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In my time working as a shoemaker I have learned a significant amount about the labor that we wear on our bodies every day and what it means to be actively involved in your clothing, not just from a style perspective, but from a labor-conscious one.
There is an art and a sort of life-long apprenticeship and a self-imposed apprenticeship that goes into shoemaking. Many different skills come together in order to complete a single pair. We map out a pattern, mark and cut the uppers, stitch them together, carefully cut the insoles, tack and glue the upper to the last, attach an outsole, and at the end of it you have a piece of clothing that has really had an incredible impact on the way we live our lives today versus thousands of years ago.
Over the centuries we have evolved this process in ways that both protect our feet and make them look better. It’s actually quite amazing that in this particular area of our lives we have created something that has helped us to simultaneously achieve more in our daily lives and look better while doing it. And yet, in much of the world people still live without the luxury of shoes. What’s worse is that the parts of the world that have the largest populations of people living without shoes on their feet are the same parts of the world that host the largest number of shoe manufacturing facilities.
The modern world has become so far removed from the process of creating the products we wear that all we connect with is how it looks and how cheap we can get it.
It’s as if the clothing industry is going through the same manufacturing succession that happened in the food industry over the last fifty years. Outsourced labor in incredibly poor conditions is the high fructose corn syrup of the modern day apparel industry, and shoes represent the very beginning of that trend I think. Fast fashion is the diabetes of today’s average consumer.
Just as nutritionists are telling us to get back into our kitchens and start cooking our food from real ingredients, we need to get back not only into the kitchens that cook what we put into our bodies, but what we put on them.
The end result is a product that we can connect with more deeply because we know more about where it came from. The reality is that we also have a product that is more often than not of higher quality, lasts us longer, and is actually healthier for us.
Part of the problem with cheaply made shoes isn’t just their origin and the horrific labor conditions that come along with it, but the material inside of them. Plantar Fasciitis and other foot related health issues are on the rise for a variety of reasons, but a major one is that there’s nothing in our shoes supporting our feet.
Let’s take a look at a formerly U.S. made shoe. The cost of a pair of American-made Converse All Stars or “Chucks” in 1957 was $6. Today they cost roughly $49. Interestingly enough, $6 in 1957 has the buying power today of $50.59 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means that in nearly 60 years time, despite dramatically lower labor and materials costs as a result of moving production overseas, Chucks have managed to remain the exact same price. Today we pay the same amount of money for a lesser quality product, and the additional profit goes to the company.
Now in the defense of Converse, a bankruptcy reorganization in 2001, which was the result of a sharp decline in sales throughout the 90’s, lead them to this decision to go overseas or go home. U.S. Shoe manufacturing is a $2 billion industry, which pales in comparison to global footwear manufacturing which rakes in $195 billion in revenue according to a study from Ibisworld done in January of this year.
The problem is that labor costs cannot compete within the manufacturing structures we once created here at home. The future of shoe manufacturing in the United States relies upon new technology and new business models, along with consumer education.
For too long we have relied upon the meat industry mentality of removing the product as much as possible from its origin. If we don’t see where and how our clothing is made we don’t have to feel badly about it.
Part of the reason we created Benjamins was not only to make quality shoes that look great, but to disrupt an industry badly in need of disrupting. Our first and only brick and mortar shop combines manufacturing and retail into one space. We don’t even have a back room, although scattered papers and half-empty bottles of scotch have made me question this choice ever so slightly. The goal is to reconnect consumers with the process that creates what we wear.
More recently people have referred to it as a “maker movement” or inferred that this is a trend, something temporary, but we strongly believe that it’s the result of a desire to go back to making the things we put onto our bodies, to being connected with that process. Our model is based on low overhead, old world craftsmanship combined with new technology, direct to consumer sales for lower costs, and the help of the Internet to reach enough people to drive business and grow into more than just shoes.
Everything is made in-house by our small team, from design to finished product. Then we can tell you without question that the quality is the best we are able to achieve, and that the process for getting to the final product is the best we are able to achieve as well.
Pull back the curtain and hopefully the reality creates a change for the better for all of us.
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