If you’re going to start a shoe company from scratch, you might as well train your sights on the best. Andrew Svisco founded Parkhurst less than a year ago, but already he’s talking quite seriously about creating shoes and boots that stand up against those produced by giants of the game: Allen Edmonds, and even the hallowed Alden.
Bold? Absolutely! Crazy? Perhaps. Possible? As Svisco himself will tell you, only time will tell. But it’s that attitude, and former stock analyst Svisco’s dedication to figuring out how to design and manufacture a top-quality, made-in-the-USA product at an around-$300 price point, that makes Batavia, NY-based Parkhurst a brand very worth paying attention to.
For this Stitchdown Conversation, I talked with Andrew about his stringent commitment to US-made components and labor, how he’s hoping to play the same league as Alden despite being in business for six months instead of 134 years, and why Parkhurst’s first offerings were boots even though the idea formed in his head as a shoe company (don’t worry, the shoes are on the way very soon).
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Stitchdown: I’d love to start with how Parkhurst began. Can you take me from the original idea to where you are today?
Andrew: So I used to work as a stock analyst for one of the big banks. And I start seeing these shoes that people are wearing around the office, and all of them look the same. They’re just kind of cheap, made overseas, not really a quality product. But they had the big name behind them and people think that because they spend $400, or $500, maybe even $700 on a pair of shoes, that they’re going to be they’re going to be great. When really, it’s just the name.
And with the boots, they all looked the same—oversized, round toed, bulky work-style boots. So I wanted to do something to change the image of the American footwear industry. Because if you go to Europe, or to Asia, everything that’s coming out of there right now—in footwear and men’s clothing and fashion—it’s got such design and inspiration and character behind it.
So what I wanted to do, first of all, is make a product that was going to stand out from everything else that was made in America. And second, I wanted to go to create something that I can produce at a reasonable cost—and sell obviously a lot cheaper than your $400 or $600 boots and shoes. You look at companies like Alden and Allen Edmonds, and they’re fine companies. But a lot of feedback I’ve been getting from the retailers that I’ve visited is that Alden’s wholesale prices are just going up so much. Their cheapest shoe is pretty much $580 now. And then with Allen Edmonds, the feedback was that wholesale price is going up while quality was being sacrificed.
So I knew that there was an opportunity. I came up with a business plan to create something different and change the image of American manufacturing, and American footwear fashion, and pitched it to a local factory owner and they took me on, and we started developing and producing some samples. Next thing I know I was going to New York fashion week with my boots samples in a Ziploc freezer bag in a backpack, and showing them to random company owners. And that was a really good experience for me because I found a lot of mentors and connections from it.
We did two events with a local J. Crew store that performed pretty well in early 2018, and then I started to get some wholesale orders. I just decided, hey, I’m going to take this leap. I had orders by then. And working in the past five years in my day job, I was able to save and invest a lot of that money, which provided startup capital for launching and exploring something like this.
Another area of inspiration was from my grandparents. Parkhurst is the name of the street that they live on. I wanted to create something that was going to resurrect and preserve my grandfather’s work ethic. He was a steel mill worker for most of his career. He worked at several steel mills—the reason it was several is because they kept closing down, and jobs were essentially shipped to China. But he loved what he did.
I knew that was going to be important to make my product here in America because the American shoe industry is dying. It’s nowhere near what it used to be. Cost of labor has gone up. Cost of material components have gone up, especially if you’re using premium materials. These are all factors that can kind of really weigh on a factory. Next thing you know, you’ve got to charge a higher wholesale price, so then you’re scaring off retailers. And your retail price has to increase, so you’re scaring off consumers. It’s a challenge for sure. A few other made-in-USA boot and shoe companies out there, they’ve had to discount their inventory like crazy.
I’m still trying to find the price point that my customers want. But I think that these past six months have been very telling, and I think I’ve found it. So a lot of what I come out with over the next two to three months will reflect that, and obviously my price will be a lot lower than the next comparable thing on the market.
Stitchdown: What year did you pitch the idea? And then when did you actually have your first sale?
Andrew: Beginning of 2017 was when I pitched it. It took two and half years. I develop everything. I developed my last, I developed my own patterns, whereas all the other made-in-USA companies, they’ve been using the stock patterns, stock lasts, everything’s generic. So for me everything from the ground up is very exclusive. We’re actually in the process of filing patents on some designs right now. I launched the company early October, late September 2018. That was when I started running ads saying hey, we’re here.
Stitchdown: And when you say local factory, is that in Batavia?
Andrew: Batavia is about 40 minutes away from me. So yes, I consider it local.
Stitchdown: What was your experience making shoes before you started on this venture?
Andrew: Oh, it was very much nonexistent. I learned from a cobbler friend of mine—he taught me all the core foundational principles for shoemaking. It was a challenge because a lot of what he said was: you can do this, and make the best shoe in the market. But some of the things that he would mention weren’t always ideal for production.
For example he would say, the best heel pad to use is this leather. But when I go to source the leather, well, there’s a six month lead time. And then there’s a minimum order quantity of 5,000 feet. But we don’t really plan on launching with that many boots, and couldn’t really do that. So we found the next best thing.
But I also learned a lot from the factory. When I first went to the factory, at first it was really overwhelming. Over the course of a year and a half, almost two years, just spent when in product development—all the steps, all the components that are used—the people in the factory took me under their wing, and I learned a lot. A real lot. And real fast too.
Stitchdown: What were some challenges that you ran into in launching the brand and making the boots, that you didn’t foresee going into it?
Andrew: There weren’t really many challenges launching the business because I came from a business background, so I knew a lot of the fundamentals. But my biggest challenge at first, and I would even say even right now, is branding. I don’t come from a marketing or branding or advertising background at all. So I didn’t know a lot of what needs to be done to create a digital presence for the brand, which is obviously vital to a brand’s success.
So I had to learn a lot of things on my own. Like how to run an ad. How to make a website. And just generally producing content and marketing that content and getting it out there. I’m not a marketing whiz, but I’m taking the approach of just being totally up front and transparent. But I mean, it’s working so far.
Stitchdown: You say it’s working. How’s it going? How many boots are you making in a day, or week?
Andrew: We ran production on the four styles I have. I finished those up right at the beginning of fall. And right now we actually only have a few sizes left. I think last time I checked we’ve moved about 72% or 73% of the inventory that we started with. I think that’s pretty good for a company that’s totally new to the industry, with nobody really knowing who they are, or what they are doing. Honestly I think it all just comes back to just being open and transparent about what I do and how I source my material and where we build the product, and how I’m being different than every other shoe brands out there.
We’re creating a made-in-USA product for not that much more than something made overseas. Initially I set out to launch Parkhurst as a shoe company, not a boot company. But it just so happens that the way manufacturing timelines line up, along with supplier timelines, and lead times for materials, it just made more sense to launch the boots first, and then come out with the shoes. So in the next two months or so, you’re going to see completely different styles come out. It’s just taken a lot of time to develop them and test them.
Stitchdown: Can you run me through all the materials you use in your boots and your forthcoming shoes, and where you source them from?
Andrew: So two of the main leathers for us now are Horween’s Chromexcel. Horween’s going to be sourcing their leathers from free range North American cattle, generally. And then there’s the kudu leather, from South African antelopes. It’s a very unique, one of a kind leather. We work with a tannery who works with a company contracted by the South African government to do sustainable population control of the antelope, because their numbers skyrocket from season to season during the year, and a lot of disease can form and spread. So when sustainable hunting is done, the meat is distributed to local towns and villages in need of food. And then I come in and buy the hides, and we’ll have them tanned, and then everything will be made here at the Batavia factory.
So we’re able to support a supply chain of feeding those in need in a different country, while being able to support jobs in our own. The leather I will be coming out with very shortly is coming from free-range, grass-fed cattle in Nebraska, specifically. Grass-fed cattle typically have lower body fat percentages. This means that there will be far fewer fat rolls in the hide of leather—those vertical semi-circular fold marks. Corn has higher cellulose content, hence more plentiful fat rolls. There are also more antioxidants in grass than corn, which help keep the skin clearer to a degree. As far as ethics, I just don’t want to go to mass industrial cattle farms, or order hides from tanneries that use that practice. I just don’t believe it’s right.
Stitchdown: Which tannery is doing the kudu leather?
Andrew: We go through C.F. Stead. Going on to our other components, when we use leather soles, those are coming from Pennsylvania. The welts are from Massachusetts, the heel foam comes from Michigan. Laces come from Ohio, the eyelets and speed hooks come from another place in Massachusetts. The glove leather lining I use is from Wisconsin. The thread is from Massachusetts as well. The insoles come from Virginia. The heel bases themselves come from Brockton, Massachusetts. And then the Dainite soles and heels, everyone knows they’re made in the UK. But as part of my plan to support American jobs, I’ll go through a mom and pop leather shop to get Dainite soles. The only other thing is the Kudu leather, from Stead.
My company is—It’s just me. I source everything, I design everything. And it’s not like I’m relying on another line of the company that’s made overseas in order to introduce the made-in-USA line. Which is becoming increasingly popular over the past five or six years—where companies will take a line that they would produce overseas, and then have a factory in the US make a made-in-USA line for them, just so they can say that they make something in the USA. For me that’s not—that’s stupid. I wanted to do it solely from the ground up.
You’ll also see a lot of companies that are based in the US, but have the product made overseas, and then the market it with this classic American heritage lifestyle approach. I was just confused by that because it’s like, well, your product’s made overseas. So for me that just created a lot of confusion and conflict. There was almost kind of a paradox.
Stitchdown: Who would you say he’s doing that?
Andrew: I don’t know if I should be saying names. But I know three companies offhand that literally everybody in this industry knows of that are doing it. And I know that they’re doing it because I’ve contacted some of the factories for my own development and they were saying, oh, well they do this. And then a couple of my mentors who had connections with the companies at the time, which was very recently, within the past six months—told me that they were doing it too. But I’ll give you a hint: go to these companies’ websites and see if they have a line that’s made overseas, and if they have a line that’s made in America. And I can tell you that for a couple of these companies, the one line is supporting the other. And I decided that that wasn’t a position I wanted to be in.
Stitchdown: So, doing everything here, and using these materials, how do you get to that price point around $300?
Andrew: Honestly, it’s not just one thing. It’s about the combination of many different working components and people you can put together. We’re in an area where we have a lot of skilled labor, so they know how to create different parts of the shoes and boots, and they know how to do it efficiently and effectively. And at the end of the day, when we ran time trials and cost analysis, we found that, hey, we don’t really need to charge $400, $450, $500 for a pair of boots.
And then it also comes into play how we source our leather. The tanneries I’m working with, and the mom and pop leather shops, they’re not selling leather too crazily expensively. So I’m able to get a lot of either limited run leather or regularly stocked leather, something like color 8 Chromexcel or natural Chromexcel. And honestly once I put all those things together, I came to the realization that we just don’t need to charge $450 for what we’re making. It’s really about providing a better value for people out there.
With made-in-America shoes right now, you’ve got Wolverine boots that are starting at $385 a pair. You got Allen Edmonds, and every single pair of shoes for them is $425 and up. You’ve got Alden, who’s raised their prices to like $560 to $580 minimum. You’ve got Red Wing, and Chippewa, and Danner that are all staying right around that $300 price point. But you’re getting a pretty much a work boot at that point, and you’re not getting something that’s designed completely different. So somebody who is completely loyal to Red Wing, I’m not necessarily going to waste my time trying to convert them.
But where I have had a lot of success is converting customers from Alden and Allen Edmonds. I’ve only been in business for six months, but I have a lot of data on what customers would prefer at what price. And all of that data is going to be reflected in the new price points that I release with my new styles coming out over the summer and going into fall here.
Stitchdown: Are they going to be higher? Lower? Similar?
Andrew: Everything is pretty much going to be around $300. The lowest would probably be about $250, $275. And then some of our higher-end models will be around $350. But when we do preorders, we’ll offer a promotion. A couple of styles I still need to run time trials and cost analysis. So the price point might fluctuate a little bit, but it’s going to be about $20, $30 bucks at most.
Stitchdown: You talk a lot about the designs that you have, that it’s not this chunky work boot and that it’s something that’s really unique. Tell me a little more about how you designed them, and what you’re inspired by.
Andrew: The design was born out of what I’ve seen so much of, and I’ve wanted to be different from what I’ve been seeing so much of. You have nobody out there that’s really just making a simple, timeless design at an affordable price, let alone having it made in America. And then you’ve got a lot of companies, the ones that are made overseas, that are just making these crazy weird, intricate designs and patterns, more of a fast-fashion-type thing. Whereas I’m trying to build more of a classic contemporary sort of design that is going to age well. I got a lot of my inspiration from when I was traveling, or hiking or climbing different places around the country.
A lot of it came from modern architecture as well. And I just kind of merge all of those things together. That was kind of how the first pattern really born, the Original Allen. We don’t have any crazy stitching designs on it—everything is just simple and subtle, as it should be. Two new boots I’m looking at developing for the fall right now, there’ll be a little bit more stitching on those. But it’s all for either added design or added durability. Anything that I put into my design, there’s always going to be a reason for it, and there’s always going to be a source of inspiration for it. We’re not just going to throw something in there willy nilly. They’re boots designed with a purpose, and that purpose is for the customer to be able to stand out, and be confident that they’re wearing a reliable product.
Stitchdown: You’ve talked a lot about how this is a different product overall, and how there’s a lack of quality American products at this price point. But this market, to me, still feels crowded, and much more crowded than it did five years ago. Where do you see Parkhurst fitting in there? What are you offering Red Wings fans? Or people who are paying a little more for Truman boots, which are, I would say, not completely dissimilar from yours in some ways. Where do you think that fit really is?
Andrew: Being six months into this, I think that my customer base is going to ultimately dictate where my brand is going to fit in. But based off of my current sales right now, I’m looking at the demographics of my clientele. And believe it or not, a lot of them are actually from an older demographic. So I see myself almost competing with companies like Allen Edmonds and Alden, which is what I sort of set out to do.
For me it’s more about building the following and building the brand, and just drawing people in to see how we’re doing things differently than all the other companies out there. So it’s kind of a tough question to answer at this point, just because the company is so young. But I think that going in the direction that we’re going in, I see one of two things happening: either becoming sort of a conversion brand, or developing a following of its own. The latter is what I set out to do as my primary goal, and the former has been kind of as a result of me being in business for six months and something I’ve even had to watch happen on my own.
Stitchdown: And conversion, you meaning taking people who are committed to another brand, and having them care about Parkhurst? I imagine you’ve got to convert people first, especially when you’re so new, right?
Andrew: It’s a challenge trying to get somebody who’s bought Allen Edmonds for the past 20, 30 years to all of a sudden venture off into a different shoe company, let alone one that just launched this past fall. But the way I work around that is I pitch the branding, the inspiration, the transparencies, and the little day-to-day stories that help build the brand and set it apart.
I had a customer just yesterday, he bought from me and he said that he’s never bought a pair of shoes online before. And this was a guy who sounded like he’s in his mid-30s. I think it’s interesting that we’re getting customers like that. I’ve had customers who say, hey, I wear a size whatever in Wolverine, Allen Edmonds and Red Wing, what would I be in your boots? And the next thing you know, I see their order comes through my website. So I know something is working and I have to continue to leverage that in order to move the company forward.
Stitchdown: Even at this early point, is there anything that you think people misunderstand or don’t understand about Parkhurst, that you wish they could understand?
Andrew: That’s a good question. I think what a lot of people don’t understand, and it’s probably the most obvious thing, is why does a pair of boots costs $300 or $350? Like, why should I pay that? And even after you explain what’s involved in the process, and how challenging it is to manufacture in America while using premium components—it’s tough. I’ve had a lot of my mentors tell me: you should be charging $500 a pair for your boots. And I’m like, well, I don’t need to charge $500 a pair, just because I’ve found a way to produce them very effectively.
And quite frankly, part of being a startup is convincing people why should they buy something that’s a few hundred dollars from this company that’s only been in existence for six months. Right? So what I tried to do to combat that is just pitch the story, the brand, the quality of our construction and materials. Those are the big things that are tough to get in front of people, or to get it to register with them, and quite frankly sometimes, to even get people to care.
You’ve seen a lot of companies come to market the past five years, some of the more prominent made-overseas boot and shoe companies. They get a lot of attention for taking off so quickly, but I know for a fact that a couple of the big companies, the reason they’re big is because they had hundreds of thousands of dollars behind them when they started that were put into advertising. I won’t mention names of companies or anything, but one of my contacts was saying that one of these companies, right out of the gate, they had $300,000 a budget for Facebook and Instagram ads—for the first month. To get the word out there. And it’s just like, well, even if I had $300,000 to do that, I’m not even so sure I would. It’s just crazy.
To be totally honest, I’m not necessarily coming from a background of wanting to put that much money into the company. I could if I wanted to, but I just don’t really think that’s a proper way to go about building the brand. I’m trying to stick to being a small startup, and during first couple of years, building the brand, identifying my customers, identifying what they want. And then after maybe the two year mark, we evaluate and see where the company’s at and the brand’s at, and if it’s appropriate to sink in those kinds of fund at that time, then let’s do it. But I’m not a fan of putting a bunch of money into something right out of the gate in order to attract everybody from everywhere. I have a very targeted market and a targeted consumer that I want to reach.
Stitchdown: Do feel like you’re handicapped, not having a $500,000, or $1,000,000 marketing budget?
Andrew: Doesn’t every business feel a little handicapped without that? Of course.
Stitchdown: I know I do.
Andrew: I mean, it’s insane. I’ll run Facebook and Instagram ads probably once a week or once every other week or so. And we’ll see sales come as a result of those. But at the same time, if you want to scale that, it just seems that since pretty much—like for me, 88% of my sales are coming from Facebook and Instagram, either following or advertisements. So common sense in theory would dictate that if I increase my ad spend, then I should increase the amount of customers that I acquire. But it’s sort of a risk, right?
Like I said, I’m not a marketing or branding whiz. I just know how to make a quality product, and make it stand out, and make it different. But judging by the sales that I’ve had so far and the amount of inventory that I’ve moved, I’m confident that we’re in a very good pace to move forward into the future. But yes, I would love a $500,000 marketing budget.
Stitchdown: What’s the factory called, in Batavia?
Andrew: When I launched it was the P.W. Minor plant. We set up an operation once they closed, and we’re partners in that operation. We also have a partner factory in southern Pennsylvania, that has been doing some development and small production for us as well.
Stitchdown: You mentioned forthcoming Parkhurst shoes—I’d love to hear a little bit about those and other things that you see coming in the six months, 12 months, two years, whatever.
Andrew: Basically I want to be able to produce a better quality made-in-America shoe than a company like Allen Edmonds or even dare I say Alden. But I’ve been able to figure out a way to produce boots at a cheaper cost and sell them at a lower retail price point. A challenge is producing the shoes the same way. But a lot of the components are going to be the same, it’s just a different upper pattern.
So I’m really looking forward to seeing how those are going to come out. Basically for the next year or so, there’s going to be some launches in shoes and chukkas, and they’ll be themed toward the season. You’ll see stuff like bluchers, dress oxfords and different types of leathers to go in theme with what season it is.
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Stitchdown: You talk about competing with Allen Edmonds, which I think in a lot of ways makes a ton of sense. But then you’re also talking about taking a run at Alden—to which I think a lot of people would say, oh man, this guy is really going for it. How do you make up 130, 140 years of experience making shoes in a short period of time, and convince people that you’ve done it?
Andrew: So Allen Edmonds, they’ve been around since 1920 or whatever [ed note: Allen Edmonds was founded in 1922]. Same with Alden, they’ve been around since the late 1800s [ed note: 1884]. The thing is, the shoemaking knowledge and traditions are passed down and cross-trained from person to person in these factories for the most part. And there’s also going to be natural deviations depending on which person learned what, and what type of touch they have. That’s why an Allen Edmonds shoe from 1990 is not going to look the same as it looked in 1940. Even if it’s the same model, it still might be a little bit different.
So what we’ve been able to do is to retain a lot of the labor, and honestly most of our workers are older. They’re in their fifties, sixties. We have some workers in their seventies and a couple in their eighties. And a lot of this shoemaking knowledge is passed down either from generation to generation, or from factory worker to factory worker. We have a good amount of people for whom this is all they’ve done their entire lives, and if they have a son or a daughter, they would say, hey, you should come work for the factory. And then we have a new person coming into the factory learning the skill, learning the trade, and they may end up being retained by the factory.
But this process has been going on for decades, ever since—well, long before I was born. We’re mixing people who know how to make shoes with modern design and manufacturing technology—I mean, the sky’s the limit. I have absolutely no doubt in saying that I can produce a shoe that is going to be better—not on par—but better than a company like Allen Edmonds. And I’m almost as confident to say that it’s going to be better than Alden. But Alden makes a pretty damn good shoe. So maybe that confidence will shrink, after the shoes actually get to market. But based on a samples and prototypes, and boots that I’ve sold to my Allen Edmonds customers, it’s all been positive feedback. And some of them have become repeat customers, which is absolutely thrilling.
Stitchdown: And in a short period of time, too.
Andrew: It’s kind of crazy how we’ve been growing month over month. It’s just great that I’m able to sell my designs, something that I created, to people in addition to selling the philosophies behind the brand and the whole made-in-America notion behind that. I’m just trying to be as up front about everything as possible.
Stitchdown: That makes sense. Important final prediction: you’re from Western New York. I’m not, but for some horrible reason I’ve also been a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan. How are they going to do this year?
Andrew: Oh God. I mean. Oh god. I’ll project this based off of how I do projections for my own business. Based off of how they’ve done in the past, they’re probably not going to do well again this year. But I’m rooting for them. I’m a hometown Buffalonian, and I really hope they pull through this year. So we’ll see. We’ll see what happens. I’m more of a more of a Sabres fan to be honest. Although they haven’t been doing too great the past couple of years either!