Wesco boots are built for life—and Chris Warren’s own life has been plenty full of them. Warren took his first job with the 101-year-old bootmaker because his father swore by his Wesco boots while working as a millwright. 17 years later, he’s a decade into serving as the company’s sales manager—but really, that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg of bootsponsibilities for him at Wesco.
As is the case at most great shoe and bootmakers, Chris’s long tenure and range of knowledge is anything by unique among Wesco’s key employees—which results in an impressive continuity in terms of the manufacturing process and overall boot religion of the outfit based outside of Portland in scenic Scappoose, Oregon.
For this iteration of The Stitchdown Conversation, I spoke with a distinctly affable, open-book Chris about the history of Wesco (short for the West Coast Shoe Company), its deeply unique and interesting custom-build process, some of the craziest leathers customers have tried to build boots with, and how Wesco’s transitioned into creating lifestyle boots without ever getting away from the core of what constructing a Wesco boot means.
Oh, and where to get the best chicken and waffles in Portland.
Stitchdown: I’d love if you took me through the Wesco story, from the beginning until today.
Chris: It all starts with the story of our founder, who was our current CEO’s grandfather. And his name was actually John Shoemaker. He came west, and meant to make it to Seattle, but he ran out of money and ended up in Portland. So he kind of just by chance ended up here and there was a company in Portland that was hiring—Bradley Shoe—who needed someone with bootmaking experience, and he ended up working there for five years. He then went to Goodyear Shoe Company in the repair department and manufacturing. So he had about 10 years worth of experience before he started Wesco in 1918.
Our timber boots were the initial boot that Wesco produced—basically our spiked logging boots. We’ve kind of redesigned the lowers so they have removable spikes, but years and years ago they had all the little hobnails and the riveted, non-replaceable spikes and they were leather soled. We’ve updated them in a sense, and a small manufacturing company about 10 minutes from us, a little family-owned business, make the spikes for our timber boots—a little bit longer of a spike, in very hard steel.
We still offer our Timber boot, it’s still a good seller for us. And like with that one, as the company progressed and evolved, each boot had a function. We started with the Timber boot, then about 20 years later, Montgomery Ward, which was out in Portland, they ended up having us make a Highliner boot, which is a climbing boot—telephone poles, lineman style. Then also in that year we created we call our all-purpose, all-around boot, our Jobmaster. And then a year later we did the Boss Boot and it kind of slowly progressed. Each one had a function. Obviously Timber boots were for forestry workers, loggers. Highliner boots, which initially were for telephone lineman, evolved into—we sell a lot to arborists now. And then our Boss engineer boots were designed for welding on the ships during the war years. And then the motorcycle community grabbed onto it and that’s when it sparked again.
Stitchdown: Do you know when that was?
Chris: Probably in the 70s. When we started making our Big Boss boot in the mid-70s, that was geared for full leg protection for motorcyclists. But back to the deeper history, John ended up building boots in the basement of a home here in Scappoose, because the Depression crushed the businesses that he had in downtown Portland—we had about six locations down there throughout those first few years of Wesco running.
So John basically kept the equipment, and he was making boots in the basement and traveling out to the logging camps, fitting people, making the boots and then they’d hand-deliver them. And then as the boots started to evolve and it wasn’t just a spiked boot and it was, okay, we’re going to make a climbing boot, we’re going to make an on-the-ground working boot, we’re going to make a pull-on boot. And that kind of progressed. But in the mid-30s, we actually started making the boots in a building and we’re still in.
Stitchdown: You mentioned the bottoms and spikes changing on the Timber boots. But have the rest of the designs and the patterns and the look of Wesco boots pretty much remained the same? Or have they shifted over time?
Chris: The construction is something that we don’t really change much. We’ve still got full leather midsoles, full leather insoles. We do use a stitchdown construction, but for a long long time we used a nailed construction. We switched over in the 80s to over to full stitchdown and eliminated nailed. But our 100th anniversary models that we just did, those are nailed down. Those are throwing back to the initial construction and it’s just something that I personally thought we should do, and that’s why we designed it that way—those paved the way for Wesco to be where we’re at today.
But now you can get our engineer boots in a round toe, a bubble toe, a motor patrol toe. You can get it with multiple variations of heel heights—we have tall heel lasts, low heel lasts, and quite an array of toes that we can put on it, and you can choose different stitching. Or say you like a Western style boot that we make, but you like our Boss Boot lower. We can do combos where we take half of one boot, and half of another, and can put it together. So they have definitely changed. But as far as construction, I would say no they haven’t.
Stitchdown: I’d love to get into your personal history at Wesco, which is rich, and long—you’ve been there basically forever.
Chris: So I moved here in 2001 from northern California. My dad had worn Wesco boots. He was a millwright, and he had two pairs of Jobmasters that he rotated through. So if one was getting resoled or rebuilt, he always had another pair to wear. And I saw the brand was hiring and I called my dad, and he already knew they were here in this little town, and that’s where his boots came from. I guess I really hadn’t thought much about it, just that I saw his boots growing up—and he continues to. He doesn’t work in the mills anymore, but he has our Romeos and he’s got a couple of our wingtips. He still wears Wescos, he just doesn’t need the heavy industrial occupational-style ones. He’s a little more casual and relaxed these days.
But, I saw they hiring. I was going to school in Portland, and I started working at Wesco. It was a good schedule. It was working early in the morning out in the factory, stitching boots, nailing boots. And after I had finished up at Portland State and graduated, I chatted with the owner and ended up taking the sales manager position. So I’ve doing that for about 10 years.
Stitchdown: Can you take me through Wesco’s custom build process? How does it work from start to finish?
Chris: As far as an individual customer, we allow you to basically pick your platform of what style you like, whether it be a pull-on or a lace-up. Let’s take the Jobmaster for example. We showcase it as a 10-inch work boot with heavy tread. But if you look at our custom builds, you start out with a toe profile, you pick your lacing pattern—would you like lace-to-toe, which is more adjustable? Would you like a regular toe where the toe box is set? It definitely has different pressure points and feels a little different, but both of them serve functions.
Then you choose what kind of stitching you want on your boot. Do you want the traditional with the brown and white? Would you like us to change it to lightweight red? Navy blue? Khaki heavy thread? There’s quite a variety. And you can do a single tone of leather, you can do two-tone, you can do multi-tone. You can add leather lining to them. You pick your toe profile—you could do a motor patrol, which is a little flatter and dressier. You can do a kind of a bulbous-looking bubble toe, which is very vintage-looking and we still do it on our standard engineers.
You can choose your heel height. You can choose your soles. You can choose whether you want the edges black, brown, natural, waxed. Different laces. What hardware? Do you want the top to have a buckle strap? Maybe pull straps instead? Or nothing at the top? Would you like it to have a Western top? You pretty much pick every component of your boot if you go custom.
Stitchdown: And most people doing this through the Wesco website’s boot builder function?
Chris: So the demo builder will give you an idea of what you can build. What we are trying to do is have all those builds in a gallery where you can actually click to buy now, or it’ll populate what you like into that builder to customize. There’ll be a lead time on it obviously because it’s still custom. But generally where we sell a lot of our boots is through our social media. Quite a few people send in pictures or direct messages and then we help them through it.
Stitchdown: What kind of customization options do over that people might not realize?
Chris: I think one of the main hurdles over the last 10 years is we’re trying to get out of being a typical work boot company. We’ve built work boots for so long that a lot of our customer base, or people that are potential customers or someone who is just fascinated with footwear, they didn’t really know that we did all of these other custom options. And we still hear that. And although we do builds with our dealers, which would be batch orders where they bring in 24 pair of a custom boot to their store, the made-to-order aspect is something that a lot of people just haven’t realized.
The possibilities kind of relate back to my father, as far as his boot progression through the years. We have someone for example that has been working in construction in the field. Great. They’re wearing a heavy tread sole on their boots. Then they come back in, and say “Hey, I’m more of a foreman now. I still need a boot for the field, but I don’t want that big heavy tread.” Okay, we’ll re-sole it, and we’ll put on something more mid level, just not as extreme. And then there’s the guy who says, ‘I was a foreman out in the field, but now I’m just working in the office.” And they realize that we make JH Classics, which is our oxford-style shoe.
So one of our main focuses is letting people know: hey, we’re more than just a work boot company. We’re still dedicated very much so to making a high-quality, rugged, tough, resolable, rebuildable work boot. But we also offer something that might have a toe cap and a little bit more of a sleek design, that can be worn in an office setting or wherever you might be. We want to think that we can make something that fits pretty much all of those situations and demographics. I think the biggest part about it is just that people can do single MTOs through us, and it works really well for us. We’re extremely efficient at it, and we’re set up to do it that way.
Stitchdown: How do you manage to be efficient doing things that way? I’ve talked to a lot of other shoemakers who are trying to get everybody to do batch pre-orders, so they can set up the factory in a way so they can be efficient. You’re doing the complete opposite. You’re saying, just tell us what you want and we’ll do anything for you. How is Wesco doing things differently process-wise, so that that’s possible?
Chris: The big part about it for us is, from our CEO down, we’re constantly evaluating what’s our process, what’s our time study, where are our most efficient areas? What could be improved? It’s really streamlined. From start to finish, every situation, every station out here has a purpose, and it’s allllll in order. It works for us. Our plant manager, he’s been here well over 20 years. He’s worked numerous positions in the factory. And that’s one thing with our management team.
All of us—myself, Chris our plant manager, and Tyler and Adam who are two of our supervisors, we go out on the floor and fill in, so we know where things need to be set up, where are the holes that we need to fix, and then we address it. Collectively, we’ve all got a lot of manufacturing experience. You’ve got me, who’s 17 and a half years. Adam has probably got 20 years. Chris the plant manager is well over 20 years. Throughout the years I’ve seen where we’ll move things in our operation to make the flow smoother. And I think that’s a key part of it. We all just work together to make sure that it’s efficient. We’re not trying to recreate the wheel and change all these processes, but if we see something that would benefit, we would implement that into our process. Some of the things that we’ve been approached to do, they take away from our family process. So maybe we choose not to go along those with those new things.
Stitchdown: What would that be?
Chris: Well, for example, look at our nailed soles. We’re hand-nailing all of our leather soles on. The heel is tacked on by a heel nailer. We hold it by hand and we guide it through, and then we nail the whole arch of the boot on by hand, fully around the sole. Some of the machines, these little guns with staples and whatnot, we noticed that they didn’t crimp as well as when you’re hand-nailing it. You have more control on some of these things when doing them by hand. The trimmers over the years have evolved to where we found that ergonomically they are a little bit easier on the body to use. But the Rapid E stitchers we’ve been using for the stitchdown—we haven’t changed them.
We became fully committed to doing stitchdown in the 80s, and we had been doing it for years before that, partially. Those are the same Rapid Es that we’ve had here. They’re extremely efficient. They can handle a heavy workload. It’s getting a little bit more difficult to find the parts for them, that’s for sure. But the way we grade our leather, it’s same way our plant manager did it when he started over 20 years ago. We haven’t changed those processes.
Stitchdown: Let’s go back to what you were saying earlier, about how these boots can take all sorts of different forms. I find it interesting where if you go to the Wesco site and you go to the Jobmaster, it’s like wow—that’s a really hardcore tall boot, before you get to the customization options. But if you look at what people are wearing, if you look at Instagram, you see a six inch, with a wedge sole and it’s in roughout. And you realize oh, that’s a Jobmaster too, this is really cool. Is that something that you’re looking to make more obvious when people come to the Wesco website? That, these, you know, 90-inch hardcore boots made for a worker are not the only thing you can have, and these boots can take a lot of different shapes?
Chris: That’s pretty much the exactly what we want to show. Some of the catalogs that have been done by one of our distributors who do a phenomenal job for us—when you look through that, you have a boot, and then you’ve probably got 20 variations of it. And it helps the end customer to visualize and see certain builds that they might not have thought of. And I am guilty of it as well. I built a lot of our boots—all the samples in the showroom, new samples that we make. But I can walk through every week and find something that’s cool out there that I haven’t built before, just purely based on what a customer’s dreamed up. Having more options in front of you to look at, I think is key. I couldn’t even put a number on how many variations you could have.
Stitchdown: How long does a custom build take? From the time I put my order in, until I get my boots?
Chris: Right now, about 12 weeks. But we’re also loaded right now from all the 100th anniversary boots we made, and we’re working to cut down that lead time.
Stitchdown: How was the response to those anniversary boots?
Chris: Great—we sold quite a few, which added to the workload. We’ve got three more coming. Like the 39s, which were our engineer boots. Those boots in certain areas are more time-consuming, because you can’t just glue a part of it and pull it, tack it, stitch it. It’s not the same process.
Stitchdown: The Wesco measurement approach for custom boots seems very exhaustive. How have you engineered that to nail sizing, while obviously not measuring everyone’s feet in person?
Chris: We have a huge amount of people that send in their own measures, and we’ve tried to help with that. When you go online and you watch our videos, how to do it—we walk you through step by step, and our measuring form walks you through step by step. And it’s really pretty simple: keep your pencil straight up and down, mark the paper behind the ball of the foot for your width, mark your instep, and then we just build it for you.
And our custom fit guy has been here 20 years as well. If there’s something on there that stands out to him, he’ll just contact the customer and send a new form. But from what we sell, the majority of our boots are not custom fit. If someone knows what they wear in another brand, I just ask them to send me a couple measurements and I’ll match the up with our shoe last.
Stitchdown: So for the custom boots, there’s not a unique last being for each customer, correct? Or how does that work?
Chris: If somebody sends in a measure and they go custom fit, we take a shoe last. We look at it and we’re like, okay, the length of this foot is going to be a 10. A close width to it will be a 10D, from these measurements. We’ll grab that shoe last, and set it over the top of the tracing, and we put a tape around the shoe mold and we cut leather strips and glue them and build up a shoe last. And we actually modify it for each foot. We don’t look at it and say, well a 10D would work for both feet. We build it per foot.
Then we maintain that on file, so if someone has a handful of buildups that are on their shoe last, if they order in the future, they can order any style. And then we adjust it to the shoe last. And then it’s free to update for life. Although there’s a fee—initially you pay $100 upfront for your shoe last to get custom built—there’s no fee after that. So if someone’s foot changes, gets a little wider, whatever it may be, we allow them to update it and then we adjust. Every five years we try to get an update.
Stitchdown: That’s pretty cool. I’m also in the business of covering some of these bespoke guys who, you know, will charge you $6,000 or $8,000 for a pair of shoes, and the lasts alone might cost a couple grand. And they’re not work boots and maybe the leathers are different, and they’re very beautiful. And Wesco doesn’t make what anyone would necessarily call a cheap boot. But to to get that kind of customization for something that’s under a thousand dollars—that’s very rare.
Chris: If you look at our engineer boot, for what you get from our engineer boots, and what’s out there, it’s hard to find something that beats that, in a sense. I mean, we’re familiar with the other brands that are making them. But I’ve got guys that come up to me at the Sturgis bike rally who’d been wearing our engineer boot for 35 years. But you look at the longevity of a boot, how long you’ve had it, the comfort of it—you’re not paying that much for that footwear. I obviously know our prices, but I’ve never thought that they are unfair or unrealistic for a fully hand-cut, handmade in the US boot— we’re not outsourcing any production, it’s all done here in Scappoose. And you have an option for only a hundred dollars more to get them fully fitted to you. I think it’s pretty damn good deal.
Stitchdown: I’m not sure there’s anything out there like it, honestly, for that price. It’s very unique. So we touched on this a little bit, but obviously Wesco’s history is rooted in making work boots for work applications. What are your feelings, and everybody’s feelings over there, on Wesco being used by more and more people as what you might call lifestyle boots?
Chris: Well for me as the sales manager, and as we’ve done the last 10, 12 years, we know that our company has to evolve. That’s a given. If you look at how many work boots were out there a hundred years ago, 50 years ago—a lot of the families that had the little shops may no longer be open, the people that would spend all the time to explain what you’re getting for your money. So as you lose some of that dealer network, you’re losing part of the history being told.
And as work boots have evolved where—some companies don’t climb as many poles as they used to. Or someone needs a waterproof, super lightweight, breathable material—they all have different special needs they want for work. So as that has grown, if you go into a work boot store and see all the stuff out there, it’s hard for someone that’s new in a trade to go in, unless they had an uncle, or a parent, or a family friend that wore Wescos that can tell them: get that boot. It’s going to outlast the other ones, three to four times more and you’re going to actually save money in the long run. That was kind of lost a little bit.
As far as going to a casual, kind of lifestyle boot, I felt that it wasn’t really a huge transition because we’ve always had great quality a great foundation of what we’ve been building. The variation of it was merely changing a few components of a design to make it more, if you want to call it, lifestyle friendly.
So like for example, the Warren boot. All we did was we took a Packer, we took the upper on it, which is called the 65, and we took out the Western toe profile, and we took out the Western sanded heel, and the spur ledge on the back. And you’ll see a ton of them with a bubble, or a round toe, and a lower heel. Those boots are something that are very simple as far as how they’re put together, but they totally catered to, someone who wants to wear it out, or to a meeting, no problem. It’s not this big, industrial, tough boot. And we didn’t change the way that we’re stitching it. We didn’t change the way that we’re nailing it. We didn’t change the quality of the soles or anything in it. We just adjusted a few of the options on it.
So you’re still getting that investment into a pair of boots are still going to last you years. You can still re-heel it, you can still resole it. You can still do a full rebuild. And a lot of people, when they hear rebuild, they’re used to maybe another brand with a wedge sole where they’re cut off, and they’re glued back on. But our full rebuild, we keep the leg portion, and we cut everything else off. So the part that goes around your toes, the part that goes around your heel—the vamp and the counter—the insoles, the midsoles, the outsoles. All of that’s cut it off and we just use the leg and then we rebuild the whole bottom of the boot.
Say you bought a Jobmaster that was in black with a heavy tread. You come in to get a rebuild, but you don’t like exactly what you had on it, because it was work-based. You take it from a 10-inch, we cut it down to an eight-inch. You want to do brown roughout on the lower half of the boot. So we switch up the leathers, we make it a two-tone, and then we change out the soles and heels on it for you. And you can do that with, say, a climbing boot that’s a 16 inch boot. Somebody retired, they want kind of a casual boot. We can chop that top off, clean up the rim on it, the upper, throw on different lowers and make it into just an everyday boot. We aren’t really straying super far from what we do. We’re just allowing a lot more adjustments to it.
Stitchdown: That’s really cool too. I didn’t realize that you would tear things apart and actually add new leathers to the upper.
Chris: Yeah, so your upper piece is what we have left over. Say you’ve got a pair of your boots that you hike in. A lot of times your pants are going to cover the top portion of that boot. So really it doesn’t get as beat up, as where you’re scuffing the front of your boot. Or you’re kicking it off with the soles and the tread, where it’s rubbing on it—all that gets replaced. And then you don’t have to re-break-in the leg, that’s already been secured to your leg and formed around your ankle bone. And it’s already broken in, so you just break in the footbed.
Stitchdown: This might be a crazy question, but do you think there are any ways in which Wescos might be overbuilt for non-work use? It’s a lot of boot.
Chris: It is. We’re gonna always recommend—on our work boot, or on someone who’s on a motorcycle who says I want the toughest boot. We’re gonna tell you to go with our oil-tanned leather, which we cut to six-and-a-half to seven ounces. That’s the focus—getting it to around a seven-ounce leather. Our boots that are in British Tan, burgundy, brown domain, black tie domain—those leathers that are more of a waxed leather, as opposed to an oil-tanned leather—those are thinner. So if you go with a Foot Patrol or a Hendrik or a Warren, or even a Jobmaster, you can build those boots in some of those newer leathers—I wouldn’t want to say fashion, but kind of dressier leathers. Those are thinner already, and they aren’t built as hardcore or as heavy as the workboots.
We designed a boot with Alex, Giles’ son over at Iron Heart. It’s a British tan toe cap Hendrik with a low heel. So you’ve eliminated that big tall kind of logger style heel. You taken a half inch leather out of it, so that’s going to lighten it up. We put a little bit of a dressier sole on it that doesn’t have a big tread on it—it’s very thin. It’s definitely lighter weight compared to the others. And then we use a British tan leather, which is thinner. So already you’ve kind of toned down that boot as far as weight and break-in. That’s going to break in much quicker than say a steel-toe work boot.
And that’s, that’s the same thing with our Foot Patrol, which was for Iron Heart. We renamed it Yohannes—our owner Roberta is going through and naming them after relatives. Passed relatives. So those boots, we did them without a pocket in the heel. Those things instantly are comfortable. So without the heel pocket, you slide it on, it’s soft, it’s comfortable, you don’t have to break that back piece in, there’s no hard material. They come with a leather lining because of that construction so they’re smooth. There are certain things we have have taken into account as far as helping with break-ins, and comfort, and so on.
Stitchdown: Back to leathers. Are you guys working with anything cool or unique that’s going to be coming up as special releases, or something that you can build a custom boot with?
Chris: Well, we’ve brought on the horsehide as a standard now in black, but currently I’m working with Horween on trying to figure out what we’re going to use for the next release. It has a few boots that are from the family line and we’re going to try and do an exclusive release on the leather. Do I have it nailed down yet? I don’t. But yes, we are working on leather that we’re exclusively going to offer for it.
Stitchdown: I also saw something on—I think it was on a Reddit AMA from a few years back—about people being able to send in their own leathers to make boots. Is that still something that Wesco does?
Chris: We do! Now I’ve seen some crazy leather come in. Some people are like, “Hey, I’ve got this exotic…” First off, some of those are illegal. You can’t even have that in the States. No, we’re not gonna touch it. Don’t send it here. This one leather, and I can’t remember who ended up allowing them to use it, but we had this customer, he’s got multiple pair of our boots. He sent in this leather that looked like—I don’t want to say a veg, like an unfinished, but underneath it was very light and it looked like it was sprayed with like aluminum foil, in a sense.
The problem was when you grabbed a hold of it and you were shaping it, some of that—whatever you want to call it that was on the leather—kind of popped off of it. So it was leaving in a sense, a little bald spots on the boot. And you know, we put a piece through where we kinda heated it up around the heel to shape it and all the other little things that we do. And I was like, hey, we gotta send this leather back. We can’t use it. The finish is literally falling off of it. But we’ve used quite a few different tanneries’ leathers, so we can adjust. But some of them are different. Say you have a cordovan leather, it reacts much different than other other leathers. It’s a lot thinner, you have to be more a lot more delicate with it.
Or we had hides come over from Shinki tannery for the Wesco Japan release that we used for their hundredth anniversary boots. Now those weren’t confined down to a thin strip of leather that can be extremely consistent. It’s the larger hide pieces, and it ranged anywhere from six ounce to 11 ounce. So sometimes there’s extra work that definitely goes into using those.
But to answer that question, yes we have people sending in leather. Or, I try to call some of the resellers and source leather for our customers. Or have them send in a colorway if they can, or something that’s similar to a color, and I’ll reach out to a few different resellers and say, hey, do you guys have one hide in this? As long as it’s a decent amount of square footage, we can usually make a boot. We had someone that was a big fan of the Seattle Seahawks, so he wanted blue Romeos with light green stitching and bright green soles. So he found the soles and sent them into us. And then I sourced some of that light green through a reseller down in California and then we put that in for the lining for him.
Stitchdown: Oh man, wow. Russell Wilson was the quarterback at my alma mater, so I guess that’s ok. Totally different topic—Wesco doesn’t seem to spend a ton of money on marketing or advertising, compared to some other boot companies. How do potential new customers find out about what you’re doing?
Chris: Say you go back 10 years. We looked at how much we were throwing at advertising. We were in a ton of different magazines, there’s a lot that we were investing in. But as far as tracking the return on it, it was like, holy cow, we’re paying all this money and it’s not really giving us what we need. People want to see things now. New products, new leather, new design. And we’re trying to readjust how we’ve approached it in the past so we can attack it now. As far as a lot of our business, like I said earlier, social media’s huge on it. We don’t ever pay for any advertising on it. It’s not something that we do. We want it to be an organic growth. People see that, like it share it. Great. That’s perfect.
I do see companies that are obviously throwing money at it, where if I look at a boot, next thing you know, I’ve got that thing popping up on every screen, on my computer, my phone, when I’m on the Internet. Nonstop. That’s fine. Each company’s got its own business model. For us, we kind of drew back. We’ve got a handful of billboards that we do in town here now. A lot of people see them driving by, when they’re driving out to the coast, they swing in and check it out. We do some local advertising with a handful of different radio stations, we’re testing the water on that. We’re playing around with it, but we scaled back because at our capacity and how busy we are—if we had some major thing that happened where we had to make 50,000 boots right away…we could, but we’ll get your boots to you in like five years.
To me, I love when someone can actually come physically to our factories, look at our operation. A lot of people were blown away because they get out here, we’re a town of about 6,000. Although it says Portland metro, you drive along the river, so there’s not a lot of city from Portland to here. And then you drive down between four or five houses, down this little little driveway, and then here’s our factory.
Stitchdown: How many people do you have in that little house, making boots?
Chris: Actually physically working on boots, we probably have in the twenties. Total employees as a whole, we have about 30-something. That includes two owners—well three owners, one’s retired. And then our customer service. I do the showroom, but I’m also the sales manager. Pete from custom fit, he comes up and helps with fittings, there’s Ray from our rebuild department, we’ve got a few managers and a shipper. We’ve got Kim and Karen in the office and Bruce in the office. So they’re helping put in all the orders, take phone calls, answer emails. In our company, you don’t really have one exact direct thing that you do. Since we’re a family-owned, small business, we all help each other. One day you might be working on this, one day you might be working on something completely different.
Stitchdown: What are your most popular, top selling models?
Chris: Jobmaster and Boss. We still sell a ton of Highliners as well, but I’d say custom Jobmasters and Boss Boots are the tops.
Stitchdown: Is there a model that you wish you saw more people ordering?
Chris: I think within the next couple of years, with those other boots getting out there, like the Hendrik and the Johannes and the Warren, and the Robert William wingtip—I think in the next few years we’re definitely going to see that change.
Stitchdown: Do you think there are any misconceptions that people have about Wesco boots, or the company, that you want to address?
Chris: I’ve been here over 17 years, I’ve worked with the same owner, the same plant manager. I know what our values are, I know what we put into our product. You mentioned Reddit earlier. I just try to help with some of the things on there that are just…not correct. I’m not trying to get on there and argue or anything like that. I just want to help people understand our company and our product more.
Like I said earlier, the businessman’s misconception we had was that everyone thought we just did work boots. In my opinion, that would be the big one.
Stitchdown: What would you say the state of Wesco in the Asian market is, especially in Japan? Seems…good?
Chris: Japan, that’s just a different market. We’ve got a distributor that our owner works directly with when he comes here. I work directly with them quite a bit. Their ability to sell and promote is just phenomenal. They’re a powerhouse. They’re great. As far as international accounts, we’ve got a handful that are phenomenal. Beijing and Shanghai are big. We just opened with Martin at the Iron Heart location in Austria—I love dealing with him.
And our accounts here in the States are doing extremely well. We’ve seen a resurgence with menswear stores, or just kind of a higher-end store—we’re seeing a lot of those growing quite rapidly, where, you might you start out, you do a build and you sell 10 to 15 pair, and next thing you know the order that comes in is like 35 pair, and then another 30 or 40 pair after that. It’s been great. We had one store where we came up with a build, and we did a preorder. We thought, oh wow, we got over 20 pair. Next thing you know, we sold over 50 custom pair of them. And there was another boot that we did where we thought, oh, it’d be great to hit 20 on these. Well, we’re well past 150 pair of those now.
It’s great to see our international accounts grow, but it’s also great to see our home accounts and our domestic market grow. I think people are actually looking a little more at what they’re buying. They’re paying attention to it, they’re seeing what we offer and they’re saving up and actually purchasing more expensive items, but definitely getting their money’s worth.
Stitchdown: I think that’s a good transition to something I ask pretty much anybody I talk to in the industry. What is your take on the state of the American footwear industry at the moment?
Chris: I used to sit here and I would watch and say, okay, well what are we all doing? What are the manufacturers in our realm doing, in a sense? I’m not looking at like a boot that you could go and find almost anywhere. I’m kind of looking at more at us, and White’s—you have a handful of us in the Northwest. There’s Drew’s Boots, Nick’s Boots, Frank’s Boots—there’s a bunch of boots that are kind of in the upper price point. But I’ve really ignored even looking at whatever else is out there. I’m solely looking at what is here, what’s our response been directly, what are our direct messages that we get, and what can we offer that is appealing?
We’ve got enough of workforce here where a lot of people have good opinions on what people might wear outside of our factory. We sample it, we test it, we build it, and put it to market. So we’re not trying to chase—say, have someone else make an upper for us, and we’ll finish out soles. We’re not looking to do sneakers or sandals or flats. We’re just making our boots and we’re trying to see what can we offer that’s a little bit different, that doesn’t stray too far from what our foundation is. That’s kind of where we’re at.
As for the footwear industry in the States, I don’t really have a huge opinion on it. I just kind of focus on Wesco and stay there. It keeps us busy enough. We’re already however many months out and just need to maintain what we’re doing, and keep an eye on quality control and our focus, and continue forward from there.
Stitchdown: I think that’s healthy. I don’t know that everybody is in such a fortunate position, but, well, god bless I guess.
Chris: I guess my personal opinion would be, if you put too many eggs in too many baskets, and try to bring on a bunch of different machinery to make these other models—what we’re doing has worked so well, so it’s hard to stray from that. I don’t want to just reach in 10 different directions. When we come up with something that’s new, we slowly develop it here and we test, we wear it. What can we change? Can we do anything to the pattern? We used to have a handful of boots down in the bottom basement that were trial and error. We make this, okay, well we adjust that.
The Romeo is actually a perfect example of something that—our classic Romeo was made in the 70s. One issue that we had was the elastic goring on it would blow out, and that the back of them was very straight up and down. So people were slipping out of them. They weren’t staying on their feet. So I went upstairs, I was up there with Chris our plant manager. He’s asking, how much curve do you want? And we drew out a curve for it. Graded all the patterns, found a found a manufacturer for that elastic that was in the US—they had a thicker elastic goring material, so we brought that in. We redesigned the heel. And they’ve done extremely well. And that’s a really good entry level boot for Wesco.
The Romeo’s $189, they’re built tough, you can choose different leathers if you want to. Different stitching, different lining color, different soles. The Romeo is something that people who have to have kind of like a pull-on looking boot—they come in and buy it to work in the office, because their pants go down over the top of them. So you can’t really tell, it’s just a little little slip on, couple inch Romeo. It lets someone get into a Wesco and see the quality and feel the quality. But it’s not as much as like an $800 horsehide lace-up that we make.
Stitchdown: Last and perhaps the most important question of all. What are your absolute must eat foods when you go to Portland?
Chris: Oooh! I have a list. I always go to the Screen Door. If I have buddies in town, I take them to the Screen Door. There’s a fried chicken and waffles there that has a phenomenal—I don’t know what they’d bread that with, it’s made in house. Oh, it’s so good. And then you can sneak down the street and go to Pok Pok and have wings. Oh gosh. So many breakfasts are phenomenal in Portland too, like Provence or Tasty n Sons. I also like Le Bistro Montage—I want to go to the Screen Door now that we’re talking about this. There’s a restaurant, Portland City Grill, which is on like 30th floor of the bank building off of Burnside. It’s the tallest building where there’s a restaurant where you can actually see the city at night. They have one of the top happy hours in Portland. Oh, it’s phenomenal. Olympia provisions, I dig them too.
As far as drinks, for one of my birthdays we did a pub crawl to see who makes the best Old Fashioned in Portland. And I mean we went from the nicest place to the diviest dive you could imagine. I think maybe my opinion was a little bit unstraight by the end of the night. But oh, it was a blast.