The road to the Olympic figure skate factory is, appropriately enough, choked with stores peddling sequins, spandex, and fake tans. But a little closer to Eighth Avenue, 247 West 38th Street splits itself between two buildings. One bears a sign reading “PANDA INVISIBLE ZIPPERS THREAD SEWING MACHINES PARTS ELASTIC TRIMMING & NOTIONS.” The other, a midtown Manhattan glass-door office building with a generically auspicious name — the Nelson Building! — is home to Klingbeil Shoe Labs. If you haven’t heard of Klingbeil,1 you’re not alone. You are, however, definitely not a figure skater. Most people on that very block wouldn’t know the name either. Nor would someone riding to the third floor necessarily be familiar. And even after exiting the elevator to the headquarters’ hallway, it wouldn’t be obvious that opening one door — albeit one requiring facial-recognition security clearance — would lead to perhaps the best custom skate makers in the world.
Through that doorway, long workbenches line a large cement-floored room littered with the confetti of scrap leather. On tall standing racks, the beginnings of boots hang with their soles to the ceiling, and in cardboard boxes patterns of luxury pelle are gathered in bundles resembling folding fans. There is a metallic clanging, the buzz of machinery, and amid rolls of foam coiled like large pencil shavings, middle-aged men in aprons slice and stitch their contributions to Team USA, Team Japan, Team Ukraine. As if to note the gravity of the work, on an old green sander someone has written “DON’T BLOCK THIS MACHINE.”
To understand the importance of what Klingbeil does, go back to February 21, 2002. This was the night a 16-year-old from Great Neck, New York, named Sarah Hughes entered the final portion of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, the free skate. During the previous Olympics, she had still been a Junior-level skater, and even now, having been ranked twice the third-best and twice the second-best female figure skater in the country, she was the youngest American woman on the team. Before the free skate, most of the media attention was directed toward the top three: reigning world champion Michelle Kwan, two-time world silver medalist Irina Slutskaya, and two-time U.S. national silver medalist Sasha Cohen. In the perceived Sturm und Drang of figure skating scoring, one rule was certain: If any of the top three from the short-program portion of the competition won the free skate, that woman would become the Olympic champion. In the baffling logic of the International Skating Union, first, second, and third were equal — until they weren’t. It was nice to be first rather than, say, third, going into the final round, but in the end, the only advantage would be bragging rights. Young Hughes was fourth heading into the free skate — i.e., B+, good effort, try again in four years.
Yet Don Klingbeil, her skate maker of seven years, wasn’t ready to write Hughes off. “I saw this look in her eyes that I hadn’t seen in a little while,” Klingbeil remembered, “and I said, ‘Wow, she’s gonna do it.’”
Then Hughes took to the ice, and this shimmering teenager gave the performance of her life. Just three years before, at her first world championship, she’d showered her soda-pop chatter on ABC’s Lesley Visser: “I have my good-luck pajamas. And I always wear my good-luck pajamas the night before I compete. And they do get washed.” Back then, she’d worn a pink velvet dress and tended to lurch her arms and neck like a seagull. Now she was a swan, landing seven triple jumps in four minutes, four of which were in combination. In other words, Sarah Hughes leapt from about three-sixteenths of an inch of steel on ice, rotated 1,080 degrees, and landed on three-sixteenths of an inch of steel on ice — seven times. She was the only woman that night to perform at such a degree of technical difficulty. And she did this wearing Klingbeil skate boots custom-made for her to withstand the extreme demands that come at this level of jumping.
A proper skate boot will maintain the foot position so the skater’s weight is thrown neither too far forward nor backward, neither left nor right at the beginning of a jump; it will offer sufficient give for her to bend through the knee and ankle so that she can spring into the air powerfully enough to give her the time and height to rotate three times — and, if she has maintained a perfectly balanced rotational axis, to “check” or counter-rotate for the purpose of stopping the turn. Finally, the proper boot will provide the requisite ankle support for her to land on that sliver of athletic steel, on that slab of man-made ice, with a force 10 to 12 times her weight — and then to repeat the cycle again and again.
Sarah Hughes was wearing exactly such a skate — the kind of skate two-time world champion Alexei Yagudin had not been wearing two years before, when he was forced to withdraw from the Grand Prix of Figure Skating with a broken boot. The kind of skate Michelle Kwan had not been wearing at the world championships the year before, when the heel of her boot detached. Hell, the kind of boot Kwan was not wearing on February 21, 2002, as she fell on the second-to-last triple flip of her program, dropping to third in the final portion of the competition and thus opening a window large enough for Hughes. Wearing Klingbeil boots, Sarah Hughes became the Olympic champion.
“I’d known Sarah since she was 9 years old,” Klingbeil said. “When she won at the Olympics, I was so happy for her, it was like I won.”
Ten years later, Klingbeil announced it was closing.
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The world of figure skaters is small, but the world of figure skate craftsmen is even smaller. In an age when it’s difficult to walk a block in midtown Manhattan without spotting a Louis Vuitton knockoff, this particular niche industry has remained rarefied, with only a handful of trusted bootmakers currently operating. There’s Riedell, Harlick, SP-Teri, Jackson Ultima, Graf, and recently, EDEA. Sometime early in her career, a skater starts wearing a particular boot. Every brand offers a slightly different fit, meaning the foot will have a slightly different relationship to the ice. In this boot the skater progresses, it becoming intimately tied to her muscle memory and technique. Some skaters would skate through a sprain before switching skate brands. If this sounds insane, remember that this is a sport where an athlete rotates three or four times in the air in less than a second — the world-record holder spun at 308 rotations per minute on three-sixteenths of an inch of steel. Fractions of seconds, fractions of millimeters matter. Tiny pinches and skewed angles in a boot mean compensatory movements, equal and opposite reactions, the Newtonian downfalls a skater can’t afford. As such, competitive skaters will spend hundreds of dollars to attain the perfect fit, often traveling across the world to stand in cramped skate shops, articulating infinitesimal imbalances to the few gurus of the figure skate. Having mastered the esoterica on which elite athletes relied, Klingbeil became perhaps the best known in the business.
What had made Klingbeil famous were company founder Bill Klingbeil, his son Don, and veteran skate tech Will Murillo’s precise custom fittings. Bill had perfected his technique over 60 years, Don had begun making skates at the age of 12, and Murillo, whom Don describes as like a son to him, started at Klingbeil Shoe Labs as a 14-year-old in 1994. He was newly immigrated to Queens from the Bay Islands, and to get the job sweeping floors he pretended to be 16. Little by little, the Klingbeils showed him how to make a boot by hand, and the three became so close that Klingbeil eventually assisted Murillo with his tuition at NYU, where he studied linguistic anthropology. Yet Murillo remained dedicated to the craft of skate-making. Asked why, he joked, “I don’t know if it’s the glue or the fact that I truly love what I do.”
Murillo even began a brief skating career of his own to better understand the needs of a figure skater. “There was a point in my life when I said, ‘Well, if I’m gonna make this my living, I better use the product that I built,’” he explained. “I just decided to skate because if I was using the skates, I need to know how you feel in them. Because how can I be selling a product when I don’t know anything about it?”
A pair of Klingbeil skates begins with several measurements and tracings of the skater’s feet, followed by imprints made in Bio-Foam. From the foam, unique wooden models of the feet called lasts are carved. The tops and sides are built around the lasts before being stitched to slip soles, which will later be cemented to real soles before the heels are nailed into place. After a few runs with a trimming machine, the boots are finished, “finished” being a relative term. Further leatherwork is required after the athlete tries the boots on, and then once again after they’ve been tested under real skating conditions.
Robin Wagner, an elite coach who has trained both Sarah Hughes and 2006 U.S. champion Cohen, fondly remembers Don Klingbeil’s fittings.
“He made a great boot and he was local, so it was a home run for me,” Wagner said. “He was so easy to work with. Don was great when things went wrong. You know, even with custom boots, you’re constantly tweaking, so Don was wonderful in terms of working with us and making sure that kids’ feet felt comfortable and it was a good boot.”
Another Klingbeil proselyte is Timothy “The Quad King” Goebel. During the 2003-04 season, when he battled against his boots more than he did against any international competitor, Goebel had already been through 13 pairs of skates by the time of the national championships. His foot constantly felt twisted, which left him adjusting his technique accordingly. The problem was, Goebel didn’t need to adjust his technique; he was adjusting from masterful to disastrous. Soon he was battling injuries attributed to these technical modifications, which only compounded his poor performance, which only strained his confidence, which again only compounded his poor performance. Eventually he withdrew from the U.S. championships, and, after six months of equipment failure, decided to try Klingbeil.
“From the minute they arrived, I could not have been happier,” Goebel said. “They fit perfectly, and I was easily able to start training again. Despite having a tough year, it was a blessing in disguise to have ended up with Klingbeil.”
Such Klingbeil conversion stories are not rare. Nor is it a peculiarity to see the best skaters in the world wearing their signature four-hook boot. At Innsbruck in 1976, as America’s sweetheart Dorothy Hamill spun to a blur, winning the Olympic championship, she wore Klingbeils. When Elaine Zayak landed such a riot of triple jumps in her victorious 1982 world championship performance that the International Skating Union instituted the eponymous Zayak Rule limiting the repetition of triples, she wore Klingbeils. And when a Ukrainian orphan named Oksana Baiul overcame a days-old back injury to snap up the gold medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Games, she too wore Klingbeils. Don Klingbeil, a 58-year-old Queens native who affectionately calls adult strangers “kiddo,” talks about these skaters as though they’re family. He fondly remembers giving Hughes sparkly red patent leather skates as a gift the year she won the Olympics. He remembers making Hamill a special pair of boots shortly before announcing his family would stop making skates. To many in the skating world, it was inconceivable that the legendary Klingbeil could be going out of business when the shop announced its closure in late 2011. So what happened?
For one thing, skate technology finally began to evolve in the early aughts. At the forefront was Canadian manufacturer Jackson, the first to introduce heat-moldable stock boots. Hockey pro shops had been using the technology to fit skates for years, but somehow in the sport-wide practice of neurotically fine-tuning boots individually, the benefits of cheap and simple heat molding had gone unnoticed. Jackson began selling home heat-molding kits, so a skater could buy a stock boot and attain a relatively customized fit with little professional help. Suddenly a skater living far from one of the sport’s few master bootmakers could approximate a custom boot for somewhere in the neighborhood of $400, as opposed to $800 for a custom boot — plus the airfare and lodging expenses that would have been incurred traveling. From the blue-blood perspective of the skating world, this was a bargain, and though the sheer democracy of it all wouldn’t have started a great migration, these new boots had another benefit: lightness. The obvious advantages for jumping and stamina were worth the risk of switching brands. And while some elite skaters preferred the custom boots that had always been the foundation of Klingbeil’s business, good, very good, and extremely good skaters began performing well, very well, and extremely well in the new Jacksons, and so a new standard for cheaper, lighter skates was born. Being loyal to your brand was one thing when all skates were created equally clunkily. It was entirely another thing when it was self-evident that your competitors were in fleet-footed pursuit of quads and triples. Soon, other brands like Riedell followed Jackson’s lead with lightweight, heat-moldable boots. Klingbeil was not one of them.
“Klingbeil makes good boots but has not evolved with today’s skaters,” said Mike Bedell, a skate sharpening and fitting professional who co-owns Cooke’s Skate Supply in Wilmington, Massachusetts. He’s a trusted consultant to many elite skaters buying boots in the Northeast, exactly the man who can and will sway a skater’s consumer decisions. “They remain too heavy.”
At the same time, a change in the judging system radically altered the way figure skaters trained. After the 2002 Olympics, the International Skating Union abolished the judging system in which a skater was awarded points for her overall performance on a six-point scale. It was not transparent enough, and there had been criticism of the ease with which judges could award points arbitrarily. Under the new “scale of values” system, the skater would receive a predetermined number of points (give or take depending on quality) for each maneuver, the sum of which would comprise her score. The new à la carte approach meant skaters began to more strategically choreograph their programs to garner the maximum number of points, and the most effective way to gain points was jumping. Fairer? Maybe. But as the sport became a de facto jumping contest, impact injuries became endemic. In response, Jackson began a short-lived tenure selling the hinge boot, a skate meant to increase shock absorption by 30 to 50 percent. In a sport where 13-year-old girls retire with severe hip and back injuries, these boots seemed, momentarily at least, to offer the salvation of longevity. In the rapidly shifting world of skating equipment, however, Klingbeil seemed uninterested in developing a safer boot. The brand that had radiated artisanal, old-world warmth now found itself construed by some as the less-safe choice. And though eventually Jackson discontinued the hinge boot and Klingbeil began selling a lighter boot, the 50-year-old brand was unable to refurbish its 20th-century reputation.
Yet Klingbeil’s fall from grace was not merely the result of a failure to innovate; its client demographic shrunk, too. In the decade after September 11, the overall membership of the United States Figure Skating Association has remained relatively steady, with 173,000 members during the 2002-03 season and 165,000 in the 2012-13 season. But while 73,000 of those members in 2002-03 belonged to the ranks of competitive figure skating, only 58,000 skaters had progressed past the Basic Skills program by the 2012-13 season. That’s at least 15,000 fewer skaters across the country requiring the kind of high-performance custom boots Klingbeil makes. Figure skating has been hit far more dramatically by the recession than other sports. While basketball or soccer can be played on public fields on public school teams for the price of a jersey and a ball, skating is a bourgeois endeavor. The Sky Rink at Chelsea Piers charges $27 for a 50-minute practice session, which does not include coaching, the cost of which at the elite level surpasses $100 per hour. It does not include the price of cross-training sessions or choreographers, or sound professionals to cut musical scores to the regulations of the ISU. It does not include hand-beaded dresses or salaries for private tutors. For a time, it may have seemed that skating had its own version of Too Big to Fail: Too Rich to Buy Boots Off the Rack. But then the sport with the parents who’d do anything for the sake of their kids’ fantasies — wake up for 4 a.m. ice sessions, move to Colorado, fly in a private ballet tutor from France — suddenly was up against the reverberations of mortgage-backed securities. And it is nearly impossible to progress to the level requiring $750 custom Klingbeil boots — not including the blade, of course — without forking over thousands of dollars first.
Twenty years after his father handed the family business over to him, Don Klingbeil sometimes wondered if the problem was that his boots were just too durable. If a Klingbeil boot could last years longer than the new heat-moldable boots, then Klingbeil was earning less back on its overhead than its competitor. He announced in 2011 that the company was going out of business. And then along came a 24-year-old.
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Now, more than 60 years after Klingbeil Shoe Labs began outfitting champion feet in Jamaica, Queens, the company has found a second life alongside baroque studded boots, crocodile smoking slippers, and trucker hats bearing huge plastic script to the tune of CREAM, FUCK, and PU$$Y. You can find it at the garment district headquarters of the Adoni Group, an umbrella business with 12 brands under its auspices. CEO Jay Adoni has been working in the shoe business since he first immigrated to the United States as a teen, and one might even say that footwear has been the organizing principle of his life. Not only did he establish his own shoe import company, his wife also owned a shoe store on Long Island before their marriage. Now, like many an entrepreneurial paterfamilias, including the late Bill Klingbeil, he has commissioned his seed to the family trade.
By admission, Jay’s younger son, Jensen has probably skated only once in his life. But it was Jensen, a licorice-whip-thin guy, who walked into Klingbeil Shoe Labs in early 2012 and reversed the trajectory of the business. He’d heard Klingbeil might be willing to sell its shoe machinery, the likes of which are rare in American manufacturing. When he arranged the meeting with Don Klingbeil, he didn’t intend to buy a new business.
“I walked further along through the place, and I see these craftsmen who have been doing this for 20, 25 years, making these ice skates, and they were gorgeous,” Jensen said of his trip to the Jamaica factory. “You know, stark-white leather, fresh, really super-clean look. And I just fell in love.” He made an offer. The problem, according to Adoni, was that Don Klingbeil didn’t want to stay in business.
Jensen Adoni’s words have a way of excitedly tumbling forth, and things that might sound pushy land somewhere between encouraging and exuberant. “I said, ‘No, no, no, you’re not closing,'” Adoni said. “And I told him, I convinced him, to stay in business. I said, you know, ‘You’re gonna come with us. Come join us. We’re gonna keep this thing alive.’ And he said, ‘No I don’t wanna do it. I don’t wanna. Please! Change the name. Don’t call them Klingbeil anymore — make them Adoni!'”
No one’s skating in Adonis today. The Adoni Group purchased Klingbeil, and the machinery, the business, and the entire staff moved to the Manhattan headquarters at the beginning of 2012. In one corner of the factory stands a be-staired wooden throne bearing the territorial pissings of someone calling himself the Great Kelly Man and TEAM MILLENNIUM, the authorized vandalism of Jimmy Ma: “Jimmy Ma waz here. AND HE WILL BE BACK!!” Someone named Debbie has written “I ♥ U Don!! ♥ Debbie” to Don Klingbeil, while the more temperate “Me!!!” has chicken-scratched “thanks Don!!!” within the borders of a heart. As Don Klingbeil likes to say, “When you give love, you get a lot of love back.”
Last year, Jensen and his brother Jordan Adoni were named to Inc. magazine’s “30 Under 30″ list. At the time of publication, it was estimated that company revenue would sail from $5 million in 2012 to $18 million in 2013. With the Klingbeil staff’s expertise, the Adoni Group has been able to manufacture its more exclusive Modern Vice Collection of designer shoes right in the heart of Manhattan. Most of the Klingbeil craftsmen absorbed by the Adoni Group have worked in the trade for at least two decades, not to mention Will Murillo, who in that time has become one of the most respected bootmakers in the world.
According to Jordan Adoni, who favors a wide-brimmed fedora and has a tendency to express himself in the paroxysms of an exasperated martyr, the company currently produces 5 percent of its goods domestically. This is a point of pride for the family. Jay Adoni, after all, has created an initiative called the 397 Project that challenges business owners to produce at least 3 percent of their product in the United States. Negotiating principles of profit and patriotism, Jordan and Jensen find themselves frequently defending the company’s volume of imports and are often apt to give their rap on China, pertinent to the conversation or not. “My fear with losing production in the States is that we’ll just start lacking innovation. We’ll lose a ton of jobs,” Jensen explained.
Yet this is where the Adoni and Klingbeil stories diverge.
According to Jensen Adoni, all Klingbeil employees would keep their jobs in the new supercompany as part of the deal struck between the Adoni Group and Klingbeil Shoe Labs. He said that as of Halloween 2013, Don Klingbeil was on a “personal leave of absence.” According to Don Klingbeil, who assumed the role of production foreman when the company was sold, he was laid off by the Adonis in September 2013. At the time he sold the company, he believed he’d be with it making boots forever. As a foreman, he could still direct the production of custom boots, measure skaters’ feet, and oversee the craftsmen he’d been working with for years. Substantively, his day-to-day routine remained the same, except now he commuted to midtown and didn’t have to worry about the number-crunching. Then, on September 30, 2013, four days after he’d come back from a vacation, Don Klingbeil was told that in its current iteration, Klingbeil could no longer afford him. The bootmaker was stunned. He’d liked the Adoni boys. He’d liked his life. And he denies ever having wanted to stay out of business, as Jensen Adoni claims.
“I’m kind of lost now without my business. It was my life. It was my life making skaters happy and making them skate well in my boots,” Klingbeil said. “I can’t tell you the pain I went through, and I can’t tell you the feeling of loss, me not being in the skating world right now. You know, it was in my blood.”
Richie Perna, Klingbeil’s president since the company’s purchase, is a tanned, composed man. He enunciates carefully as he explains the benefits of building a boot around a Bio-Foam impression rather than heat molding, which degrades the boot much more quickly. However, according to Perna, “We have the same exact staff that we had in Jamaica,” Perna said. “Nothing has changed. You know, the same exact workers that [have] been with us for, you know, 20 to 40 years are still here. So we haven’t changed any of our, uh, workers.” Of course Perna was not involved with the company 20 or 40 years ago. He is not the “us” with whom the craftsmen have labored for decades. Perna is at his best when talking copywriter speak: our dynamic skate (the Classic LTE), our high-performance boot (the custom boot), our recreational skate (the product that could change the fate of the company).
Recently, the Klingbeil division of the Adoni Group collaborated with Sasha Cohen on a stock boot. This is a huge departure, of course, from its tradition of crafting one-of-a-kind custom skates. It also has the potential to make Klingbeil the most popular skate in America, as Target will soon begin selling the recreational boot in its stores. While they’re still reluctant to embrace the heat-molding trend, the Adonis are aware that custom boots are a niche product and hope to keep this esoteric craft afloat by balancing it with the less expensive mass-market Sasha Cohen stock skate.
The new skate is not produced in the U.S., however, and there’s some ideological seesawing. “The custom business is very tricky because, you know, a lot of our competitors have introduced heat-moldable skates,” Jensen Adoni said. “The custom skate, I think, is really for the top-tier skater, the super-high-performance skater. So I still see that existing in the next few years, but I see it winding down, and I think that the business will stay a very unique niche and a tight-knit, small organization. But I think to really scale it and grow it and get Klingbeil into the masses is through the import and entry-level skates.”
Custom boot work is difficult. Often, even very skilled skaters lack the precise anatomical vocabulary necessary to articulate how a boot should be revised, and a good bootmaker requires a doctor’s ability to translate physical ailments into diagnoses. This is where you want Don Klingbeil’s 45 years of boot-fitting experience. This is where on-ice experience like that of Will Murillo makes the difference between a good skate and a world-class skate.
“I think it would be tragic if the ‘classic’ figure skating bootmakers no longer existed. The synthetic boots are fine for some, but there is really no comparison to the quality and craftsmanship of a hand-lasted skate,” said Timothy Goebel. “What they do is truly an art, and they provide a product that is simply better than something mass-produced.”
This year, two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner will wear custom Klingbeil skates as she competes for Olympic gold. And for now, figure skaters have not yet completely lost one of the last skate ateliers still dedicated to the craft of handmade skates, thanks largely to Murillo, who has been retained by the Adoni Group.
These days, Murillo can often be seen examining the mold of a child’s foot in the new Adoni factory. By the time a skater reaches the ranks of elite competition, if she ever does, Murillo has probably paced a mile around a workshop, analyzing her boots. “He’s a very skillful young man and really cares about the customers and the work,” Don Klingbeil said. “He’s like me.”
The Klingbeil skate is no longer built by its namesake, but Don Klingbeil remains hopeful that one day soon he will return to what he knows best: making world-class skates. Don is not alone.
One grateful skater who has written on the graffitied Klingbeil boot-fitting chair agrees. Across the room, it reads clearly: “Will + Don Rock.”
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Tracy O’Neill teaches at the City College of New York. In 2012, she received the NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship from the Center for Fiction.
Illustration by Chris Gash.