American Shoe Industry

The Well-heeled American

In recent years, the finest examples of American shoe-making have come under pressure. Our New York shoe addict examines the once thriving industry

Article and photography by Aaron Shuttleworth

“It is totally impossible to be well dressed in cheap shoes” – Sir Hardy Amies

My first pair of dress shoes were from a brand that I wouldn’t do the disservice of naming. They were black suede bluchers, with a point so severe that any recently retired court jesters within arms length would steal them and start juggling on the spot.

I loved them. Sadly, suede rarely stands up to an 18 year old’s take on partying.

You always remember your first. It’s the in betweens that become slightly hazy. All I know is that the points were still there and the soles were still glued together – products of a world where disposable fashion was king.

April 16th, 2012. The day I fell in love properly for the first time. It happened on Etsy of all places. They were a pair of New Old Stock 1930’s Keith Highlands. Adelaide’s. Spade soles. 7 eyelets. Contrast stitching. Red brown leather, softer than a baby’s bum. I bought them instantly and so began my love affair with shoes. Proper shoes made with love and affection and not glued together by a machine in a soulless factory.

Since humans first invented coverings for our bodies in the form of clothes, and protection for our feet, we have been fascinated with the incarnation that they take. In particular, the slips of material that adorn our hooves have come in for special attention, to the extent of potentially being valued at a 220 billion dollar industry by 2020. Of this, men’s dress shoes make up roughly 6 per cent of the market, a far cry from the days when companies such as Walkover were selling $12 million in shoes a year…in the early 20th century! British and Italian shoemakers are seen as the pinnacle of excellence, with the French, Spanish and Japanese also producing some excellent work.

Where does this leave North America? There was a time when brands such as Cordwainer Wright, Keith Highlander, Edwin Clapp, Crosby Square, Alan McAfee and French Shriner were considered the finest shoes in the world. Sadly, none of these survive today. Some shoemakers went about reinventing themselves, but for the most part they have become poor imitations of the quality they once produced, tempted by cheap offshore labour and lucrative corporate sales targets.

Whilst many of these companies are no longer making shoes, it is still possible to obtain examples on the secondary market. Since 2003, Sevan Minasian has run ClassicShoesforMen.com, an online store specialising in rare vintage men’s shoes, many of them American made. Sadly, he doesn’t see a resurgence in the indigenous American shoe industry anytime soon, citing the recent closing of the last American Footjoy factory, as well as Florsheim’s reliance on the Indian market for decades. A pair of pre-1980 Florsheim Imperial’s will set you back an average of $300-400 on the vintage market and are considered one of the seminal representations of the era. Florsheim still champions the Imperial Longwing as the pinnacle of its range, but today it’s made in the fabled workshops of Northampton as opposed to on US soil. The rest of their line is a reflection of the times, a stark contrast to the wonderfully creative models of the highest craftsmanship that saw them rise to be what they are.

Or were, depending on your definition of success…

A major aspect leading the charge of men’s dress shoes back into the light are online companies supplying direct to consumer and forgoing the middleman. Cobbler Union is one such American brand that has recognised a disparity in price and quality over the last 20 years of the now $250 billion luxury market. Co-founder Daniel Porcelli was quick to point out that before large retailers dominated the 20th Century, direct to consumer was the main channel in circulation. This model has allowed them to bypass a traditional avenue that has, in recent years, become more closely associated with disposable fashion; meaning they can focus on people who care about the quality of their product.

Whilst Mr Porcelli believes that the U.S. market must re-invent itself at the lower end of the luxury spectrum, one bespoke bootmaker that has been in operation since 1879 continues to staunchly disagree with this trend.

Walking into the workshop of E. Vogel bootmakers in the Brooklyn Naval Yard is a kind of spiritual experience akin to discovering where babies come from. This is how shoes were made and how dress shoes should be made. The entire process can take from eight weeks (bespoke shoes) to six months (bespoke boots) with just four pairs being finished per day.

Current owner of E. Vogel, Jack Lynch, agreed with my most trusted cobbler, when I put the quality of the leather in the industry to him, sharing his view that even the best full grain leather today is treated or sanded back in some way to make it presentable. Evidence of this lies in the heavy depletion of American tanneries, which peaked at 250 in 1978 before declining to just 20 by 2005.

Innovation is something that drives most industries forward, making them relevant for a new generation and revitalising sales. Luxury is no exception, except for the traditionalists. Both the new generation and old are in agreement on this, with a general consensus that the techniques in place cannot be usurped without a reduction in quality or deviation in category.

The final word on this should go to Sevan Minasian, who more so than anyone can succinctly distinguish what was from what is, and more so than ever, what could be:

‘There are shoes for the basketball court, shoes for the runner, the climber, the sailor, the diver. There are shoes to go to war in and shoes with which to go into space.  Every innovation, every improvement is welcome in these cases. But for the shoes that go along the boulevard, into the boardroom, the salon, or out on the town for an evening, no innovations are required. We do not need to improve upon the classic gentleman’s shoe; it has already achieved perfection…’ riddle_stop 2

 

Enquiries: E Vogel, 63 Flushing Ave #331, New York, NY 11205, United States / +1 718-522-3899 / http://vogelboots.com/

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