Mark Albert Barbera was born into bootmaking—he just didn’t realize it.
When the college-aged Barbera wanted a pair of Chelsea boots, he was dissatisfied with the available offerings and where they were priced. So much so that he decided to make things extra easy on himself by designing and making his own, and selling them on Kickstarter. Along that road he learned that his great-grandfather, a one-time master shoemaker in Italy, had pitched in at the boot factory in his hometown of Somerset, Pennsylvania—the very operation that started making Barbera’s own boots back in 2016.
Three years later, the energetic Barbera—who is still younger than some people’s actual boots—has grown Mark Albert Boots into a full range of service-type boots, engineers, derbies, and more, most of which are based on vintage military patterns he found in his Somerset factory that’s home to Abilene Boot Co. He also recently launched Mark Albert Direct, which offers his legitimately made-in-America wares at very attractive sub-$300 pricing through a direct-to-consumer model that he says benefits his factory workers and the U.S. shoemaking industry on the whole every bit as much as it does the person who gets to buy them for a nice price.
In a wide-ranging conversation (which has been edited for conciseness and clarity), we talked with Mark about how Mark Albert Boots are constructed and where their materials come from, his unique relationship with the factory and its workers, and why he thinks most American shoe manufacturers need to adopt something similar to his model if they want to thrive. Oh, and his favorite pair of boots.
Stitchdown: I’d love to kick off with how this all got started for you—even before the Kickstarter. How did Mark Albert Boots begin?
Mark Barbera: I was always into shoes for some reason, sneakers when I was a kid. And I actually did a lot of hand-painted customs throughout middle school into high school. In college I started getting more into my style, and got more into boots. And at that point I wanted to buy a pair of Chelsea-style boots. But I didn’t want to spend $400 on a pair of Common Projects, and I also thought that the $90 H&M ones were just horrible.
So my dad says, “Why don’t you go to the boot factory and see if they can make them for you?” And I was like, “What boot factory are you talking about?” I had no clue. There was one in town. The short version is I went to talk to them, and it was about eight months or so of development before I had a prototype that I was pretty happy with.
So they said great: we’ll just need need about a $10,000 opening order to start working. I didn’t have $10,000. I was 19 years old. So I took about 300 bucks from my landscaping job, and hired my buddy —who I still work with today, he still does pretty much all my photography—and got him to make a video. We put it on Kickstarter and got the funding. So now the brand is off the ground, but like many Kickstarter companies, there was no website traffic. Just nothing. I was like, oh shoot: “I have to see if this is just a Kickstarter, or if this is going to be a business.” And so I went to a trade show called American Field in Brooklyn and sold 25 pairs in a weekend and I was like, all right, we’re going to keep rolling with it. And it’s just kind of evolved ever since then.
Stitchdown: What was the story with the Kickstarter? How many boots did you sell?
Mark: I had around 150 backers. My goal was $11,000 and I ended up getting just over $22,000 in the 30 days. But I came to realize that in my head I thought, “Oh, you put together a cool video and you go on Kickstarter and bang: you’re going to make money.” And it’s totally not like that at all.
It’s actually very calculated. And a lot of these companies that raise, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars. They didn’t do that organically. They partnered with a marketing company who they paid a retainer of probably upwards of $7,000 to $10,000 upfront, and they probably planned it out eight months to a year in advance, did a bunch of PR to hype it up. It’s a real process launching a Kickstarter. There are companies that are actually just solely focused on that. I got some press from local newspapers and that got me going. But it’s like YouTube: your video or your project’s not going to be found unless it wins the Kickstarter algorithm.
At any rate, it was successful, I got a little over $22,000, and that just gave me what I need it to get the brand off the ground. Our first order.
Stitchdown: Why do you think people bit on something they couldn’t see and touch, and didn’t really know all that much about?
Mark: Yeah, the offerings were really simple—just two men’s Chelsea boots and two ladies Chelsea boots. Same two colors, tan suede and Dakota brown. I think it was really the story. We showed the process, talked about the town, talked about my story. My great grandfather was an Italian master shoemaker. I never even met him. But coming full circle, eight months into my relationship with the factory [ed note: Abilene Boot Co in Somerset, PA, which produces Mark Albert boots and shoes], I found out that he used to come down here and help them with techniques. So I think people really related to the story more than necessarily the product.
Stitchdown: Tell me more about your great-grandfather: he was a cobbler in Italy and then later in Pennsylvania. And you knew about that? Or you just didn’t realize his connection to the factory? Or what was the missing piece there?
Mark: Well he was an Italian master shoemaker, and a prisoner of war in WWI. He left that camp at 70 pounds. He came to the US, was sending money back to my great grandmother in Sicily. And he started this cobbler shop in Somerset in 1936, which is where the factory is located. That’s really all I knew about it. And I had no idea there was any connection at all until I was already working with Abilene Western Boots, at the factory here. And one of the older mechanics said, “Hey, when we were starting up Bender Shoe Company,” which was the factory’s first name since 1948, “Joe Barbera: what a great guy.” He said he used to come down and help us and show us how to fix our machines. And I was like, Joe Barbera, oh shit. That’s my great grandfather. So it was really, really crazy that it kind of all came full circle like that.
Stitchdown: So the factory that makes Mark Albert Boots is Abilene, and Bender Shoe Company was their original name?
Mark: The original Bender Shoe opened I think 1948 in Somerset, and it went through two changes of ownership since then. But we’re actually located across the street from the original factory.
Stitchdown: What other brands does that factory make, or have they made, shoes for?
Mark: I know that they’ve done stuff for a number of brands, but most notably they’ve done a lot of military contracts. The old Bender Shoe Company, they did stuff for the Navy, officer’s shoes. My derby shoes are the same patterns that originally were developed for Navy officers. They also did shoes for the US Postal Service. My original Boulevard boots were based on a pattern that, well, Bender made for prison shoes back in the day. My Appalachian boots are based on the pattern for a boot fit we did for the Marines Mountain School out in California, which was an extreme cold weather boot.
Back in the 80s, the original Bender Shoe Company was acquired by a company called B.B. Walker. And they were located in Asheboro, North Carolina. They had I think five factories at one time. Really big company. They were like a Red Wing. They used to make brands called Golden Retriever, Walker, Titan—a bunch of different work brands and western boot brands. They bought our factory and we were one of their satellite factories. And then around 2000, B.B. Walker went bankrupt [ed note: actually 2006]. And so one of the management guys at B.B. Walker as well as the factory manager up here in Somerset and a few outside partners bought this building out of bankruptcy, and shipped like 11 tractor trailer loads of equipment from Asheboro up to our factory.
And they’ve only focused on the western line since then, Abilene. But we have all of the equipment from this massive company that at one point had five factories. So that’s how I’ve been able to develop a lot of my Mark Albert styles. I have boxes of patterns. If you want to develop a pattern today, it’s an incredibly detailed process and with pattern-makers, there are really none left domestically. Sometimes people can figure out with CAD systems, but long story short, those old patterns dating back to the first factories in the 50s are worth their weight in gold. So I can pull those out and make adjustments in a more modern way. And it’s really an advantage that I have. It’s really cool.
Stitchdown: Backing up real quick, the derby shoes that you said developed in the Navy, do you know when that was?
Mark: They definitely go back to the 60s, so they’re pretty tried and true. I know that the original Bender shoe company that opened in 1948, that’s pretty much what they ran all the time. It was oxfords and stuff for the Navy, boots for the Army. We have patterns for old desert boots. I also have a couple other variations of oxfords, but I just haven’t done anything with them yet.
Stitchdown: How would you describe the overarching style and design of the boots and shoes you create?
Mark: I have access to such a breadth of designs, from work-inspired to dress-inspired to Western-inspired boots. I’m just trying to figure out the ones that we can do best, and then style them in a modern way. Because today, while I’d love to say I’m a super heritage brand, I also have stuff that has sneaker-type soles on it. I’ve tried to be contemporary but with classic construction methods and classic styling and then just spice things up with the materials that we’re using. So really just trying to bring styles to the table that both a guy who’s used to wearing Red Wing or Alden, or even sneakers—he could find something in the line that he would like.
Stitchdown: Can you walk me through the Mark Albert Direct program?
Mark: Mark Albert Direct is a crowdfunded pre-sale model. So all of the styles we put up will be sold at direct to consumer pricing. So we’re not pricing them at $400, which would be what they would be priced at if we were incorporating retail markups. We’re pricing them essentially at wholesale price. And then we are kind of backtracking and saying, we’re going to offer this style. It’s going to release on this day. If you order it, you’re going to get it shipped to your house within six to eight weeks. And then in a perfect world, we’ll use these projections to say, oh, well the Outrider in waxy distress was a really great seller.
We’ll then bring that into an in-stock item and then we’ll always have it in stock—at that same direct to consumer price point. The other cool thing about Mark Albert Direct too is that other boots could be totally limited. If I find 200 square feet of a really cool leather in the warehouse and I’m like, “whoa, we should make these,” we’ll throw them up on Mark Albert Direct. The whole system allows us to manufacture much more efficiently.
I’m still trying to explain it in a way that’s very transparent to people. But the best thing I can compare it to is Taylor Stitch’s workshop model. Essentially what it gets down to is, really any brand, whether it’s direct to consumer or going through traditional retail models, they realize that as they grow: we have to make these bigger and bigger buys upfront where we’re investing in inventory really on a whim because you don’t know what’s going to sell and what’s not going to sell. So this is a way to avoid that, and also a way to really engage with the customers. Also what helps the factory so much is I’m placing orders with them in two week intervals. It allows us to really operate the business more efficiently without drowning in the cost of upfront inventory.
So that’s Mark Albert Direct. You get a chance to really influence our style moving forward, you get direct to consumer pricing, and you’re also gonna find stuff that’s going to be limited and that might never even make it to an in-stock item.
Stitchdown: You mentioned that it helps the factory too. From what perspective?
Mark: A lot. So I work here full time at the factory as well. And the the way that this factory is set up, volume is kind of key. Before Mark Albert Direct, when somebody would order on my site, I would place that order with the factory and then it would get scheduled. Well, the problem is for factories like ours, that doesn’t don’t work very well. Whenever you’re sending through an order, which is maybe 12 or 15 pairs that are all different, for every single machine you have to switch over threads, switch over machine settings. It’s not efficient. And it also results in a higher probability of defects. So with Mark Albert Direct we’re narrowing down the styling a little bit. Certain styles in certain time windows. It allows us to manufacture in efficient batches. So now I’ll place an order of 50, have a style and it will move to the factory all at once. And it’ll be higher quality and less labor-intensive for the workers because the machines are set up the same way for all 50 pairs.
Stitchdown: As we both know, the American shoe industry is not in the greatest state right now. Like you were talking about earlier, factories are closing and brands are outsourcing overseas. Do you think this model growing larger than just Mark Albert Boots could help the industry, help the workers, help this whole thing stay alive in America?
Mark: The problem with the traditional retail model is that it does not at all look out for the manufacturer and the people who are actually making the products. Say you want to make boots for a J. Crew, well, J. Crew’s going to squish you down as deep as they can on your margins. And the guy who’s actually making the boots isn’t going home with any better of a paycheck. So the best vertical integration of a sales model in general is direct to consumer pricing. There’s no question about it. It allows the factory, the actual makers of the product, to have the margins, which is I think how it should be.
There are probably four, maybe five factories in the United States that have the kind of scalability that we currently have. And then there are a number of smaller workshops. And you know, P.W. Minor, who’s manufactured for everything from Wolverine 1000 Mile Boots to Oak Street Bootmakers—they just shut down business for the second time. And they’re not the first ones. I mean, Maine used to have hundreds of shoe factories. There are a handful now. Another example is right in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which is in the middle of the state. Back in the 80s, there were 27 shoe factories in Carlisle. And now there are none. And the biggest, biggest thing affecting this is the traditional retail model.
The way that it works is, a product costs a factory $50 to make, and they’re going to sell it for, in a perfect world, maybe, maybe $90. The brand’s going to mark it up to, say, $200. And then it’s sold to the end consumer. [Ed note: after publishing, Mark wrote me to clarify this section: “hypothetically if the factory price is $100, wholesale price would be about $200, and retail price would be $400+”]. In reality, product’s going to be marked up four, five, six times before it reaches the consumer’s hands. So I think that this kind of a model is really, really important for any American manufacturer to adopt in the near future. And then maybe we won’t see so many Cone Mills and Woolriches closing their doors. The world in retail is changing.
Stitchdown: That makes a lot of sense, and clearly something has to change. As for the factory workers, from the Meet The Makers posts on your Instagram and on the Mark Albert Boots site, you really seem to legitimately care so much about the people who make the footwear for you. Can you tell me a little more about that personal connection? I feel like it’s very rare.
Mark: So first of all just being in Somerset, it’s a really small town. Backing up, if I’m most bootmakers, I fly off to a factory, I give them my designs, and then the communication from there on out is really via email or phone call and then you get your product shipped to you, and that’s that. So every single brand barring Red Wing and Thorogood which have their own manufacturing—that’s how they operate. Me, on the other hand, I live five minutes away from the factory, literally.
So I wake up every day. I drive to the factory where I also handle their western design and a lot of their sales. I’m here at 7:00am sharp every morning, and I’m on the factory floor. When I want to get a prototype through, I go directly to Bev who is going to cut the prototype. And then I take it directly to April, my head seamstress. And I take it too Almeda who’s going to put the insoles on it.
And then I take it to Ginger, who’s going to last the boot. And then to Amber, who’s gonna to inseam stitch it. It’s very personal. The owners of the factory have become mentors to me. The front office ladies are like second moms to me. Everyone on the factory floor, I could tell you 10 things about their lives. When I do these Meet The Makers write ups, I don’t usually have to ask the workers certain questions. I’ve just learned them because I’ve been in this factory with them for three years now.
So they really are family to me. And my absolute best goal would be to provide better for the ones who’ve been here and busting it for so long. I mean, the hardest thing is competitive wages. We’re in rural Pennsylvania. A lot of these people could go to McDonald’s and get not that much lower of a wage. So what’s stopping them? Well, we cover our workers with the best healthcare insurance. I think last time I counted like 43 of the employees are women, middle-aged women. And they’re conscious of their health care and it means lots of them.
We just want to provide the best that we can for them. It’s more of a family to me than a business. And also some of the workers that we have, they really are a family. So Bonnie, who’s been here since 1978, her daughter Ginger works here as well. And then Bonnie’s sister Jen works here, and Jen’s two daughters Amber and Kimmy both work here as well. So it’s a really special environment and it motivates me to do better with the brand because I know the people behind it. So it’s very important to me.
Stitchdown: Back to Mark Albert Boots. Where do you source your materials from?
Mark: Another advantage of me coming in to the factory is understanding that is that the shoe industry isn’t what people on forums and stuff might think—you might think all these companies are massive. They’re not. It’s a very small industry. When I reopened our account with Vibram USA recently, one of their oldest account managers said, “Hey, is Frenchie Humphrey still there?” Frenchie’s our designer, he’s 78 years old, they’ve worked together for 35 years in the industry. It’s a very small industry. So we do try to source everything domestically and actually usually don’t have much of a problem with that between the different tanneries that we work with. We work mostly with Tasman up in Maine, we work with Seidell in Wisconsin, I work with Horween a little bit.
We also work with a few other distributors for leathers. Some source from all over, some get job lots from S.B. Foot [ed note: the Minnesota tannery owned by Red Wing]. For Mark Albert Direct, my focus is strictly on sourcing everything domestically, if I can. And where I can’t, I’m very transparent about it. No tannery in the U.S. tans kudu leather. So my kudu comes from C.F. Stead in England. All my outsoles I’m getting from Vibram USA, our welting comes from a company in Massachusetts. Our thread comes from a company in—A&E, I think they’re in Massachusetts—down to our shanks. Almost everything is domestically sourced. That’s just how we operate.
But then there’s also the tricky situation where there simply aren’t companies making some of these things in the US. Like hardware. We get our stuff from a U.S. distributor, but they don’t have a facility where they’re actually making it anywhere stateside. So though money is coming through and supporting jobs U.S. jobs, those aren’t being made in the U.S. And it’s a small part of the boot, but just because of how the domestic footwear industry is, the supply chain, it’s just not really there anymore.
Stitchdown: Let’s switch to something happy. What’s the greatest pair of shoes you boots that you’ve ever owned?
Mark: Hmm! Construction-wise, probably my boots that our factory made for the Marines. They’re insane. They had to meet military standards. So they’re Goodyear welted with a leather welt, leather midsole Vibram 132 lug sole with brass tacks the whole way around the sole. Steel shank, 100% veg-leather footbed that’s been sewn around as well to reinforce it. And then they have a one-and-a-half-inch wool removable insert that we cut here. Nothing but leather in the entire boot. Double leather lined, like six ounce leather. Just like the most sturdy-ass boot ever. Like totally all guts, not really looks, but it would literally would last for 55, 60 years, daily wear, guaranteed. It’s just a really, really high quality boot. Those are probably the most interesting, durable boots.
And then another really awesome pair of shoes I have are from Maine Mountain Moccasin. They’re definitely loud and I can only wear them on certain days in the summer, but they’re just a bright white moccasin with the white Vibram Gloxi-Cut sole. I can definitely really appreciate the hand-sewns because it’s just a totally different thing we don’t do here at our factory. So I really dig those companies too.
Stitchdown: I think I’m gonna need some pictures of those boots.
Mark: Ha, I’ll see what I can do.
All images courtesy Mark Albert Boots