My experience with vintage shoes has mainly been marked by hasty purchases, buyers remorse, and a closet full of footwear that was oh so tempting online, yet downright disappointing upon arrival. And yet time and time again I find myself scouring eBay, or perusing through thrift stores like a perspective dog owner at the pound looking for a pair of neglected shoes, that “just needs a good home.” You might ask, with my success rate hovering somewhere around my shoe size, why do I willingly fall into a leather soled money pit time and time again? The answer lies in the old gambler’s mentality: because for as many times as I lose, I have to win once in a while. I’ve only ever really struck gold twice, but the two pair below are enough to make me forget all my missteps. Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

I have no idea what year these Church’s tassel loafers are from, nor do I know how many owners they’ve been through in that time, nor do I have any idea as to what type of leather they’re made out of. Hell I can’t even tell what the original color was. What I do know is that these might be the heaviest and stiffest tassel loafers I have ever come across. They’ve probably been polished and conditioned about ten thousand times over the years, and yet the leather still feels as stiff as the day these tassels embarked on their inaugural stroll. They’re discolored, scratched, and could probably roast a chicken if placed in direct sunlight, but I’ve yet to come across a pair of shoes that works better with seersucker trousers. I figure, my feet might be boiling, but at least my legs will be comfortable, I mean that’s a fair trade right?

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Luca Rubinacci wearing Sloops by the Sartorialist

Luca Rubinacci wearing Sloops by the Sartorialist

Based on my eBay searches over the past month, and my constant visits back and forth between my bank account and Rancourt’s site, I think it’s safe to say that my annual obsession with hand-sewn mocs has returned once again.  Every year right around this time, I come back to my quest for that elusive “perfect pair” of camp mocs, but every time, just before I hit that checkout button I always stop short.  I’ve considered Gokey, the classic L.L. Bean model, Oak Street, the aforementioned Rancourt, and countless others, but I realized last night after passing on a pair of vintage Quoddy’s on eBay, that I never will pull the trigger because camp mocs aren’t really what I’m looking for anymore.

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There was a time not long ago that if you asked me how I felt about New Balance I probably would’ve scoffed and said something snarky about how well they compliment boot-cut jeans and banker bros. And yet, as the adage goes “fashion is cyclical,” or as I like to say, eventually you’ll learn to love what you once shunned.  My relationship with the sneakers began in my latter high school years, during which I practically lived in a pair of grey New Balance 574’s.  But as I got older and outgrew my lax-bro sensibilities, those shoes suddenly became a symbol of everything that I wanted to leave behind.

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Yesterday morning, during a phone call with my mom, she regretfully remarked how she knew her vacation with my dad was over because he was “back in his uniform.”  For as long as I can remember my dad has worn a black suit, starchy dress shirt, tie, and black shoes, without fail every single day of the work week.  I’ve always been inspired by my dad’s commitment to his armor (I’ll save a full reflection on this uniform for tomorrow’s post,) but lately I’ve been thinking equally as much about my dad’s off-the-clock attire.

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Before I dive into this, I feel the need to point out that I’m not some Americana fanboy.  Do I find it sad that out of Hanover, Footjoy, Florsheim, Allen Edmonds, Bass, Alden, Chippewa, Wolverine, Red Wing, hell even Nike, New Balance, and countless other brands that once produced their shoes in America, we’re left with only a couple that have stayed true to the states?  Absolutely, but for me, what’s really disheartening is that as we move our production to other countries we might gain cheaper products, but we’re also losing the notion of true American design.

You look at English shoe brands, or Italian shoe brands, or even Spanish brands, and there’s a definitive look to them.  You can tell their origins, their era, their style. On the other hand, if you pick up a pair of American shoes or “American” shoes, they’re just sort of there.  I’ll leave Alden out of this discussion because they’ve always been a brand that’s open to innovation and collaboration, but as for everyone else, they seem content to just keep cranking out the same designs, or worse, stealing from other brands.  It’s not about the lack of products made in this country, it’s about the lack of products made in this country that are worth talking about.  Flipping through eBay listings of vintage American shoes, there’s something dignified about them, there’s a touch of English influence, but they’re also sleeker, the details are more city, less country, but what’s most important to me is that they’re absolutely American, not just in production, but in design.  I’m truly not even sure what it means to be an “American shoe” anymore.

I was inspired to write this after looking at a photo that Ping had posted on Tumblr of his shoe collection, which included a beautiful pair of vintage Florsheim longwings.  Sure his shoes looked so great partially because he’d taken care of them, but there was also something inherently handsome about their design.  Everyday, people scrutinize and discuss the lasts, details, and shapes of Edward Greens, Carminas, Alden, Church’s, Vass, Alfred Sargent, etc. because these are shoes that deserve that analysis, they are thoughtfully designed, and meticulously crafted.  Maybe it’s just the nerd in me, but I wish that all American brands still made shoes that called for that sort of critical eye.

The only sign of hope comes out of the Northeast, where mocassin brands such as Rancourt and Co., have worked to keep production as close to the original methods as possible.  They’re setting a new precedent for American innovation mixed with traditional craftsmanship that I can only hope that other brands learn to follow in the future.  I apologize if this sounded like some heritage blog post circa 2008, but recently I feel like people are searching only for the aesthetic and ignoring what goes into a product, and what makes it worth wearing, I know we now have access to the items we want at cheaper prices, but I can only hope that it doesn’t mean we forget where we came from.


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