An Interview with Flame Panda Boots

Upon receiving my monkey boots from Flame Panda, I was quite impressed. I praised the materials, design, craftsmanship, and overall quality in my review already, but I actually have grown to love these boots even more than I did when I wrote that article. In fact, I would say that in terms of overall quality, these boots are in my top three best made boots and I’ve already ordered more. What is more, is that I have continued to talk to and get to know the owner of Flame Panda, Peng which has made me even more curious about him as a person and as a bootmaker.

My Flame Panda monkey boots

He hails from China, but not one of the largest, well known cities and he shares a lot about his local cuisine and culture which I really love. He also makes amazing boots, but I had no idea how he got so good at making them. I wanted to learn more and I’m sure that other people were curious as well, so I reached out to Peng and asked if he was willing to be interviewed. Not only was he willing, but he was incredibly honest and open with his responses to my questions. He gave a lot of insight into his past, his craft, so I hope you enjoy reading this interview.

Almost Vintage Style: 

How did you get into making boots?

Flame Panda: 

Hi Jake,I’m glad to be interviewed by you. I know that some people who like what we do will read this interview. As my English is not very good, I may use some words inappropriately. If so, I’m sorry.

My uncle is a shoemaker. He has been repairing shoes and boots in our town since he was 23. He also made simple shoes from cheap leather and slippers from discarded car tires. Although he had never read a book, I think he was different from many adults of that era. He was full of creativity and passion for life. He has also made many novel toys for me. He had no shop at that time. He had a roadside stall in the bazaar. I was somewhat influenced by him. In my elementary and junior high school textbooks, I designed shoes and boots for the illustrations of the characters in the textbooks. I behaved in the eyes of people as a lazy person. I like designing, painting and carving. But these are unthinkable, even absurd, in my hometown. From elementary school through junior high school, all my nicknames were associated with “stupid and dementia.” 

My grades were poor and my teachers thought I was the dumbest. By the way, at that time, the assessment of academic performance was who could quickly copy the text 10 times and work on the farm at the teacher’s house. At that time, my hometown was probably the poorest part of my country and could not even provide enough food and clothing. I never knew leather could be used for soles, but I’ve considered using leather for soles. Then an elderly customer sent a pair of boots for my uncle to repair, and I began to think they were wooden soles. The customer told me on retrieving his boots that the soles were made of leather. Although I didn’t know anything about the actual production of boots at the time, It made me very happy. I seem to have finally found a reason why I am different from other children. It means a lot to me. 

When I was 16, I dropped out of school because I couldn’t afford school, so I learned to repair shoes and boots (mostly sneakers and slippers at the time) from my uncle. Two years later I proposed to open a studio at home and start making leather sandals. So my uncle and I set up a studio at home. After four years of development, our job became mainly making boots. I collect pictures of boots from the Internet, learn and design boots.

AVS:

So did your uncle learn shoemaking from anyone else, or did he teach himself how to make shoes? 

FP:

My grandfather was a shoemaker, but I seldom mention it. At that time, in my country, cobbler was such a lowly trade that there was even a word for it, “臭皮匠”. This is not a polite word. In China, almost everyone over the age of 30 knows the word. But perceptions have long since changed. I do not know the exact reason why a cobbler was then described as such. My grandfather didn’t allow my uncle and my father to be in this business. My grandfather refused to keep company with my uncle for ten years because he was in this business. 

Even now, my grandfather doesn’t want people to talk about his career. So I don’t say much about it. He is very old and those ideas are hard to change. What’s more, my grandfather is a very stubborn person. We rarely talk to him about the studio, just hope he can be happy in his old age. I often go back to the village to see him. Therefore, my uncle should have been self-taught in this industry. Although he was influenced a little, he did not learn from my grandfather.

AVS:

Do you have any formal training in making boots or did you simply learn from your uncle and taught yourself? 

FP:

I had no formal training, and my uncle taught me to make simple leather shoes. At first I got the technology from him. Then I taught myself to make complicated boots.but he will always be my teacher.

AVS:

Where did the name “Flame Panda” come from?

FP:

When I was in primary school, I had a nickname — stupid panda (this nickname has nothing to do with cute, it means lazy and stupid). People misunderstand me. So I changed my nickname to Flame Panda (flame is not anger, but passion for life). My Chinese customers have been calling me “flame Panda” for years. But this is the first time I’ve explained what it means.

AVS:

Who is involved with making Flame Panda boots?

FP:

The people in charge of making the boots were — my cousin, me, my father. Sometimes my aunt would join in and sew the upper. But most of her job was to take care of our meals.

AVS:

How do you create your boot designs?

In my recent email, people asked me, out of curiosity, where I learned to design boots. Among them were some students from a school in Florence. In fact, I’ve never systematically studied boots. At first, I taught myself and designed by collecting pictures and some materials. Our designed boots follow the beauty of balance. My understanding of aesthetics comes from a book called << Book of Changes >>. For as long as I can remember, this book still has some influence in my hometown. But it may have been forgotten elsewhere. My hometown is the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilization, and this book records the wisdom of 5000 years ago. 

It was originally recorded through symbols, and before there were words, the wisdom of this book was engraved on the turtle’s shell. I learned from this book the beauty of balance it expressed. I’m always looking for a balance between the utility and the look of the boots. I won’t part with any of them. And what I’m going to do is I’m going to combine them. Because they complement each other. That’s why we insist on making them by hand. The simplicity of handicraft will make last aesthetics more powerful. Up to now, I still use my spare time to study. Not only does it influence my design, it even becomes my code of conduct

AVS:

Do you have a favorite boot that you make and if so, why is it your favorite?

FP:

My favorite boots are based on 206 Last toeless 5inch ankle boots. Last’s design is a reference to the cloth shoes I wore almost every day when I was a child. It makes me feel at home.

AVS:

You are known for having an amazing selection of leathers to choose from. How do you choose your upper leathers and do you have a favorite leather for your boots?

FP:

There are requirements for the leather used to make boots.  Especially shoe uppers.  Because the practicality of boots is too important.  The use of dense fiber leather is not only for appearance, more importantly, they have strong folding resistance.  But there is a problem. Even if the leather is selected, in the process of making boots, because the leather will be subjected to great tensile strength, even a perfect piece of leather may still be caused by some leather fibers during the production process.  Pull off, causing loose cortex.  This is not the fault of the shoemaker.  

The only thing that can be done is to choose leather parts with denser leather fibers to make boots.  And be gentle when you stretch the leather with pliers (I don’t know how to express this step in English).  This is our approach.  We will make the remaining leather into various small leather goods such as wallets or card cases.  For these leather goods, the remaining leather is completely competent. Regarding this matter, my point of view is not to care too much.  It seems to be more difficult to get high-quality leather now (I’m not sure if it really exists or is my illusion).  If this is a real natural phenomenon, we should be happy to accept it.

AVS:

What is your favorite aspect of making boots?

FP:

My favorite job is the last design and pattern design.This work does not require collaboration with anyone. Express it exactly as you want and make it real. It used to be a pure hobby of mine.

AVS:

What is the most difficult/challenging part of being a bootmaker?

FP:

For me, the most difficult thing is how to maintain the pursuit of high quality.

When the studio was first set up, it was a very difficult time. My hometown is not a big city, even per capita income is far behind the average level. My country is like a Chinese dragon, Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou. These big cities belong to the head of the dragon. And we belong to the tail of the dragon. At that time,  My pursuit of quality is a serious mismatch with the environment in which I live. To make matters worse, boots are almost impossible to sell when they cost more than 500 yuan ($76USD).Occasionally, people who work in big cities come in and they have the spending power, but they won’t buy my boots. Because they think it’s very rustic. 

I’m not complaining about my hometown. I’m stating the truth. My hometown used to be like this. I love my hometown and those ancient cultures. Although it was so poor at that time, I know that in ancient times it was one of the most developed regions in the world. So it’s just a cycle, and I think it’s a natural variation. I have no complaints about my hometown, whether I am ostracized by people or my boots cannot be sold. In the days when no boots were bought, I learned to make small leather goods and sell them to make a living. Even so, my income is still pitiful. It doesn’t even cover the normal overhead. After seeing no hope for a long time, I no longer have any illusions about the pursuit of quality. I buy cheap leather to make boots and cut corners to keep the cost down. I know that my actions were immoral. In fact, they can’t be called handmade boots at all. But that can bring down the price of boots by a lot. A small number of customers chose our boots because they could afford them. Even though I made those boots of poor quality. 

That was the most empty period of my life. Later, with the addition of a college student customer, our studio began to have some turnaround. The customer went to college in the city. He was in a menswear shop and he was wearing our boots. The owner of the men’s shop liked the design of the boots. And contacted me through this college student. The owner of the men’s shop asked me, “Why don’t you make high-quality boots with such wonderful designs?” These boots are too cheap to make these days. My answer is that you can’t make money making high-quality boots because no one buys them. I didn’t want to talk about ideals and pursuits at all. About two months later, he contacted me again and told me that if he could make high-quality hand-made leather shoes and boots, he could buy all the boots we made under the premise of quality guarantee. 

Although the final production was based on the sample he provided, this event helped me find my passion for work again. The boss liked our hand-made boots so much that he not only sold them to his customers. Even he wore a lot of pairs. Although we stopped working together, he changed my view of dealers. We all do what we like and love, but with different divisions of labor. At the end of our collaboration, he gave me some beautiful boot shots and promotional shots of models wearing boots. Let me take it to the press. The boots were shot in his shop, a high-end men’s tailoring shop. I enlarged these photos and pasted them on the front door of my house, then wrote on them with a large marker: My boots are sold in high-end men’s stores in big cities. I soon found a group of customers willing to accept the price. After a relatively stable income, I began to buy high-quality leather and continued to design and improve boots. I even designed my own sewing process. Start making and designing high quality boots in a real sense. It was a difficult process for me.

AVS:

You said that you designed your own sewing process. Could you describe that sewing process that you designed?

FP:

I designed it four years ago. I call it Storm+Embedded Eversion. It usually serves 131 monkey boots. I mean the monkey boot last was designed with an eye to how it would fit together (for the look). They complement each other. They were born at the same time. But monkey boots can also be stitched with other stitching techniques, and Storm+Embedded Eversion can also be stitched with other styles. That’s no problem. Sometimes you need something different. When designing a suture, I try not to think about existing suture techniques. 

This may seem self-defeating. I drank a little wine and thought of myself as a primitive man who, by chance, had acquired a made vamp and a sole. I need to put them together firmly.(Sorry, I could have put it in a more elegant way, but my English is so poor that it at least describes my general meaning without ambiguity). My customers don’t approve of it. Although they are used to my rich imagination. No one has ever seen a home-grown suture. I knew their advice was for my own good. Moreover, our studio supports almost all existing suture techniques. I knew what practicality meant to this innovation, so I thought about it for a long time. But I won’t give up beauty. The original design did not satisfy my pursuit of beauty. So I started to improve. 

Although complex craftsmanship and aesthetic appearance are often in conflict. But I think there must be a balance somewhere, and it’s there. Not moving. Waiting for you to find out. In the end I decided to combine the Storm Welt with the everting flat seam. For practical purposes, I think Storm Welt is too hard. I’m just saying it in a Chinese way. This means that after wearing boots for a period of time, they do not deform with the soft upper. This means that it does not give enough support to the junction between the vamp and the sole. As for the flaps, they’re too soft. When I say soft, I mean soft in a Chinese way. They do not prevent the junction of the vamp and sole from any physical damage. In addition, from the aesthetic point of view, I think the combination of hardness and softness is the most beautiful existence. They make so much sense. 

By the way, I’m not saying either of these are bad stitches. I also use both of these stitches a lot. They’ve been around for years, and they’ve already been justified. It’s just a relative view under a crazy idea. And if you think the stitching I designed is a little weird, that’s perfectly reasonable. Because it was almost entirely my own crazy idea. For a long time, I have been worried about professional terms in my expressions, because it is a great test for my limited English vocabulary. I am sorry if this paragraph has affected your reading. I’ll take some pictures of the boots and send them to Jake. In fact, in an email I received last week, a follower of the Chinese Xianxia Novel said he had guessed we were using THOUGHT to make boots when he saw my Profile picture on Instagram. I realized That I needed to post some production images.

Some photos of Peng’s stitching process
My boots were made using the same method

AVS:

On your Instagram stories, you often showcase the food and culture from where you live and I love seeing this. Do you have any favorite foods that are unique to the area you live in that most people may not know about?

FP:

There is a soup in my hometown called Hu La Tang(胡辣汤).  It is a unique delicacy in our hometown.  Usually we drink it in the morning.  There are some foods made of wheat and beef in the soup.  Their main taste is pepper and chili.  I bet you like this Jake.

AVS:

Do you have a favorite leather to work with/make boots with?

FP:

Sorry, you asked me just now, but I forgot to answer you. my current favourite leather is maryam tannery horse butt. I like them because they have good durability and special style.

My boots are made with Maryam horse butt

AVS:

Do you have any new models of boots that you are working on that you may release soon?

FP:

There is no new model at present. Maybe next year. I’m not sure.

AVS:

Is there any other information that you would like people to know about you, whether it has to do with boots or not?

FP:

Every day I spend some time meditating☯.  Usually from half an hour to an hour.  This is how I understand my inner changes.  I think it is very important to me.  It is impossible for a person’s heart not to be affected by the environment.  But at least you can know when your heart starts to change.

In early 2020, I said in my Instagram profile that I would commission an Internet company to create a shopping website on which I would post my boots. (Before that, I only had a purchase page on Taobao.com, targeting Chinese customers.) . I even wanted to commission a professional video production team to shoot some videos and post them on the website. But those plans were later cancelled. The reason is that when I told my uncle and my father what I thought, they didn’t agree. I should make it clear that their disapproval does not mean that it can never be done, just not now. There is no absolute between good and bad. It is closely related to time. That’s how many of us think about family. 

My father’s attitude changed a little when I told them the fact that the shopping site had been made. Just a few words of advice did not stop me completely, but my uncle strongly disagreed, although he had long since left the studio to live in the village for medical reasons. When I do something important, I have to ask permission from my elders. I tried to explain it to foreign customers and people who followed me, but it seemed difficult to explain. In fact, it is quite normal in my hometown to have to get the permission of elders before doing something important. Otherwise you can’t do it. Many families have this tradition. I drove my uncle to the studio, and I wanted to tell him that we were getting a lot of orders every month compared to before, and it was totally different. I’m dying to convince him. 

When I told him my plan, my uncle told me to set up a company/hire a professional publicity team to make a studio to promote the video/build an international shopping website/add 3 studio members. There are four things I can’t do. He knew I wasn’t a fortune hunter, and I knew it myself. All I’m doing is trying to get people to know our boots (or prove ourselves? I haven’t really thought about it). But there is no doubt that my actions will make more people know about us. And make a lot of money at the same time. But my uncle thought it not only pointless to do these things now, they might even destroy me. That’s why I didn’t publish the website. I have to admit that in the one year Since I joined Instagram, I have seen different cultures, different landscapes and different cuisines from all over the world. There are some interesting things. It did make a difference in my thinking. But as I said on Instagram before, I hope I can always remember what it meant to me to make high-quality boots.

I did not mention my mother in my reference to seeking the consent of my elders. This is because my mother has absolutely no interest in the work we do in the studio. She thinks the work is too complicated. When I was young, my mother asked me to follow her to work in the fields. But I’ve always been out in the field, and maybe I’m thinking about what leather is waterproof for a field job. Anyway, my mother was disappointed in me for a long time. In those days, if you went to work in the fields early in the morning and didn’t come home until the sun went down, you could get the approval of the family and the villagers. Plus the silly nicknames used to describe me. I knew she was disappointed in me. 

By the time I set up my studio with my uncle when I was 18, boots couldn’t sell. I often have to get help from my parents because I have no food. She has been opposed to my work. But everything is changing. When my studio made money, my mother suddenly became very supportive of my work. I didn’t approve of my mother’s actions. But I began to understand her after I was 26. She is just a simple and kind person. She expects me to support myself. When she was young, Like most Chinese women of that era, it was impossible to get an education. There was no chance of reading. And even follow some very strict traditional ideas. 

Now her favorite hobby (or even job) is square dancing. I didn’t understand these dances at one time. Until I got an invitation from my mother and grandma to dance with me. I was very happy to see them there. This is a dance that can be seen everywhere in China, usually in squares or parks, and sometimes in basketball courts. Men, women and children can join, but the vast majority are women in their 60s. These dances don’t even have a standard movement. The dance was accompanied by music from the 1980s. It turns out that this kind of dance is really good for the body and mind. I had a good time.

It should be noted that although my hometown was very poor when I was a child, great changes have taken place in my hometown due to the attention paid to the protection of ancient culture and ancient buildings in recent years. Much better than before.

I’ve been in the limelight for a year now. I got a lot, not just the money I made. My family and I are not good at expressing ourselves. But in the course of that year, I probably communicated more with new customers than I had in a decade. I got people’s understanding and recognition. I often get messages of encouragement in my mailbox, many of whom are not my customers and do not intend to buy boots. They just wanted to show their support and say hello. They do it with courtesy and respect. I’m grateful for that. At the same time, I know one thing. If I don’t know how to cherish the hard-won harvest. Then I will lose more. I will find a balance between gain and loss. Calm yourself down. And make steady progress.

One more thing I want to apologize to everyone.  Due to the relocation of the studio (the previous studio was in my warehouse), a lot of time was lost.  For some reasons, the new studio did not fully operate until the end of September.  As a result, all orders have been delayed to varying degrees.  Some of these orders were really delayed for too long.  Express apologies once again.

Finally, I would like to say that since I have been receiving a large number of emails every day since recently, I may not be able to respond to your messages in a timely manner (including private chats on Instagram). As you can see, my English is poor, but I am still the only person in the studio who knows English. So it’s up to me to respond to these messages. Anyway, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

Thank you for your attention

Also, I would like to thank Marcus(@bootswhiskeycigas) for the wine he sent me. I received it today. They came at the right time. Without it, I’m not sure I’d have the courage to tell some of my experiences.

____

Wow! Thank you Peng for sharing so much! Creating your own boot construction method is wild, but doing it while essentially being completely self taught is extremely impressive. It honestly boggles my mind that these boots are so well made with no serious formal training or apprenticeship. Then again, Peng also made it clear that he had a passion for this at a young age and has put an extreme amount of effort into making high quality boots and that shows. I hope that everyone who read this enjoyed learning more about the amazing man behind Flame Panda boots. 

If you are interested in ordering a pair of Flame Panda boots from Peng and his family, send him a DM on Instagram here. As he stated in the interview, he still does not have a website fully set up yet so this is the best way to contact him for a pair of boots. As always, this is not an affiliate link at all and I do not get any commission for sharing this. I simply think that Peng is an amazing person and makes some of the very best boots in the world – and by the way, yes I do love chili and spicy food, so I think I would really love your town’s food!

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