knox, Head of Education and Programs poses the questions.

Jeff Churchill ~ Jitterbug Boy Original Footwear

How did your working life begin, and how did you get interested in shoemaking?

I fell into shoemaking completely by accident. I had been working in theatre since I was a kid and always aspired to be a designer. One day, the phone rang: Lion King was starting up in Toronto, and they had just lost their shoe coordinator. I was as shocked as anyone when I feel in love with the shoemaking process. We had a maker who was doing the shoes for the show, and he would show me bits and pieces of how it was done. Then, suddenly, he left, so I had to step up and figure out the rest of it. That’s what really set me on the shoemaking path - people thought I knew what I was doing, so I had to prove that I did.

When did you start your company Jitterbug Boy? And how did you come up with the name?

I started Jitterbug Boy 15 years ago, almost to the day. It’s gone by so fast. Jitterbug Boy is the name of a Tom Waits song. I was going through some difficult times in 2002 and was traveling in Europe on my own for a while. I had this tape of a bootleg Tom Waits concert that I was listening to a lot. I remember being in Amsterdam, wandering to the train station at 5am, on my way home finally, listening and feeling all sorts of things. The tape started with Jitterbug Boy. I decided if I ever started my own business I’d call it Jitterbug Boy. Three years later I did just that.

Your website lists dozens of theatre, film and television productions you’ve worked on – too many to count! Is there a highlight?

Off the top of my head, Tarsem Singh’s Mirror Mirror was a huge one. The movie itself wasn’t great, but it was designed by a costume designer Eiko Ishioka. When I was 17 or 18 years old, I saw Bram Stoker’s Dracula in the cinema, which had a profound impact on me. It was the first time I had ever truly noticed the design of a film. It was Eiko’s design. That’s what got me on to the trajectory of design, which indirectly lead into shoes. I wouldn’t be where I am now were it not for that film. And twenty years later, I found myself in a fitting room in New York, sitting on the floor with Eiko, figuring out the look for a pair of boots. I can’t tell you how important that day was to me. Eiko passed away suddenly before Mirror Mirror opened. It was such a huge artistic loss, and I will be forever grateful for being able to work with her. So that will always be the ultimate highlight.

What are some of the challenges working with the entertainment industry?

Film is an incredibly challenging business. It’s big and exciting and crazy. There is never enough time for anything and so much of the time is spent flying by the seat of your pants. We are often juggling 15 - 20 shows at a time so it gets a bit nuts.

You created a pair of boots for Gord Downie to wear on his final Man Machine Poem tour with the Tragically Hip. Tell me about that experience.

I can’t think of a pair of boots that I’ve had a more complex relationship with in my life. When I read about Gord’s diagnosis, I wrote to Izzy Camilleri (who made all those fantastic metallic suits for him) and mentioned that if he needed boots we’d make them, free of charge. So we made boots with lyrics from Ahead by a Century etched on the soles. But when I saw the documentary about the MMP tour, Long Time Running, I suddenly realized Gord didn’t actually wear the boots we made and I was absolutely gutted. For all that time I thought that I was part of something historic, and then I realized that I wasn’t. It was a really difficult thing to deal with. In fact, this is the first I’ve actually talked about it, all these years later.

Many months after Gord had passed, I received a photo of the boots that we made from Hip photographer David Bastedo. They were very well worn and some of the etching had worn off the soles. So Gord had actually worn them for at least some part of that great journey he was on. I felt such a great pride from that. Such a complex range of emotions around a single pair of boots! I still well up a bit any time I hear a Tragically Hip song.

How have you been spending your time during the COVID19 shutdown?

I started doing projects in my shop and posting the step-by-step process online through our website, Facebook and Instagram. There has always been a lot of interest in the process of what we do. So I figured I would share a bit of that. I also spent two weeks tidying the shop and am still aching from that. It’s amazing the sheer amount of stuff you accumulate after 15 years of business…

How will the pandemic and the ‘new normal’ in its aftermath affect the world of theatre, film and tv, and by extension your business?

I genuinely have no idea. It’s all a waiting game. We do work everywhere - throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, the States. So hopefully things will gear back up somewhere. I think theatre is facing a really long recovery, but I’m hoping film and TV will bounce back a bit quicker. We will find a way to keep it going. I’ve always been a survivor and I don’t imagine that will change.

Pick a pair of shoes you’ve made in the past that would help you out now and into the future.

We were asked to make some boots for Tom Waits for the Coen brothers film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. The business is named after Tom and he’s the inspiration to so many aspects of my life. So I made a second pair of boots, for him personally. I had the lyrics of Jitterbug Boy etched on the soles and I stuck them in the box we were sending down for the film. Many weeks later, I received a photo of Tom in his full Buster Scruggs costume, and sitting in his lap is the pair of boots with the lyrics on the sole. The photo hangs behind my desk. Having Tom Waits look over my shoulder inspires me every day. That could have been the last pair of boots I ever made and I’d be alright with that.

Thank you so much to Jeff Churchill from Jitterbug Boy for taking the time to answer our questions! If you missed it, we uploaded a video on our Youtube Channel showing you "The Evolution of the Chelsea Boot" by Jeff!

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  1. Awesome interview! I follow Jitterbug Boy on Facebook and I really enjoy seeing his projects.

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