My trip to visit the Allen Edmonds shoe manufacturing facility began with this advice from my husband Phil:
“Whatever you do, don’t be yourself,” he said as he dropped me off at the airport. “You’ll drive them crazy.”
Sigh. He really was trying to be helpful, because he knows that in any new situation, I will 1) plan obsessively, 2) ask more questions than Nancy Grace, and 3) be a touch over-eager.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways
But I can’t help gushing when I talk about Allen Edmonds’ handcrafted shoes. Simply put, what’s not to love about this company?
- Started in 1922
- Manufactures in the U.S.
- Gorgeous designs
- Excellent customer service
It’s that last one that made me a believer. When I decided to try Allen Edmonds shoes for myself, my experience with their customer service phone representative, as well as the store manager who measured my feet and helped me pick out my first pair, was stellar. The shoes came when promised, they fit perfectly, and were comfortable out of the box. Bada bing, bada boom. I get compliments on my Allen Edmonds Park Avenues every time I wear them, from men and women alike.
So when I needed to go to Milwaukee on business anyway, I was thrilled when the friend of a coworker offered to set me up with a tour of the Port Washington manufacturing facility. I started planning obsessively. I made a list of all the questions I wanted to ask. For the first time in my life, I bought clothes to compliment my shoes, instead of the other way around. It’s easy to see why my husband’s warning made sense.
First, the inquisition
Before we started my tour, I sat down for a chat with Colin Hall, Chief Marketing Officer. Who promptly broke my heart. Because my first question, of course, was why Allen Edmonds doesn’t make shoes in women’s sizes.
He assured me that they could, and do, make shoes for women pretty regularly. For movies, sports teams, celebrities and the like.
Other than that, they make them when women like me – attractive, discriminating women with impeccable taste! – custom order them. It’s not that they can’t make women’s shoes, it’s that making them on a larger scale would require a huge capital investment in machinery. They’d also need to buy thousands of different lasts, the molded forms on which shoes are made. Then they’d have to start marketing to women, stretching precious advertising dollars thin.
Finally, because women’s styles change every season, they’d have to repeat that madness on a regular basis.
Yeah, I know all about that particular madness. It’s one of the reasons I love men’s shoes.
Meeting the hands in handcrafted shoes
After I dried my tears, we made our way to the manufacturing floor and Colin handed me off to Jim Kass, head of manufacturing and design, and Jane Cynor, a 32-year Allen Edmonds employee. My goal was to see “every step of the 212-step manufacturing process” and they did not disappoint. I saw the progression from start to finish, starting with the leathers, and following the process through dye-cutting the pieces, stitching the uppers, preparing the innersoles, attaching the welt, assembling the shoes on the lasts, and finally, burnishing the leather and attaching the heel.
It’s a complicated process that is difficult to capture succinctly, but a few things stood out.
The first was how many different materials go into a quality, Goodyear-welted* shoe. Dozens of components must be made, procured, shaped, or applied at exactly the right time. The leather is the most obvious component, but there are scads of other pieces and parts, too: innersoles, outersoles, cork footbeds, toe shapers, heel stiffeners and more.
The second thing was how skilled these workers are. The machines do the sewing, stamping or cutting, but manipulating that machine correctly takes enormous precision and know-how. In many cases both hands are required to position the shoe or component, and one foot or knee to stop and start the machine. It’s a little like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, while dancing a minuet.
The third was how this 93-year-old brand has embraced the best of the modern and the traditional to survive. Just as its manufacturing facility blends old-world techniques and state-of-the-art technology, their shoe styles are a mix of tried-and-true classics and more fashion-forward designs. It preserves their heritage while ensuring Allen Edmonds attracts enough younger followers to safeguard its existence and grow its customer base.
I’m happy to say that in the end, my husband was wrong! I was my million-question, obsessive self, yet I felt like I was amongst friends. If anyone obsesses over details, it’s Allen Edmonds. I wasn’t a nuisance; I was right at home.
*99% of shoes in the U.S. use what’s known as “cement construction.” The upper is simply glued to the sole. Most manufacturers of handcrafted shoes – and there are only a handful in the U.S. such as Allen Edmonds – use the much more time-consuming, superior Goodyear-welted construction. It’s the key to a quality shoe that holds its shape for years, and enables the shoes to be re-soled or “recrafted” time and time again.