My partner bought new shoes. Approximately every three to five years, he wears out a pair beyond what our local shoe repair shop can fix. And the search begins. As someone who is keenly attuned to labor issues (low pay, sub-par working conditions), the idea of going to the mall and buying the latest styles that were made in China just isn’t his thing.
This time, it is his brogues that have given out and he is taking up the challenge to buy made in the USA. Fortunately, for men, there are a number of choices for high-quality men’s shoes.
A friend recently sent me an article from CNN Living about pop-up menswear markets that feature items that have been made in the U.S. The featured market was NorthernGRADE Chicago – an expansion of our own Twin Cities NorthernGRADE. The annual market features companies like neck-tie maker Pierrepont Hicks, leather goods by J.W. Hulme, sportswear from Alial Fital and Nonnie Threads which makes both men’s and women’s wear.
As the CNN Living article reports, NorthernGRADE is not the only pop-up market that focuses on American-made menswear. New York has Pop-Up Flea, Boston has American Field and NorthernGrade itself will be having additional pop-ups in Denver, Nashville and Moscow. Here in the Twin Cities, there are also bricks-and-mortar menswear shops that emphasize American-made brands such as Martin Patrick3 in Minneapolis and Black Blue in Saint Paul.
My partner and I attended the first NorthernGRADE market which took place in a Minneapolis antiques / architectural salvage store in Northeast Minneapolis. Not really knowing what to expect, when we walked in, we learned that a prize would be awarded on the basis of how many articles of U.S.-made clothing we were wearing. I remember taking off layers, looking at labels, discreetly trying to find the manufacturer labels in skirts and jeans. It was a fun exercise in raising our consumer consciousness about whether (and how often) we wore American-made clothing on a daily basis. We did respectably on our American-made apparel, but only because we are both vintage shoppers and had on a few garments that were forty+ years old.
What I also remember from that first NorthernGRADE menswear market is that we left empty-handed. Everything on display was beautifully crafted and classically stylish, and correspondingly, pricey.
There’s the rub. U.S-made is relatively expensive. In fact, Made in the USA as a “brand” is associated with luxury. When browsing the shops that feature American menswear, I’ll admit to appreciating a beautifully-made shirt and then looking at the price tag and thinking “Well, that’s out of reach.”
My initial thought as to why this is so was that American-made apparel just cannot compete, price-wise, with that made in China. But then I realized that’s not necessarily the case. The price of an American-made shirt in fact might be comparable to the full-price merchandise sold in stores like J. Crew or Banana Republic.
Full-price is the key phrase here. As Elizabeth Cline asserts in Overdressed, we, as American consumers, have become accustomed to sales and never paying full retail price. And so we regard full retail price as outrageously marked up. And, in comparison to what the outsourced garment workers were actually paid (as opposed to what they should have been paid), the mark-up may indeed seem unreasonable.
And that logic that a high-priced garment means that we as consumers are somehow being cheated seeps into the evaluation of U.S. made shoes and garments. A friend recently complained that made in the USA seems like a “rip-off.” Yet Made in the USA is not exponentially marked up – the prices reflect that a worker perhaps had health care benefits or at least hourly wages that didn’t need to be supplemented by government social programs. Perhaps that is the realization that we all need to make if we really want to support companies who are making high-quality apparel in the U.S.
But then, changing how one thinks about prices is a limited strategy. As a sociologist I am very aware that “making an investment” in shoes, jeans or other U.S.-made apparel just is not a possibility for most Americans. For the middle-class, having a few American-made items in the closet is an investment and a way of supporting what few companies remain. But it is simply out of reach (unless one finds items secondhand) for most Americans. Indeed, the CNN article reports that U.S. apparel manufacturing has been mostly in decline (despite the trendy interest in the “made in America” brand). If these companies are to remain vibrant and relevant, we as consumers (if were are financially able) need to make the changes of mindset that will support these companies.
Which brings me back to my partner’s shoes. He decided to stomach the bigger price tag and make the shoe investment – both for the sake of his feet and for the American companies that make the shoes. Here in the Midwest, he found two potential sources.
There was the home-state favorite, Redwing Shoes out of Redwing, Minnesota. This is where my father purchased work boots about every 10 years. I still remember the boot box from Redwing arriving in the mail, and being surprised at the stiffness of the rich brown leather of his new boots when they sat next to his older pair that was scuffed, muddy, scrunched down, and completely molded to his feet after years of hard wear.
For brogues with a little more stylish flair, my partner ultimately decided on Wisconsin shoe-maker Allen Edmonds. The Port Washington, Wisconsin shoe company manufactures an extensive line of men’s dress shoes. After trying on a flashy orange and maroon pair, an olive green pair, and a smoky gray pair, he settled on navy brogues with red laces. He’s had them a week and every day he has said “I’m so glad I got these shoes!” The sturdy leather broke in lightning-fast and he now wears them everyday. It was an investment (that for now he could make) that was worth making.
- Nancy L. Fischer