June 25, 2024

At Their Feet, Crafted by Hand

“IT takes about a year until you’re good at this job, and three years until you know just about everything,” said Joe Merrill, a 34-year-old inseamer for the Allen Edmonds shoe company. In his hands he held a partly assembled black cap-toe dress shoe. He quickly spun the shoe around, working freehand, as a thin, flexible strip of leather was stitched along the bottom perimeter by a frighteningly forceful piece of machinery. It is a job he has done for the last three of his 11 years working in the factory.

“So I guess I know just about everything,” he said.

Not that long ago, there was a saying around this 50,000-square-foot plant, one of the last on the north shore of Lake Michigan that is still making shoes: When someone in his 60s retired, or died, there was one less Allen Edmonds customer. During the disastrous fourth quarter of 2008, in fact, the 90-year-old company laid off more than 8 percent of its work force. Its outlook was as dark as, well, shoe polish.

And yet, this year, Allen Edmonds is on track to produce 500,000 pairs of shoes, up from 350,000 last year. Since January 2010, the company has added more than 118 employees and increased its work shifts, the results of a turnaround that has surprised even veteran shoemakers like Mr. Merrill. More than 400 pairs of shoes pass through his hands in a day, in a process that involves 220 steps from leather to lace-ups. It can be tedious work, he said, but enjoyable because customers appreciate what he does: making handcrafted shoes that, once completed, will cost $325.

“The quality comes from the individual workman,” he said, picking up another shoe. “If bellbottoms can make a comeback, why not expensive shoes?”

It has not been lost on workers at Allen Edmonds, or those at about a half-dozen shoe companies that still produce in the United States, that the craft of shoemaking is experiencing something of a renaissance. Over the last few years, as heritage brands have been rediscovered by a new generation of customers, especially young men, labels once seen as relics of American work wear now have an unexpected cool factor, stocked by stylish boutiques and obsessed about on fashion blogs.

That has generally been perceived as a welcome development by those companies, some of which had been struggling financially or were, until recently, at risk of extinction. But it has also created a dynamic that is challenging for them to navigate, as designers adapt their products for a more fashion-conscious customer, as younger workers are trained on decades-old machines, and as executives wonder how long the newfound popularity of heritage brands can last. It frightens a shoemaker to describe a high-quality shoe as trendy.

“We are not interested in being a hot line,” said Bob Clark, a vice president of the Alden Shoe Company, founded in Middleborough, Mass., in 1884. Alden is the last remaining shoe company of the hundreds in New England in the 19th century. Its closest neighbor, a FootJoy factory in Brockton, closed two years ago.

Not much has changed in the way shoes are made there, except that Alden has become a hot line, sold by boutiques like Epaulet in Brooklyn and Leffot in the West Village. It was one of the first heritage brands that J. Crew helped put on the hipster map. Mr. Clark said that the company has more business than it can handle at the moment, but that it is not planning to increase production.

“Making rapid changes to capitalize on the fashion of the moment doesn’t serve our long-term interest,” he said, “or that of our customers.”

Other companies have wrestled uncomfortably with fashion’s embrace. Red Wing, the century-old maker of work boots in Red Wing, Minn., memorably stumbled when it came out with women’s pumps as part of a lifestyle collection; but the company’s classic styles, meanwhile, have become fetishized by fashion insiders. (Last fall, David Murphy, the chief executive of Red Wing, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “Do I want spiky-haired weird folks on the runway wearing our boots? I’m not disturbed by it, but I don’t care.”)

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=42637293ed20f3db6951e8779923409b

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