“If I am the innovator of LaDuca Shoes, Brian J. Bustos surely is the facilitator. His brilliant design work has helped propel LaDuca Shoes to where we are today.” – Phil LaDuca, founder/creator
For our audience, Brian. Let’s start off with your early life. Where are you from?
I grew up in Santa Fe, NM in a very diverse, BIPOC family where I was taught to embrace all cultures and to understand that we all go through struggles. My immediate family is primarily of Hispanic/Latin heritage, including my stepmom (who is Indigenous and helped raise me since I was 5), my half sister, nieces, and great nephews who are either half or full Indigenous along with one nephew who is half Black and my great niece who is Black and Pacific Islander. Growing up gay in New Mexico, I realized early on that I needed to find my own path. Thankfully, I found amazing people that supported me and allowed me to become who I am.
So what brought you to New York City?
I came to NYC in 1999 to start my MFA program at NYU Tisch Design for Stage and Film. I was fortunate to train under Susan Hilferty and many other wonderful designers.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
One of my first jobs out of school was traveling through Poland, Belarus, and Russia working with a dance company called High Frequency Wavelengths. I was a Scenic, Costume and Projection Designer. We went to national ballet schools in the countries with dancers that taught American Modern Dance to these schools. I was the person who did all the technical work setting up the exhibitions with the Americans for the shows. Ironically, traveling in Russia is where I first met Phil LaDuca (who was there teaching American theater jazz dance, long before he founded LaDuca Shoes).
Back, based in NYC, I have been blessed to work with such incredible designers as Bob Mackie, Tim Hatley, Vicki Mortimer, Soutra Gilmour, Tom Pye, and directors like Trevor Nunn, Francesca Zembello, David Leveaux, and Jonathan Miller. It’s a short list, but it’s something that most designers hold close. I have worked in 12 Broadway shows as well in many tours both domestic and international.
I did my apprenticeship at the Santa Fe Opera for 5 seasons which then made it all the more satisfying when I was invited back in 2011 to be the Production Designer for an opera that was commissioned for the New Mexico Centennial called “Shoes for the Santo Nino,” based on a childhood fable written in the 1930s that embraced the culture of my family for many generations.
Aside from theatre work, I have worked with some of the best Visual Merchandising teams, creating display windows for Tiffany and Co, Harry Winston Jewelers, and Bergdorf Goodman.
What is your role at LaDuca Shoes? What does your job entail and how long have you been with the company?
My job at LaDuca is complex and there’s quite a back story. I started at LaDuca when I had a small lull between shows while I was working as an Assistant and Associate on Broadway. On most of my shows, I worked directly on shoes with many shoemakers. I had worked on THE LITTLE MERMAID and figured out the “wheeled” boots with another shoemaker. After MERMAID closed, I did shoes for many shows. It was something that was very intuitive to me. One day in between shows, I was at LaDuca Shoes and the manager at time asked me to help her out. Apparently, Mr. LaDuca was impressed with my work and the rest is history! I soon assumed the role of Chief Creative Officer, and I have been working with LaDuca for the better part of ten years now.
Can you talk about a few of your favorite projects with LaDuca Shoes?
There are so many, but my best project at LaDuca was Katy Perry’s Prismatic tour. Working directly with Katy, helping design and draw so many of those icon shoes was certainly a highlight.
Second, it’s Broadway’s SHUFFLE ALONG for Ann Roth. We were brought shoes that needed to be amazing (and they were) but because Savion Glover was choreographing, they all needed to be tap shoes. The designs were of historical shoes (most I had seen through the years doing my own previous research) so recreating these shoes that I had fallen in love with from old museum archives into tap versions was pure joy. I think they are some of the best shoes I’ve seen LaDuca make.
One other experience isn’t a show—It’s the feeling I have from having helped elevate the annual LaDuca LaSale to event level. It was very hard at first, but now it’s one of my favorite things about LaDuca. It has become so big, it almost rivals an opening night…the buildup, the excitement, the rush. I am most proud of many of the designs I personally have created for the LaSales over the years. 2020 was a whole new renaissance for the sale. Due to COVID-19, we made this year’s LaSale all online. This was new to us yet very exciting to see that we could adapt and still have our annual event. And I’m happy to say that the challenge was met with exhilarating results.
How does your experience in costume design dovetail with your job with LaDuca?
It was a natural flow. I still design costumes and work as an Associate Costume Designer on Broadway. It can be tricky trying to juggle both, but it keeps me on my toes. Coming from a design background has helped tremendously as I am able to ‘talk the talk’ with costumers, associates, and costume vendors alike. It helps understanding the challenges of having both my designer and vendor brain needing to work simultaneously to make sure that LaDuca is always aware of schedules and different production needs. There are times when I have to bring my designer side into LaDuca to help shows understand that there are needs for the show that I have yet to think about. It’s kind of a perfect match.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The best part of my job is the work. I love being part of every show we help create, meeting new people and getting to share their experiences with them. For example, some of the most memorable and most rewarding are the times when you meet someone who is making their Broadway debut and they begin to cry as I’m fitting them for their first custom LaDucas. It is very touching. I hold these stories closest to my heart. I don’t like to thrive on the challenges. The rewards are much more memorable for me.
There is one story I like to tell—It’s my favorite LaDuca story. We had a very young dancer walk in and asked for a pair of Alexis shoes. She pulled out a large wad of cash, all single dollar bills. I thought this very odd but then she explained to me that in order to save enough money for our shoes, she had worked as a coat check for over a year and she was determined to pay with every single dollar she had earned and saved, as a way to remember just how hard she had worked. I completely empathized with her, understanding our shoes are an investment. Watching her count the dollars she had worked so hard for, I just couldn’t help but cry with her because I could see how much this meant to her.