Recently, it was my pleasure to tour the Allen Edmonds manufacturing facility in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Six hours flew by in a blur of beautiful leather, whirring machinery and more information than either my pen or my cellphone camera could keep up with. AskAndyAboutClothes founder Andy Gilchrist, who has very kindly mentored me as I’ve started my own blog (see note below), invited me to share my experience with my fellow AAAC forum members. First, however, I’d like to mention that I’m not actually a fellow at all. I am a female professional who happens to love fine men’s dress shoes. By day, I am responsible for U.S. internal communications for a 145,000 person global company: I craft corporate messaging, create content for the company intranet, and plan events. By night, I research and write about shoes and shoe construction, which is how I discovered these forums. I have learned so much here, from many of you. It seems that every time I Google a term or question – Goodyear versus Blake welt, the difference between an oxford and a derby (or “balmoral” and “blucher,” as some prefer), straight lacing or crisscross – an AAAC forum entry pops up and the information is right there at my fingertips. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience! As for why I love men’s dress shoes, well, I love them for all the same reasons you do: They are beautifully classic, elegant, and comfortable. They are more than a fashion statement: They are armor, and no less so for me than for you. The British designer Edwin Hardy Amies once said “It is totally impossible to be well-dressed in cheap shoes,” and he was right. Unfortunately, most women’s shoes are just that, cheap. Even the expensive ones are cheaply made, using cement construction. If they were comfortable, women wouldn’t carry their shoes to work in a bag or keep a pair of slippers underneath their desks. That’s the main reason I love men’s shoes: One can actually wear them. When I decided to buy a pair of men’s shoes for myself, I turned to Allen Edmonds for help. I went to a store, and the manager measured my foot and helped me choose a style that could be custom ordered in my size, 6 ½ B. My Park Avenues came, it was love at first step, and I became a fan for life. I admire Allen Edmonds for so many reasons: The customer experience, the handcrafting, the heritage of being founded in 1922 and still manufacturing in the U.S. So, when I needed to go to Milwaukee for business anyway, I was thrilled when the friend of a coworker offered me a tour. And what a tour it was. The first people I was introduced to were Colin Hall, Chief Marketing Officer, and Jim Kass, SVP of manufacturing and design. Jim has worked at Allen Edmonds for more than two decades; Colin was brought on board in 2008, about the same time as CEO Paul Grangaard. If not for their collective efforts, Allen Edmonds might have become another victim of the Great Recession. Lucky for us, during that dark time, they talked to their core customers, figured out where the brand had gone off track, and course corrected (which included bringing back their famous McAllister model in 2009). Today, Allen Edmonds’ revenues are up and they are in growth mode, responding to expanding demand both overseas and in the U.S. As I sat there talking to Colin, one question was nagging me, but I was afraid to ask. Would it offend him? I really wanted to know, so I decided to man up. After all, I was wearing my Park Avenues. “What differentiates an Allen Edmonds from an Alden?” When I was shopping for my first pair of men’s shoes, I had considered buying Alden, which as many of you know, also handcrafts shoes in the U.S. I didn’t, in part because the Alden welt appeared wider, and to me, it made their shoes look chunkier. I love men’s shoes, but I do want them sleek. Colin didn’t even bat an eye. “They’re both great shoes, and we have nothing but respect for Alden,” he replied. “We both use excellent materials and techniques, and our manufacturing processes are similar.” He went on to explain that for him, the main difference was more about the business model than the shoes. Alden is a family-owned company; Allen Edmonds has been owned since 2006 by private equity. As such, it has certain growth targets it must meet to satisfy its investors. And then he surprised me. “Our biggest competitor isn’t Alden,” he said. “Our biggest competitor is cheap shoes.” I understand that. According to the American Apparel & Footwear Association (I am such a geek), 98.5% of shoes sold in the U.S. are imported. For companies like Allen Edmonds, it’s critical that customers see the difference between an American-made, Goodyear-welted calfskin shoe that will last for years, versus the “fast fashion” cheaper versions that may look nice initially but last about as long as a Kleenex at a wedding. We started my tour, and the first thing he showed me were the leathers. He pointed out some striations in one piece, and explained that they were basically stretch marks that formed as the calf’s belly grew. He chuckled. “Some customers love those ‘lightning bolts’ and request them; others send their shoes back because they perceive them as a defect.” He mentioned that during the recession, the demand for leathers decreased because auto manufacturers who used it for their leather seats and interiors weren’t buying as much. As a result, the price for cowhide, for example, dropped significantly. Many shoe manufacturers realized bigger margins, because they stocked up on the cheaper cowhide for their products. Allen Edmonds didn’t join in the windfall, though, because they mostly use the more expensive calfskin. They use cowhide on certain styles when they want the look it provides. Cowhide can wrinkle more over time, and is perfect when one wants a less polished look. Allen Edmonds uses it for some of their Rough Collection, for example. I was impressed that they stayed so committed to quality even when they were struggling. The welting machine was one piece of machinery I was particularly anticipating. After all, the Goodyear welt is what, in the world of shoes, sets the men apart from the boys. As many of you know, the welt joins the upper, midsole and outsole together via a strip of leather that runs 360 degrees around the perimeter of the shoe. It enables the shoe to be re-soled time and again when the original sole wears out. The first thing one notices about the welting machines are their age! As you can tell from the photo and 10-second video below, these machines are quite, er, broken in. Colin said that all four of their welting machines are between 50 and 60 years old. [video=youtube_share;GPKKj7h7qmU]https://youtu.be/GPKKj7h7qmU[/video] One thing has changed, he said. “Welts used to come in brown or black, period. But now, Allen Edmonds makes them in a wider variety of colors as people’s tastes have become more eclectic. This small detail creates a fresher, more fashion-forward look on styles where the welt is visible.” One of the biggest surprises was that the number 212 in their famous 212-step process is a minimum, not a hard-and-fast number. My model, the Park Avenue, has 287. The suede, unlined styles – which exist because Jim Kass wanted shoes he could wear sans socks – take closer to the 212. If you think about it, with the range of different shoes Allen Edmonds makes – laceups, driving mocs, golf, boots, handsewns - it only makes sense that some styles require more steps than others. What really struck me as I witnessed the entire process is that many steps require their own particular piece of machinery, operated by human hands, feet and skill. The level of proficiency these workers exhibit is amazing: The precision required to properly mark, cut, skyve, (thin away some leather in places so it will lie flat) stitch, stamp, and burnish is enormous. There is one correct way to put the welt on, for example, and if the operator makes a mistake, the sole must be manually separated from the upper and the welt re-made, just like it is in the recrafting process. There is way more to the process than I can include in this post. If you want to see more, this Allen Edmonds video takes you from start to finish. The recrafting video is also very helpful. Some additional photos from my tour are below. I loved every single minute of my time at the factory. I learned so much, and that Midwestern warmth and can-do attitude emanated from each person I encountered. It was one of those rare experiences that not only lived up to my expectations, but far surpassed them. After my tour, I can honestly say I look at my footwear differently now. They’re not just shoes; they’re someone’s legacy, and I think about that every time I put them on. If you know anyone who enjoys reading about shoes and fashion for the professional woman, please tell them about my blog, WingtipWomen. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @wingtipwomen. Huge thanks to Andy Gilchrist for his encouragement and guidance. And again, thank you, forum members, for sharing your knowledge in this space!