Handmade Shoes Over the Years: Revitalizing a Classic Tradition
by Michael Pelzer
Footwear is one of those things you sort of take for granted. You strap on a pair of kicks and make your way out the door, not really thinking about the history behind them.
Unsurprisingly, the original shoes were rooted in need; a protective covering for the soles of peoples' feet to make traversing rough ground a little less taxing. Often taking the form of sandals, man's earliest versions of footwear were usually nothing more than a piece of un-tanned leather or woven plant matter. Over time, making shoes developed into a trade: walk into the main square of a 16th century town and alongside the baker, the tailor, and the butcher you'd find the cobbler.
As shoemaking established itself, footwear became more specialized and stylistic variations more common. Footwear began transitioning away from pure need-driven design to incorporate more aesthetic touches.
The dawn of the Industrial Revolution left few cottage industries untouched, and footwear was no exception. Beginning in the 18th century, large warehouses were constructed to store shoes made by cobblers in the surrounding area in order to sell them in bulk.
By the mid 1870s, shoemaking was fully industrialized and powered by early versions of the machines still used today. Engineers developed specialized sewing machines and novel techniques for attaching the sole and the upper. These advancements enabled shoes to be produced at a rate that was previously unimaginable.
For better or worse, the mechanization of the footwear industry in the late 19th century laid the groundwork for a 20th century revolution in manufacturing that would leverage automation, computers, and a streamlined assembly process.
Footwear has come a long way in the past 150 years. What was once a man in a lamp-lit room producing a couple pairs of shoes a week is now a multi-billion dollar industry pumping out hundreds of thousands of shoes per day.
The factories where most shoes are produced would be unrecognizable to a cobbler from 100 years ago. But for all of this advancement, there are serious drawbacks. Working conditions in many of these factories are quite poor, their environmental impact is damaging, and their disruption of local labor markets is severe.
These facilities were designed with one purpose in mind: rapid production. This speed is necessary to meet an insane demand for consumption of a product that is in many cases designed to break down rapidly.
Massive production facilities like this are used by many major brands; chances are that the shoes on your feet right now were made in a space like this. They produce a sub-par product at a lightning pace only so that it can be consumed and replaced in order to continually maximize profits. There is a better way.
Back to Basics
A lot of companies are pushing against the grain of mass production by working directly with small producers or setting up their own production facilities. Companies like Rustico and Soko are revolutionizing traditional direct-to-consumer production while at the same time ensuring ethical production of high-quality goods. These types of techniques, at least in the fashion world, are tied to the Slow Fashion Movement.
Adelante is at the cutting edge of this type of manufacturing. Our production process is comparable to how things were made in 1890 —some specialized machines, but most of the work is done by hand. While our machines don't date back to the Gilded Age, they are classics for sure; for example our Goodyear WeltMachine is a towering hunk of steel dating back to the late 1930's.
You might wonder why we'd use techniques from a time when there were only 42 states and Puerto Rico was still a Spanish possession. In a word, quality. By producing every pair of our shoes by hand, we can ensure an extreme attention to detail and rigid quality control standards. Every single pair is inspected before being sent and signed by the craftsman who made them. A mass producer could never hope to achieve the level of care and attention given to each pair of Adelantes we send.
A 21st Century Cottage Industry
We may be making shoes the old-school way, but there is nothing antiquated about how we operate. By crafting every pair to order, we can provide customers with an incredible level of customization in both fit and style. We turn around our shoes in 10 business days and send them direct-to-customer anywhere in the world. And finally, we introduce our customers to the craftsmen who will be making their shoes via email and video while the shoes are being made.
Think of Adelante like a Bentley, a 21st Century classic; elegant, durable, and refined. But unlike a Bentley, our shoes won't break the bank!