George Vlagos, founder and designer of Oak Street Bootmakers, has deep roots in footwear. His father, a first generation Greek immigrant, is a cobbler in Chicago, and George didn't fall far from the tree. He founded Oak Street Bootmakers a year and a half ago, and the young company has already captured the hearts and feet of many a well-dressed man (and the women who buy shoes for them). Although the company is based in Chicago, the boots are made in Bangor, Maine. Those of you who read the blog regularly know my obsession with Maine, where I grew up during summers and then lived for five years; I even have a few friends from Bangor! I makes me happy to see such a great business investing in a state I love so much.
I recently took pictures of Oak Street's 2012 collection at Project NY and caught up with George, one of the friendliest and most earnest guys I've met in a while. We talked about the importance of American manufacturing, how L.L. Bean helped his business, and why his cell phone is the number on Oak Street's website.
Yes, my father’s a cobbler and owns a building; his shoe repair is on one half, and the other half is Oak Street. I’ve been around it my whole life, just helping my dad out on the weekends. It started out with shining shoes, and then he started teaching me the craft of deconstructing and re-crafting a shoe when I was in high school and college. After college my dad didn’t want me to be involved in shoes at all. He’s a greek immigrant with a fourth grade education who wanted all of his kids to work really hard--his vision was that he’s had to work with his hands because he wasn’t able to use his brain. So he initially had me working there on the weekend with the intent of showing me that working with your hands is really hard. But it backfired, because I wanted to to do it as much as I could.
What drove you to start Oak Street?
After college I realized that leather-soled shoes weren’t being made, which is bad for my dad's business, because the rubber-soled ones can't be re-soled and re-crafted. I needed new shoes a few years ago, and I was looking for a very specific shoe; I wanted it to be made in the U.S. out of Horween leather, and made by hand. I found some Alden and Allan Edmonds shoes, but the price tags were around $450 to $550. And I was like, 'these numbers don’t add up. There has to be a way to do this cheaper.' And that’s when I started working with my dad and people he’d met in the industry over the past 30 years to price it all out. We realized that the margins of companies who were making shoes like I wanted were pretty big. These companies are making a lot omoney. So I decided to see if it was viable to try and do something on our own with thinner margins and produce a shoe that can be re-crafted with an upper that will last a lifetime. And it is possible, and that’s what we’ve been doing for the past year and a half.
So your boots are all made by hand?
Yes! People can’t believe shoes are actually still handmade. One of the guys who makes shoes for us, Brandon, is nineteen years old, just graduated high school, and realized college was not what he wanted; he wanted to work with his hands. We’re really lucky to have him, he’s awesome and really fun to be around. He learned form his grandma who also works for us, and she learned back in the day from Bass and L.L.Bean before they took their business overseas. She still knew how to hand-sew shoes, and we got in touch with her and she agreed to work with us. She had taught her grandson years prior and now he’s sewing faster and better than his grandma.
I have a soft-spot for Maine. Where in the state are your shoes made?
Our shoes are made in Bangor, and everything is American sourced. We just released a new shoe on Tuesday, actually: the Field Boot. It’s our first shoe that’s not all leather—it’s leather and canvas. The canvas is from America, too; we found a family that has owned this waxed cancas company for over a hundred years. It’s been passed down through several generations; they hand-wax the canvas in Freeport, Maine. They're another example of a family who's been making their stuff for a long time, and fortunately right now they’re seeing a resurgence and a desire to use their canvas. It would have been cheaper to get a canvas from China, and it would still be a shoe made in the USA, but what’s the value of saving six dollars on a cheaper canvas? Our leather comes from Horween Leather in Chicago, and again, it's a family-run business. Anytime I go there, I sit down with Skip Horween and Nick Horween, Skip's son. There are great Italian shoemakers who use Horween Leather. It's the best in the world.
You design all the products, correct?
Yes, I do all the design here in Chicago, and the pattern-maker figures out how to make the design work for all the sizes and scaling. I spend quite a bit of time in Maine at our workshop.
How did you decide to make the boots in Maine?
There’s a lot of people in Maine who have skills (hand-crafting shoes) that don’t exist anywhere else. People refer to shoe-making as a dying craft...and sadly, it is. Our pattern maker passed away a few months ago, and his apprentice from years back just has no interest in doing this anymore; the pattern-maker is gone and there’s nobody to replace him. So you have to train people, you have to keep this tradition alive. Because once it’s gone it can be gone from our country forever. We’re doing our best to get young consumers in our country energized about American manufacturing. We’re playing a tiny role in that movement, but they are starting to get it. Our shoes aren’t cheap, but they're the cheapest they can be; our margins are razor thing. So when you compare our price to our competitions', our prices are better. And what I can promise to my customer is, 'look, if you have a problem, the phone number on the website is my cell phone. You’re going to get me.' And our address is on the website, we’re not some corporate office. We stand behind our product 100%, and being a small company you can call me and say “I wore out my soles," and we'll fix them.
How many people do you employ in the workshop?
We're still small. Depending on the day we'll have five or six people hand-sewing. Some might say that’s negligible in terms of job creation, that we're not making much of a difference, but we’re just trying to do what the president was saying during the State of the Union. We're trying to bring manufacturing home. We’re in-sourcing. And we need people like you to let people know that there’s a movement; I’m only 29, and I'm trying to do this. I hope that this year we’ll be able to grow enough to hire two more people, and hopefully we'll keep growing each year. We ultimately want a workforce of thirty or more people, because that does make a difference.