Shoe production in the US has dropped 85 per cent since 1995 and around 90 shoe factories have closed as companies shift production overseas. Iconic American brands such as Timberland, Converse, Sebago, Johnston & Murphy and GH Bass & Co have all left. One of three remaining bespoke shoemakers in the country, Russell Moccasin survives, thanks to its recasting as a luxury brand in the Far East.
Berlin, Wisconsin (population 5,305 at last count) is home to Clem’s Pizza, Badger Mining and the Flame Diner (Tuesday nights for the meatloaf and karaoke special). Across the street from the Catholic church and just round the corner from McDonald’s sits the town’s only factory, a 600 sq m cement-block garage that – somewhat improbably – produces the most sought-after shoes in Japan. Russell Moccasin has produced its signature Zephyr boot here in Berlin for almost 110 years. This ankle boot – “ideal for the dog trainer and upland hunter,” according to the 1956 catalogue – has become all the rage in Tokyo for its pull-on style and clean lines. Today, a custom-made Zephyr that sells for $240 (€185) in the US will fetch $500 (€385) in Japan.
“We can’t make enough shoes for Japan,” says company president Ralph “Lefty” Fabricius. He’s 6’ 2” (1m 88cm) and a born-and-bred Midwesterner who comes to work in khakis and cowskin boat shoes. Fabricius ambles through the factory, touching every boot and shoe, as we talk. “We’re not a fashion shoe,” he says, “but in Japan our shoes are featured in the fashion magazines.”
Sales to Japan peaked two years ago, but Russell Moccasin’s business doesn’t depend on the whims of Japanese fashion. Tokyo sporting goods distributor A&F has been selling Russells since 1970. The Russell suede chukka is now a staple shoe there. “Japan represents 40 per cent of our wholesale business,” says Fabricius. “We’re not a fad.”
The WC Russell Moccasin Company started out making boots for hunters, trappers and loggers in the Wild West. Abercrombie & Fitch, Sears Roebuck & Co, Orvis and Eddie Bauer first distributed the shoes. Charles Lindberg, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and President Coolidge all wore them.
Bill Gustin, a travelling salesmen, bought the company from Will Russell during the Depression. Gustin stuck with the original name and added more styles. Fabricius joined the company in 1956, married Gustin’s daughter and expanded the line to over 100 styles and more than 110 leather combinations (including hippo suede, shark, alligator and ostrich).
The company’s 35 employees – cutters, hand-sewers, machine-sewers and finishers – still punch in and out each day on the time clock near the factory’s Franklin Street entrance. The main workroom is roughly the size of a tennis court. The floors are cement, while fluorescent lights, clocks and calendars dangle from the ceiling over each workspace. Metal racks on wheels carry rows of safari boots, chukka boots and sheepskin slippers – all upside down – tagged with customers’ names and details (bespoke clients represent 60 per cent of their business). Shoelaces and moulds are stuffed in bins stacked from floor to ceiling. An ancient iron buffing machine that doesn’t look much fun to catch your hand in sits next to 100-year-old industrial sewing machines that are still in use.
The factory has changed little in the past century and is producing virtually the same style of shoes – made by virtually the same shoemakers. “We don’t have much staff turnover,” says Fabricius. Hand-sewer Elmer Schmid and his brother Marv, a machinist, have each been here for almost 50 years. Marv’s son Wayne has split leather here for more than 30 years. Wayne’s son Vince, who has six kids and has worked in the shipping department for 10 years, says, “All my boys plan to work here.”
At Russell each worker builds a specific element of each shoe. They are made with three layers of leather (“triple vamp” in cobbler’s terms), which makes them waterproof, long-wearing (many last over 50 years) and immediately comfortable. If you want to walk miles on safari the very first day you wear your new Russells, you won’t get a blister.
Customers first send in a hand-drawn outline of their feet. (Both the catalogue and website include a form with instructions on how to measure your own feet.) A last, or mould in the shape of each foot, is then made from this pattern. “The key to measuring the foot,” says Fabricius, “is to hold the pencil totally vertical.”
For a triple-vamp boot, a piece of leather is first stretched and fitted around the last to become the outside of the boot. The last is removed and an inner vamp inserted, and sewn in. Then the leather is hand-lasted – pulled tightly over the mould and left for a couple of days until the shoe is dry and has taken shape – then the shoemaker sews the toe piece on. The shoe is next sent to Wayne, who sews its sole on. Sitting at his workstation by a window is Yee Vang, a Laotian worker whose family settled in Berlin after the Vietnam War. He’s sewing the toe on to a Bird Shooter boot, punching holes in the leather with an awl and following with a needle and tapered thread.
Vang’s biceps bulge with every stitch. “It’s hard in the beginning,” he says. “The biggest thing that can go wrong when you’re learning is that the seam is not perfect. If the stitches are too small, the leather will pucker. Ideally, there are four and a half stitches per inch. We start the new guys on the $100 [€80] chukka shoes. After a year or so, they progress to other shoes and boots.”
Each shoe takes 12 to 14 weeks to make and there is no way of ramping up production. “At the moment there’s a backlog of four to five months,” Fabricius says. “We can only make 800 to 1,000 shoes a month – we’re limited by the number of hand-sewers. It takes a year to learn the craft. It’s the same amount of work whether you make a $300 [€240] pair or a $100 pair.” But is this business sustainable in America’s heartland? Fabricius thinks so, but says, “If we can’t get more hands to work, we might end up being all retail and no wholesale.”
Russell Moccasin is bucking the American business trend of moving manufacturing to China. Fabricius says, “We don’t compete with the shoe companies going to China. They don’t do individual orders. We have our own niche and we stay in our own niche.” Still, you will have trouble finding a pair of Russell Moccasins in any us retail outlet. Even Hamilton’s, which has been selling shoes on Broadway (Berlin’s main drag) for 100 years, doesn’t sell Russells. Most of the company’s retail business comes through the internet, catalogues and trade shows, where people come to get measured in person.
In the us, Russell continues to sell to hunters and sportsmen. So how a market 6,000 miles away got so hooked on Russells is a mystery to Fabricius. “Recently,” he says, “the Japanese have been ordering crazy combinations – the Country Chukka in camouflage and green leather.” He shakes his head, baffled. Perhaps Fabricius should spend a Saturday afternoon with his fans in Tokyo.