GUTHRIE — They don't make 'em like they used to.
The leather insoles. The natural glue that lets feet breathe. To Marcell Mrsán, a sixth-generation Hungarian shoemaker, wearing a factory-made shoe would be like choosing a photocopy over a painter's masterpiece.
Mrsán, who could be the Michelangelo of cordwainers, spent the week of July 16 in Guthrie passing on his craft to four eager students at Sorrell Custom Boots.
The students came from near and far for the advanced class: a cobbler from Brooklyn, a former Olympic swimmer from Toronto, a purveyor of Victorian clothing from Hitchcock.
The fourth student didn't have to travel at all. At 15, she's spent almost three years learning the trade from her mother, Lisa Sorrell, who owns the shop.
Sorrell, an internationally known craftswoman herself, met Mrsán in Sweden after a shoemaking competition in Germany. She said he's known for his beautiful, simple leather handiwork sold under the brand name Koronya.
“He makes a perfect shoe,” she said.
After Mrsán moved to the United States in September to teach courses at the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design, Sorrell jumped at the chance to bring him to her studio.
One foot in the past
Footwear is no small matter for anyone, Mrsán said. If shoes don't fit or give proper support, they can damage your knees and back as well as your feet. He said it's worth spending a little bit more for high-quality materials and craftsmanship.
Mrsán is a rarity in this nation of buyers of mass-produced shoes: He is literally a master of leather shoemaking. Like his forebears, he passed an intense master exam in Hungary.
He had to bring one handmade shoe with him and create its mate from scratch in eight hours, which is no easy feat, he said. A passing score was 95 percent or above. Anything lower, and he would have failed.
Mrsán said he was the only person in his class to pass the exam, which certified him as a master and a teacher.
Now his courses in Savannah fill up a year ahead of time, Mrsán said. He also teaches summer classes in New York City, and his YouTube channel of shoemaking tutorials has 1.7 million views.
Nowadays, he only has time to sell a few pairs of shoes each year.
Mrsán compared his teaching experience in America to the three years of traveling his ancestors had to do, moving from town to town to shadow various shoemakers.
“This is pretty much my master journey,” he said.
One foot in the future
The Guthrie students appreciated that Mrsán made the odyssey to Oklahoma. Many of them had watched his YouTube videos, but getting face time with Mrsán was invaluable, students said.
“There's a few books here and there, but you can't learn from a book,” said Matt Huang, the Canadian swimmer.
Huang works in finance now, and last year he traveled to Budapest to take a beginning shoemaking class from Mrsán. He's been practicing his skills since then, and eventually hopes to open his own studio.
When Huang heard Mrsán would be in Guthrie last week, he “snapped up the chance,” he said. Huang said the shoemaker is a tough teacher, but that the rigor of the course benefits the students in the end.
“I'd call it an old-school, hard-line approach, which I like … I think he wants us to be better than he is, himself,” Huang said. “If that's possible.”
Paige Sorrell, 15, said Mrsán helped her refine the pattern-making skills her mother taught her.
“He's taught me how to design much nicer, sleeker shoes,” she said.
Paige said she has made 23 pairs of shoes since she started learning at age 12, selling some pairs for as much as $150.
“I'm glad because I know I'm making my mom so proud,” she said. “I want to pass it on to somebody too, whether it's my own children or an apprentice I take on.”
That's the key, Lisa Sorrell said — bringing Mrsán to Guthrie helped her hand down a centuries-old trade. The number of people in the world who can craft a product on the level of a Koronya shoe is shrinking, she said.
“If it all goes to factories and we don't pass it on, then it will all be lost,” she said.
Sorrell said the only way to keep the knowledge from disappearing is to pass it on the old-fashioned way: students patiently working alongside a master.