At this point, you’ve heard the story before. Small American start-up, making shoes and boots in Maine, using Horween leather and Vibram soles – well worn territory, to say the least. However, to write New England Outerwear Co. off as (yet another) late jumper on an already on-the-way-out bandwagon is to miss the point. For NEOC, selling “rugged” and “heritage-style” footwear isn’t some attempt to cash in on an ailing trend. Rather, it’s a way for them to help reinvigorate the economy in their hometown, keep centuries-old manufacturing traditions alive, and, lay the foundation for something that will last – all goals that are actually included in their business model.
NEOC’s co-founder recently took some time out to discuss how the label came to be, the differences between small batch and massed produced goods, and the importance of giving back to where you come from. Here’s what he had to say.
Well Spent: Give us the New England Outerwear Co. origin story.
NEOC: New England Outerwear is a concept my business partner and I came up with years ago, well before we even knew each other. Separately, we both wanted to start a brand that was not only made in the USA, but also made using premium, domestically sourced materials (where possible). At the same time, it needed to be obtainable.
After working at a larger footwear brand, and learning the intricacies of an Asian production driven business, we found ourselves wanting to get as far away from the corporate machine as possible. It was there that the two of us linked up, joined by our mutual want to make a product we could be proud to stand behind, and that people would love and pass down for reuse.
We are based in Massachusetts because that’s where we’re from. We make our footwear in Maine at our own factory, and our apparel and outerwear will be made in MA and VT. Down the line, we would like to have a product made in every state in New England. We want the effects of what we do – no matter how small – to be felt throughout the region. It’s all about loving the place you call home and wanting to do whatever you can to help it thrive and get its many skill sets out to the rest of the world.
Tell us about NEOC’s products.
Our footwear is made in Maine, at our own very small workshop. We have a team of seven people who do everything, from pattern making, to cutting, to handsewing, to finishing. They are the best of the best, and we are extremely lucky to have them.
We have meticulously chosen our suppliers, so that we’re utilizing the best the industry has to offer in terms of raw materials. Chromexcel leather from Horween Tannery in Chicago for our uppers, raw veg-tanned leather from Wickett and Craig in PA for our full leather midsoles, Fairfield Canvas from NJ, Vibram made-in-MA outsoles and Maine-made threads to hold it all together. Aside from the crepe we use (which originates in France), just about everything is sourced in the good ol’ US of A.
Tell us about NEOC’s factory.
While searching for a factory to make samples of our footwear patterns, we came across a group of guys who were handsewing moccasins for a small store in Japan. Over time, we developed a relationship with them, and they offered to partner up and make shoes exclusively for New England Outerwear. At that point, their shop had very little of the equipment required to make really well-crafted shoes, so, we connected with one of the only shoe machine refinishers in the country and invested a good amount of money to get things on the level we needed them to be at. All the machines our shoes are made on are from the early to mid 1900s.
The people we have working for us are amazing, and they are the company’s lifeblood. All of our stitchers have been performing their craft for ten, twenty, even thirty years. Their skill is unmatched, and they take great pride in what they do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen them tear a whole shoe apart and start over just because a stitch was a bit too long, or an upper got scratched during the sole finishing process. It’s true craftsmanship, not factory work.
Now that the factory is up and running, we’re looking for some younger people to teach the trade to. Eventually, we’d like to have a complete shoe-maker training program set-up.
There are a number of Maine-made shoes on the market these days. What separates NEOC’s from the pack? Also, why did you decide to launch with footwear?
We decided to launch with footwear because that is what we know – we’re footwear guys. It’s a huge undertaking to start a footwear brand, let alone a factory, but we just kind of went at it full-bore and didn’t really consider the whole “fail” option. I guess if you want to do something bad enough, you’ll do whatever is needed to make it succeed.
As for why we’re different, the majority of the “Maine Made” handsewn brands don’t actually make their own shoes, nor do they have their own shop. Even though they’re super reputable and have been around for decades, their products are being made in third party factories, and often right along side the shoes of their competitors.
Another difference is our pricing. We went to extreme lengths to make sure we personally could afford our footwear at the price points we have. In some cases, we are inline or just a bit higher than brands that produce in Asia. And, as we grow, we are going to do all we can to assure that our prices stay as low as we can get them, while still being viable.
Lastly, while we make our products using traditional methods, we do so with the modern consumer in mind. This is part of why we’re also going to be making clothing. We will be the only brand to offer a full head to toe look, all fabricated under the same ideals. For us, it’s not just about clothes, but a whole lifestyle.
This fall, we’re coming out with a jacket that’s based off of a 1940s farm coat we found. Canvas, rugged as hell, something that’ll keep the wearer warm and dry while still allowing for movement.
For spring 2014, we’re going in more of a “summer in New England” direction. Still ruggedly constructed, but light and airy. Breezy cottons and coated ripstop. Linens and 60/40 mixes. Might even throw in a fine weave waxed canvas.
The great advantage about being from New England is how much we have to draw from in terms of inspiration and direction. It’s the only place in the world like it. You can surf and ski in the same day, and then still meet friends in Boston for drinks. Not to mention, it’s the oldest part of the country, so the history here is like nowhere else, from architecture, to art, to famous families – we’ve got it all in one location.
Aside from outerwear, and more footwear, what other NEOC products can we look forward to?
We have some accessories coming out in the next week that include belts that are made by a small family of leather workers, and wallets that are made by us right here in MA. We’re not trying to be a small accessories maker by any means, but we saw an opportunity to reuse some of our excess footwear cuttings, and keep them out of a landfill. Everything is very simple and clean – functionality is a big thing for us.
We also have a five panel cap that is being made by Ebbets Field Flannels. It’s a grey wool cap with blue brim and chromexcel leather back strap that matches the leather on our footwear. Details make the difference! We should have about 50 of those come mid April.
We have what should be a very cool collaboration with Freeman Seattle using some Woolrich fabrics for Fall 13. Another thing to keep an eye out for are our limited edition fly fishing belt buckles, which are hand-cast in RI and then finished in NH by a local artist.
We are looking at some knits made by a local mill in MA, as well as socks and a few other items. Really, the possibilities are endless, from footwear, to forged metal accessories and tools, to, who knows, maybe even furniture some day… we can dream at least.
What would you say to someone who’s still on the fence about buying from NEOC?
We stand behind everything we make and sell, and guarantee that you will always have a positive experience with us. What’s more, when you buy from New England Outerwear, you’re not only getting a great pair of shoes that will last (and last), you’re also helping to build something sustainable for our community, and country.
For price and purchase info, visit New England Outerwear Co.