Crafted | Oak Street Bootmakers

Watching people hand sew shoes almost always seems to mesmerize me. To say shoes are “handsewn” doesn’t often elicit much of a response from people, but when you actually see the process of making these shoes one stitch at a time, handsewn shoes earn a whole different level of appreciation. If you attended one of the last few Pop Up Fleas you may have met Oak Street Bootmakers founder George Vlagos, who was on hand fitting people for shoes and answering questions about his handsome collection of shoes. Over the past several years the brand has garnered a lot of attention online, but for many the Pop Up Flea was the first time actually seeing the Oak Street shoes in person.

With the making of this video, Oak Street goes where many have gone before (into the factory), to better explain what goes into making its shoes. It is really the first look behind the scenes of a company that has developed a pretty remarkable following. While this sort of approach is certainly nothing new (from either an ACL coverage or brand marketing perspective), it is still something I want to see. All brands that are making products in a traditional way, making shoes in a place that is cost prohibitive (read: onshore), should be telling this story. Frankly, it all wouldn’t really matter at all if Oak Street didn’t make such good looking boots. But they do, so just happily accept it as a win-win.

Comments on “Crafted | Oak Street Bootmakers

    Andrew on February 28, 2012 12:27 PM:

    I receive a pair of the Vibarim Sole Trail Oxfords a few weeks ago and absolutely love them. Originally I ordered what felt like a half size too large, emailed George (the owner) about it, and he sent me another pair to compare (which ended up being the correct size for me). I’d definitely recommend OSB to anyone looking for a quality, handmade, and super comfortable shoe that should last for years to come.

    matthew langley on February 28, 2012 1:03 PM:

    I have a pair of the beefroll loafers. These are beautiful shoes – if you thought that the Bass Weejun was the gold standard – as I did for years. You are going to be surprised in the best of all possible ways.

    I practically live in loafers and driving mocs and I have had loafers from a bunch of high end shoemakers – these are the real deal.

    Michael on February 28, 2012 1:11 PM:

    Glad to second you Michael. George and these impressive shoes are highly recommended. Thanks for sharing.

    Andy Dane on February 28, 2012 1:12 PM:

    As a life-long Chicago resident I am always pleased to support local entrepreneurs
    (OSB) and a legacy company (Horween). George designs a helluva product. Let’s bring more product design and manufacturing back to Chicago.

    Isaac on February 28, 2012 1:13 PM:

    I’ve had a pair of their boat shoes for almost a year now, and they’re fantastic. Been eyeing numerous other pairs since, especially the natural penny loafers.

    I’ve also been lucky enough to interact with George, and he’s a great guy – fantastic at customer service and very driven. I had the same half-size-too-large issue and he took care of it quickly. (Order half a size down if you’re going sockless!)

    Gary on February 28, 2012 2:12 PM:

    Now this is what I’m talking about. What’s the difference between the cool old tools around this workshop, and around a retail environment? These tools are being USED to create the product, not to create a brand. (that they do create the brand as well is a side bonus). These shoes are expensive, but it’s worth it to support the kind of craftspersonship that is on the verge of disappearing. They are real while a bunch of stage props in a retail environment are fake. It may seem like a small distinction but an important one. Hence, something like the aether stream trailer annoys me while something like this is pretty awesome.

    Objects of craft want to be used for craft, not to provide a sheen of “authenticity”.

    Michael Williams on February 28, 2012 2:18 PM:

    Gary, I think you are being short sighted. Ever thought about making seam sealed jackets in North America? It’s not an easy thing to do. Making handsewn shoes is not easy either, but I think you are glossing over the realities of what Aether is really doing. It’s either you don’t understand or you are purposely ignoring. Either way, you continue to persist with this line of comments. Is it just talking to hear your own voice?

    mat on February 28, 2012 2:30 PM:

    i can appreciate this, from over the pond. love seeing stuff like this.

    Brian on February 28, 2012 2:41 PM:

    I really like Oak Street’s shoes and I love that they’re made in the U.S. — so please don’t take this the wrong way or anything — but I’ve always thought it was odd to have the company based in Chicago but the boots made in Maine. To me it makes them kind of interchangeable with, say, the boots and shoes Epaulet carried.

    Also, it’s “short-sighted,” not “short-sided.” The latter sounds like an awful way to make a bed.

    Gary on February 28, 2012 2:44 PM:

    Michael Williams – actually, Aether’s actual products look fine to me and I have no doubt a lot of work goes into them. It’s the styling of that trailer specifically that I found kind of grating, with its Scotch bottles and typewriters and hand tool set dressing, and I don’t think I was the only one who did judging from the comments. I was just trying to unpack why that might be.

    I think it has something to do with tools actually being used for making something – ace. Tools being used decoratively for ‘branding’, not so much.

    Michael Williams on February 28, 2012 2:44 PM:

    I would think it strange to make handsewn shoes anywhere but Maine.

    And Gary, I’m all for you not liking something. This is America, where you are free to dislike whatever you want for whatever reason. The thing that is basically annoying to me about your argument is the fact you just keep saying the same thing over and over. We get it, you don’t like tools unless they are making shit. Noted. Some of us don’t care. Move on.

    Brett O'Bourke on February 28, 2012 3:14 PM:

    On one hand, there is little choice. What very, very little remains of the US shoe industry – people with the skills (and it really is an amazing and difficult skill to do well) to make shoes by hand – is in Maine. There are remnants here or there scattered through New England (and, I guess, Allen Edmonds is in WI), and I’m sure there is a part of George that wouldn’t hate the idea of being able to make his shoes closer to home, but – and this is the other hand – if you want the very best you do it in Maine.

    I’m admitedly bias (I made the video), but having spent time with George and seeing how he does business, his passion and clear vision for Oak Street (he could be charging twice as much for his shoes; his retailers certainly wouldn’t mind) and his plans for the future – this was easily one of the best projects I’ve worked on in a very long time. The experience completely changed my buying habits; I now to try to find an American made alternative with every significant purchase. George is a really great guy who is (startlingly) excited about shoes in general and Oak Streets in specific … and the shoes … oh, that sweet, sweet natural Chromexcel … the shoes are sublime.

    Ray Hull on February 28, 2012 3:43 PM:

    I gather that those hundreds of thousands who made shoes in Massachusetts are no longer among us. The last high-quality shoe I recall and owned, coming out of Brockton, MA were a pair of killty-tasle FootJoys. I wore them to death for probably 20 years and they were just rotten when I finally parted with them. Coincidentally, poking around ePrey today, I spotted a pair of their regular penny loafers (7.5 D, in aligator) available from a seller in Bucks County. Magnificent; snag ’em if they are your size!

    JP on February 28, 2012 3:49 PM:

    Very nice. Always appreciate the artistry and workmanship that happens behind the scenes… I’m an artist who feels a little out of place as I’m always landing a job on the production end of the process, when I’d prefer to be on the creation side. But seeing footage like this makes me appreciate my place in the process, and happy that there’s a creative mind here on the production end. You want artistic eyes and hands throughout the development process if you can, I would think. Anyhow Michael, always enjoy your posts. Keep pushin’ it. -jp.

    JSQ on February 28, 2012 5:52 PM:

    I hear there are some people in Berlin, WI who have been hand-making boots and shoes for a minute.
    Guess they better hurry up and move to Maine.

    Michael Williams on February 28, 2012 5:56 PM:

    JSQ — they’re doing private label now? That’s news to me.

    bill on February 28, 2012 6:25 PM:

    I’m so confused….I guess I wonder why gary is so adamant about trying to get his point across about how he is so against tools without a purpose in a fabricated setting? A purist of sorts it seems or could it be that he himself is just that…”a tool without a purpose”? Gary please do not correct my grammar or word usage . all is in good fun. I know your just defending staged sets with artificial authenticity. Different strokes for different folks i guess. I channeled oakstreet and wilkee birdsall so much i copied a bit of their site design. Don’t worry I’ll find my own path. Good post!

    Tim on February 28, 2012 7:02 PM:

    Well done video. Any idea how long it takes them to construct the shoe start to finish? I’m saving up my pennies to get a pair.

    U! S! A! U! S! A!

    Gary on February 29, 2012 8:13 AM:

    bill – that’s entirely possible. Frankly I envy the people who make these objects, and those who have a job with tangible results. Its part of all of our search for meaning. I crave being able to make something real of quality, but I’m stuck in a world of data and bits and tired of it after 20 years. And I am taking it out in the comment section of a blog I really appreciate. Well, good luck to you with your site.

    Sam on February 29, 2012 9:49 AM:

    Thanks for this piece Michael as a Chicagoan and someone that supports the resurgence of quality, American made clothing.

    I thought you would also like to know that Oak Street Bootmakers is opening its own store in Chicago on Oak Street called Independence that will carry its own shoes as well as other American made brands.

    Gavin Logan on February 29, 2012 2:32 PM:

    I had the pleasure of working with George, Tony and Brandon as part of an installation I put together in January called MADE by PROJECT.

    Brandon, a 19 year old bootmaker who learned the craft from his grandmother, drove down from Maine to make some shoes at the show. It was great to see a young maker practicing a craft that has been passed down through his family for generations, while learning about the design and ideology behind the brand from its founder.

    Congratulations to George and his team on their continued success.

    Here’s a video we put together that shows Brandon at work, along with a few of the other craftspeople involved:

    Peter on February 29, 2012 5:13 PM:

    I think it’s cool that areas like Maine have a tradition of specializing in a certain craft. It’s a very European model — and certain regions are very protective of what they see as something they do better than anyone else. I can get behind that.

    The only thing I’ll say is that all the “Made in Maine” shoes — Rancourt, Yuketen, Eastland, Quoddy, Epaulet, OSB — are exactly the same half-dozen designs with different leathers/soles/heighs. I’d love to see one of the factories step it up and compete with Alden in the dress shoe/boot market.

    Ethan on February 29, 2012 6:10 PM:

    I have two pairs of OSB and I love them. Great product, it’s a great feeling opening a box and thinking “I am going to have these a really long time”…

    Smith on March 1, 2012 12:27 PM:

    Harsh comments…hmmm. We all do our part to support who we believe in and what we need more of as a whole in OUR country and industry. Marketing has it’s gimmicks and everybrand needs it’s story. Bunch of Tools.? Anyway… I’ll touch on Pop Up Flea and the great efforts these brands/ their designers and curators put to the table to enhance our industry. As a buyer I hope to buy with purpose. The brands at Pop Up flea are brands we want to collect and support. Encourage more US made brands. Hey, I know my customer can’t afford it sometimes and don’t know the difference in what their buying. They want the look strictly. Most are like this, but we have this great commentary that allows us to voice.
    If it’s $$$ shoes, there’s good reason, voicing it is important too so that some brands aren’t stuck in their old ways, but hearing a younger customer too.

    jiheison on March 1, 2012 2:35 PM:

    “I’d love to see one of the factories step it up and compete with Alden in the dress shoe/boot market.”

    Rancourt makes some dress models, including some (IMO questionable) new designs for Brooks Brothers. Of course, they are still moccasins because moccasin construction is the foundation of Maine shoe-making. Making shoes in the style of Alden is a whole ‘nuther ball of wax as far as techniques, tools, materials and the skills to bring them all together.

    I’m sure it could be done, but I’m not sure the effort wouldn’t be better spent otherwise.

    JSQ on March 1, 2012 3:49 PM:

    MW, I’m not sure what you mean about the private labeling?

    “You wanna handcraft shoes in America, you do it in Maine.” -GV

    I can appreciate the hyperbole as well as what look like some nice shoes and boots, but that’s pushing it a bit far. And maybe a tad disrespectful to some folks who’ve been doing it quite a bit longer. It’s not heresy, but I have my loyalties.

    Smith on March 1, 2012 10:08 PM:

    Also, what about the mocs in the southwest? When I do research and remember the new mexico festivals. It was all made there as well. Yes they are the house slipper, but there are skilled workers. Last show I go to, designers are training the peruvians to make shoes with Pendelton fabrics. Existing manufacturers, but teaching them new patterns to a modern world. Can this happen here? I’m not versed in shoes to know, but to put this effort in Peru and I can find awesome US made mocassins in southwest via Google. This is where the archaic need to meet the handmade that haven’t had opportunity.

    Believe on March 4, 2012 7:05 PM:

    Well the truth is – there are only 3 factories in Maine that make everyones hand sewn shoes. This is why there is overlap in the aesthetic. The Oak Street label is simply a hyped up brand. They are unlined and really not the best quality. IE the laces are sure to break and they will look about 30 years old after a week of wear.
    We should solute the American factories and not so much the brands like Oak Street Bootmakers that cut corners in their product in order to make better profits.
    There are more exiting brands who work in close partnership with these same factories to do better quality and more original styling: Yuketen, Eastland Made in Maine and Palmer Trading Company New York are all true to quality and have an individual take on the classics.

    NEGATIVE VIBES on March 7, 2012 6:12 PM:


    ShoeDogg on March 11, 2012 11:43 PM:

    I think it’s cool to see a new brand doing its thing but when it comes to “heritage” I’d rather go to a REAL heritage brand like Russel or Rancourt than a band just trying to make a claim that seems a bit contrived. Ya their “designed” in Chicago but the it’s Maine that has been making these for years. Yuketen is the real founder of the Vibram bottom camp boot.

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