“This is much busier than Red Wing”, utters our driver, as we travel a near-empty highway. Sparsely dotted by supermarkets, warehouses, and silos, vast fields of green marked our arrival in the state of Minnesota, far from the creature comforts of metropolis. With the city of Red Wing coming into view, we pondered why a world-renowned shoemaker would keep its headquarters in this unsuspecting dot in small-town America. Like any good origin story, it became clear that in order to chronicle the rise of the eponymous shoe brand’s Heritage collection, we would need to visit the source of its genesis.
Nestled in a valley along the snaking Mississippi River, downtown Red Wing resembled the beginnings of a Stephen King film: age-old wooden homes, kids on skateboards and bicycles drinking pop from soda machines, and ‘mom-and-pop’ shops selling old-fashioned candy and handicrafts. Alongside stars-and-stripes flown proudly from flagpoles, we witnessed the city’s scarlet swan wing adorning a number of local businesses.
Adopted from the Native American Sioux chief, named Red Wing, the city’s patronymic symbol is the same one borrowed by Charles Beckman when he founded Red Wing Shoes in 1905. Surveying the streets during a late afternoon calm, it was hard not to notice the winged markings on the boots of some of the city’s residents. Not on the feet of trendsetters, but on those of labourers who had just finished a long day at the grind.
Originally conceived with utilitarian purpose at its core, Red Wing shoes were designed for the working man. Through skilled craftsmanship and the use of sturdy raw materials, the company’s first boots were constructed to withstand hard grafts in the field or factory, and even served as footwear for American soldiers in both World Wars. Cementing itself as a trusted boot to meet any demand, the shoe’s durability and longevity were central to the company’s success; it is for this very reason that the Red Wing Heritage Division continues to draw upon the company’s founding designs to pave the way for the future of its footway collection.
Heritage In The Making
The Heritage shoe starts at the S.B. Foot Tanning Company, a leather tannery in a decades-long partnership with, and now owned by, Red Wing Shoes. As the only shoemaker in the U.S.A. to operate its own tannery, complete control is exercised over the shoe’s materials to ensure consistency and quality. Raw hides sources from American pastures are brought to the tannery to be treated, dyed, and dried, before they are sent to Plant Two only a short distance away.
After inspecting and grading the ‘sides’ of hide for imperfections and quality respectively, the leather is cut using hydraulic die-cutters by a team of experienced craftsmen, ensuring the least amount of leather possible is wasted on the cutting block. While tradition is preserved in age-old production techniques and generations of families skilled in the craft, heritage can also be found in the factory’s machines.
Using the same Puritan sewing machines that were put to work on the first pair of Red Wings almost a century ago, the leather pieces are sewn together to form the upper side of the shoe, utilizing latex-coated threads and triple-stitch seams responsible for the shoe’s renowned endurance. No longer in production, the Puritans are so revered and valuable that the factory has a dedicated maintenance team on-hand to make sure they’re not lost to the hands of time.
After the shoe’s upper is stitched and fitted, it is pulled over a shoe last – using the same kind that were first made for styles like the iconic six-inch Moc Toe and Iron Ranger – to set its shape, before being sewn to the leather insole and traditional Goodyear welt. Following a bottoming process to glue or stitch the sole, the shoe is cleaned, polished, and brushed before rigorous inspection. Ensuring that each shoe is up to scratch and worthy to be worn, the shoe is then boxed and sent away to adorn the feet of a Red Wing consumer for many years to come.
A commitment to traditional manufacturing methods doesn’t remove the necessity to innovate. As we sauntered through the plant’s sprawling walkways, we were informed that alongside the historic cutting tools and welts, at least a portion of production is now automated. Using digitised pens to mark out laser projections on leather sides, a team of workers was seen manning large, automatic Comelz cutting islands, on which robotic arms swiftly cut leather pieces with precision – the same kind of pieces cut by hand on the cutting blocks adjacent. The notion of using hi-tech instruments to create traditional footwear was one that intrigued, but frightened in its implications for conventional craftsmanship.
“Combining technology and the Comelz ensure that we’re using the best possible leather in the boot”, says Mike Larson, Red Wing’s Product Development Manager. Making up a quarter of production for the cutting of its leathers, with three quarters still owed to old-fashion metal dies, the Italian-made machines were not there to replace traditional leather evaluation and cutting process, but to assist them. Larson explains, “It’s actually an improvement on the product, in the sense that the cutter can now look at the whole side on the table all at once, whereas before, they would only have the side partially on their cutting block. It allows the cutter to slow down, look at the entire side, and choose the right areas to cut”.
Aware that the integration of technology is inevitable in today’s manufacturing environment, Larson – who was born to two photographers, and had spend much of his childhood in their darkroom – likens this change to the evolution of the modern camera: “Now with the digital camera, everything is automatic – but it still doesn’t take away from the photographer, who needs to have the eye and the craft to take the pictures. I kinda view it in the same way as shoemaking.”
"Until we can't anymore, for whatever reason, we're gonna keep making them in Red Wing. It's not easy and it's a big challenge, but it's the most important thing for us."
– Dan Dahl, Vice President of Red Wing Heritage Division
Imagination From An Unlikely Place
While Red Wing Shoes champions convention in its core designs, craftsmanship, and even the colours of its collections, the shoemaker is unafraid to introduce change into its formula. Perhaps the most startling observation regarding the classic all-American shoe’s reintroduction to the marketplace is that the Heritage collection did not, in fact, begin in America.
“Before I joined, I loved Red Wing already”, reminisces the soft-spoken Lead Designer of the Heritage Division, Aki Iwasaki. Having worked with the company for 18 years since graduating as an industrial design student, the division’s creative principal first began work in Japan. While Red Wing was mainly known in the U.S. as a workwear brand, the Japanese had already incorporated the shoes in fashion ensembles many years prior. “They were kind of a trend, or the U.S. culture itself was a fashion trend, like the hippie style was fashionable in Japan”, explains Iwasaki. From celebrities to culture vultures in the Land of the Rising Sun, the Heritage story would only make its way back to Red Wing years later.
In an unusual role reversal, Iwasaki was ‘on-shored’ to the small city four years ago to work closely with the company’s headquarters and production facilities. Given unprecedented access to the company’s archives, posters and catalogues that date back over a century allows a constant source of reference and inspiration for the designer – so much so that he has even scanned and copied these artefacts to this smartphone. Showing us a black-and-white poster of the company’s World War I-era boots, he humbly admits, “Even though many people idolise designers, when I design boots, I don't design completely new ones; I check old catalogues to get inspiration. Sometimes I think, ‘I am not a designer. I am an archeologist’”.
But preserving heritage is more than simply calling upon designs of the past. Much of the collection’s ethos is in keeping its production at its birthplace and nowhere else; that they are truly ‘Made in U.S.A’. Despite hiring a Japanese designer to command the vision of an American aesthetic, Iwasaki’s relocation to Red Wing seems to have only reinforced the values of the Heritage line. “It means we are original,” he proclaims, continuing, “When we see ‘Made in U.S.A’ on products, it means they’re still being made at their birthplace. They do not change their ideals”.
Passion Before Fashion
Sitting in Red Wing Shoes’ brick-built headquarters, Dan Dahl, Vice President of the Red Wing Heritage Division, unequivocally agrees: “For Heritage, our whole reason for being is to be a positive halo around the company. We’re trying to do our best to tell the true story of Red Wing, and that includes manufacturing – it has to, it always has”.
Housing a rack of weathered-and-worn boots from his personal collection in the corner of his office, there is no question that Dahl firmly believes in the shoe beyond his corporate obligations – even if it causes discomfort from time to time. “You have to earn them a bit. They’re not comfortable like a sneaker for the first two weeks; they hurt. But once you get past that, then they’re better than anything you’ve had before. You put ‘em on and they feel like they’re yours; they really fit you”.
With Red Wing boots and shoes now firmly cemented as a contemporary fashion fixture, the story hasn’t appeared to tire on its loyal audience. Perhaps this is due to the company’s belief in remaining true to its roots, and, in doing so, avoiding trends and gimmicks. Affirming this sentiment, the nonchalant, skateboarding VP elaborates, “Although it ends up appealing to a fashion side, it's not really our intent. For a core group of Red Wing consumers, it’s not so much fashion as a part of their life. It’s who they identify with, what they identify with, and what they wear everyday”.
And, just like the uncomfortable breaking-in period of a pair of Red Wings, Dahl notes that keeping them authentic is not the easiest thing to do, but the only way forward. “Until we can’t anymore, for whatever reason”, he muses, “we’re gonna keep making them here. It’s not easy and it’s a big challenge, but it’s the most important thing for us”.
Though our visit was brief, it wasn't hard to see why Red Wing Shoes would want to keep its core within the charming little city. Recollecting our arrival only a few days earlier as we neared the airport, a poignant image of the Red Wing city motto came to mind: “Come for a visit, stay for a lifetime”. Like the shoes that put the city on the map, one pair is all it takes to become a loyal wearer for life – and, like the Puritan sewing workhorses that triple-stitch each shoe together, a pair of Red Wing Heritage shoes may stay with you for a lifetime too.
Text & Images Trent Davis