Traditional cowboy boots made with kudu leather. Beautiful longwing bluchers bottomed with chonky crepe soles. An eco-conscious mashup between a sneaker and a monkey boot made with recycled leather.
You’d expect that each of these distinct styles would be made by completely separate companies, but you can find all of them in the catalog of Léon, Mexico-based brand Unmarked.
Since 2011, Unmarked has made its… erm… mark by creating a wide array of men’s and women’s boots and shoes that feature traditional Mexican construction methods, cutting-edge modernity, and off-the-wall experimentation—sometimes a combination of all of the above.
The eccentric collection is driven by Hugo Fonce, who has utilized his background in industrial design as a springboard towards creating the kind of footwear that he’s fond of—from newer streetwear styles to classic Mexican workwear. It all comes together in Unmarked’s 2,000-square-foot workshop in Léon, where their footwear is crafted by about a dozen artisans who continue to uphold Léon’s long-running status as a focal point in world-class shoemaking. While Unmarked has begun to offer ready-to-ship options, their focus has predominantly been on made-to-order footwear, in an effort to embrace a more sustainable, less wasteful approach.
We had a chance to speak with Hugo, and marketing director Marie Hébert, about Unmarked’s past, present, and future. In our conversation below, we also touched upon Léon’s significance as Mexico’s shoemaking capital, the inspiration behind some of Unmarked’s unique styles, and the meaning behind the brand’s name.
Stitchdown: Hugo, what originally inspired you to launch Unmarked?
Hugo Fonce: Since I’ve had memory, I’ve liked shoes a lot. I was born in Querétaro, a city near Léon, and my mother is from Léon. There are a lot of producers here in Mexico, and most of them are dedicated just to the local market. When I was traveling abroad, I realized that we have a very skilled labor for shoemaking in Mexico, but there are no Mexican brands out there. So I thought to myself, why not? Then I started to research why not [laugh]. And I saw the opportunity to do something that I liked.
Stitchdown: How old were you when you realized this was something you wanted to do?
Hugo Fonce: I was 27.
Stitchdown: You mentioned that you were interested in footwear at a very early age—tell me a little bit more about what types of shoes you were into.
Hugo Fonce: I was really into sneakers. [Nike] Dunks were very hyped when I was in college. I liked a lot of Diesel. They used to have a very cool line of sneakers that were different. But I started to change when I discovered Goodyear welted shoes. I noticed, wow, there are no Mexican boots besides just Western boots. Back then when I tried to buy, for example, a pair of Red Wings, it was very expensive to bring them to Mexico. I was just out of college, I didn’t have the money to pay. I wanted to make affordable shoes at the beginning, Goodyear welted, but for the local market. But then I realized, no, I don’t want to just do the same thing, you know?
Hugo Fonce: Yeah. Most of the lines that we started with were inspired by workwear. Like for example, the cowboy boots that we are making right now, they ARE work boots, at least in Mexico. And the Archies are inspired by roofer boots, and also in Mexico there’s a kind of boot that is called a burra. They are very similar in style, very simple to make, and it is very easy to fit because it’s a lace to toe.
Stitchdown: Gotcha. Okay, let’s go back to the beginning. So you decided that you wanted to start this brand making welted footwear, in Mexico, with a Mexican identity. How did you get it all going? What was the process like?
Hugo Fonce: It was very tough, actually. I mean, I started working with factories, of course, at the beginning. I didn’t have the funds to have my own workshop. So I started producing my own designs in factories. I didn’t like some aspects of the quality. Also, I wanted the shoes to be functional. I studied industrial design, so that was very much inside my mind—they have to be functional, they don’t just have to look nice. I wanted them to be rebuildable, and I wanted them to last a long time for the user so they don’t produce a lot of waste. So, I started going to factories and learned the process. Also on YouTube. I bought some books about shoe construction.
Stitchdown: So you didn’t apprentice under a shoemaker or anything like that, someone who could guide you? You taught all of this to yourself?
Hugo Fonce: I had to learn everything. I mean, it’s not so complicated. Because for example, when we are studying industrial design, they don’t teach you how to design a camera, or how to design a chair, or how to design a cell phone. They don’t teach you how to do it. They just give you the tools to learn how to learn the process and how it’s made, so then you can make a good design.
Stitchdown: Okay. So you learned the process—how it all works—and then how did you eventually get things rolling with Unmarked?
Hugo Fonce: At first I was struggling with the factories, because they were like, “no, they have to be done this way because we have been doing things this way for 10 years, 15 years, so you cannot tell us how to make it.” And I was like, “No, but I want them this way. I want to use this material, and I want to use this kind of sole.” For a long time, there had been very high quality products made here in Mexico, but for the last, let’s say 30 years, that high quality was gone. They tried to use, for example, cardboard for the insole. They were using cotton gemming, nobody was using the leather holdfasts directly into the insole. That was ten years ago. Seven years ago, we started up our own factory, because nobody wanted to make the things that we were doing because it took a lot more time. We went from being just two people in the team—making sales, handling all the inventory on the website and everything—and the next month when we opened the factory, we already had 18 employees.
Stitchdown: Wow! Nice.
Hugo Fonce: And we didn’t know shit about social insurance and taxes. It was another world. And now I think, why did I do it? [Laughs] Sometimes, it’s very hard to have your own…to manage people. But when we see the final product, we are happy with it. I mean, if we take this to another factory in Mexico, nobody’s gonna make it.
Stitchdown: Was it always your intention to build Unmarked in Léon?
Hugo Fonce: I mean, we have access to everything here. Very good quality for the leather, for the insole, for the outsole. The labor, the machines, everything’s here.
Stitchdown: Do you feel like you could have grown the brand anywhere else in Mexico?
Hugo Fonce: No. It would be very hard. I’ve known some people that try to do similar stuff that are based in Mexico City or Guadalajara. Of course, they eventually come to Léon [laugh].
Stitchdown: Why is Léon so renowned for being a shoemaking powerhouse? Aside from having access to a huge supply of materials and expertise, of course.
Hugo Fonce: Well, it has had a tradition for shoemaking for about 400 years. It started with the Spanish, they brought the shoemaking craft to Léon. They brought it here because nearby, there’s a city named Guanajuato, which is the capital of the state. It’s a mining town that used to be a very, very important mining town in Mexico. Still is, but used to be huge. For the mining, they used a lot of cattle to grind all the ore that was brought up from the mines. It was very poisonous, and the cattle would die off. So they had a lot of [dead] animals, and they then started to tan their leather. Then they started tanneries. And of course, the next step was making shoes.
Stitchdown: I see, and so that shoemaking tradition then continued on into the 20th and 21st centuries?
Hugo Fonce: Yeah. During the second World War, there was a huge need for shoes. The factories in the US didn’t have enough capacity to produce enough shoes. So they started to bring machines to Mexico, and a lot of factories back then, they started to produce for the military. So that’s how they started to bring the mass production of Goodyear welt to Mexico. Before that, there was just the traditional handmade cowboy boots.
Stitchdown: Gotcha. Let’s turn back to Unmarked. How much has the company changed and grown since you started it?
Hugo Fonce: It’s had its ups and downs. We started with 18 for a while and were producing for private labels. Then we had some customers that didn’t pay [laughs], and then we were six, and then we were eight, then we were ten, then eight again. Now we are 15.
Stitchdown: So it’s still fairly small. How many boots and shoes are you producing a week?
Hugo Fonce: Right now we produce about 200 pairs in a week, and we have capacity to make 600 pairs a week.
Stitchdown: Unmarked stands out for showcasing traditional styles and construction methods—for example, what you do with your Durango cowboy boots and some of your other boots with the punto marcado—but then you also embrace some more unusual kinds of looks and materials. For example, your Jack penny loafers with the really big crepe soles, or your Archie Black And White models with the machine-washable leather. What inspired you to broaden Unmarked’s catalog into such a wide array of different styles?
Hugo Fonce: It’s just…I don’t know. Sometimes it’s just things that we like.
Marie Hébert: Yeah. You don’t like to do the same thing every day. You like to develop new things, and learn new things. Also, with private label, you can learn a lot of things, because they are asking for new products that we’ve never made before.
Hugo Fonce: Most of the time we don’t say no to a new customer because of what we can learn. There’s a lot of factories that have been there for like 30 years and they have all this knowledge. But we just have seven years, so, we will need to learn more stuff [laughs].
Marie Hébert: But you like a modern design, you like sneakers, and you like traditional things…
Hugo Fonce: Yeah! The Jack penny loafers, for example. I like the thick outsole, because you can use them for a long time. The crepe was used in the desert during the [second World War] because it’s very comfortable, very soft and everything, so why not use it in a shoe for the city? You’re gonna be walking, you have to be comfortable. And of course, Goodyear welted shoes, the way we make them, they’re not very comfortable in the beginning because you have to break them in. So yeah, we want to help a little [laughs].
Marie Hébert: You just pick a design and you are like, hmm, what can I change?
Hugo Fonce: Yeah. How can I change it to make it mine?
Marie Hébert: To make it look different and still remain a classic, but in your own way.
Stitchdown: You mentioned your private label manufacturing. Could you give me an example of a time when a brand came to you and said, “Hey, I want you to do this thing,” and you had to learn how to do it?
Hugo Fonce: For example, we never made shoes for kids. That was challenging.
Marie Hébert: Goodyear welted!
Hugo Fonce: Goodyear welted, vegan. And it was fun because the client didn’t know what she was asking for. So we were like, Oh shit, what construction should we use? Maybe Goodyear welt, because they’re resoleable and it is very easy to reheel.
Marie Hébert: The babies, who grow so fast, they…probably don’t need that. [laugh]
Hugo Fonce: But we still made them Goodyear welted, and vegan. Doing vegan was very tough. We had used only leather. We developed a rubber welt to make the stitching—but we wanted real rubber, not just like plastic. So [our supplier] made a special rubber welt for us, and it was very hard to make it, and they didn’t want to make it again. Then we started to have trouble with the upper, because we used cactus leather. Cactus leather is very fragile, and not very good quality.
Stitchdown: Have you managed to try other leather alternatives yet?
Hugo Fonce: That’s one of the things that we are currently working on with these guys. They have developed a new material, and we want to develop a shoe that will have no waste, no garbage. I mean, after you use it and you dispose of it, it will return to nature and it will be like nothing.
Stitchdown: A biodegradable shoe?
Hugo Fonce: Yeah. It’s not going to be normal, of course, because that’s not the purpose of the shoe. The purpose of that project is to show how to not produce waste that will end up somewhere forever, like in the ocean, for example, which is what happens with plastics, and in some cases, leather. I like leather because it’s very durable, but actually it’s not very eco-friendly, because it’s not really compostable. It will take over a hundred, two hundred years to decompose.
Stitchdown: Got it.
Hugo Fonce: So that’s why it’s not very eco-friendly, but it is eco-friendly when you don’t produce a lot…you produce high-quality, more-durable shoes on a small scale. That’s a good thing. But the thing that we’re not entirely happy about is it still produces garbage. Once you replace the outsole, you then have waste.
Stitchdown: Right—you have a spent outsole that you can’t really use anymore.
Hugo Fonce: So that’s the project. Make a product that will last a certain amount of time, and that’s it. It will get back to nature, even if you throw it in the garbage.
Stitchdown: I think that’s a great thing to strive for.
Hugo Fonce: It’s going to be very tough. [Ed. note: after this conversation, Hugo informed us that Unmarked had hit a snag with their biodegradable shoes—the leather supplier they had wanted to source from apparently only wants to work with the luxury bag industry, much to Hugo’s chagrin. “If only luxury is biodegradable, there’s no point,” he said, as he believes it will have a much greater impact if it targets the majority of consumers rather than just the smaller high-end market. Unmarked is currently looking into other options.]
Stitchdown: Marie, how did you originally get involved with Unmarked?
Marie Hébert: I met Hugo seven or eight years ago. He asked me to work with him a few months later. I didn’t want to because I felt I needed more experience. I had started to work with a football company here in Léon, which was more focused on quantity than quality. It didn’t match my values. Then I started to help Hugo with marketing communication and was working on both projects. Then it was like, oh no, only Unmarked [laugh].
Stitchdown: It sounds like you both share a very similar interest in wanting to make products that are sustainable, that are going to have a minimal footprint.
Hugo Fonce: Yeah. Maybe it is not going to make us rich, but, at least we will have our consciences.
Marie Hébert: We have friends who have factories, and they produce 5,000, 6,000 pairs a week. It’s too many shoes for the planet, maybe. And that’s here in Léon, you know, maybe in China it’s huge.
Hugo Fonce: Yeah, of course. I mean, we’re nothing compared to China, but here in Léon, we produce 45 million pairs a year.
Stitchdown: That’s a staggering number.
Hugo Fonce: Yeah. When you start to see the scale of everything, and you see all the waste…
Marie Hébert: But the main principle is, we like sustainable. We think helping the planet is better than producing a lot. But, it’s still a product, you know, we are still producing and wasting.
Hugo Fonce: Slowly we have been introducing projects like the recycled leather sneakers, which got some interest from our customers. We have not used [the recycled leather] on boots because it’s not super durable. So then we’ve started to look at these organic materials that will decompose very quickly. So we said, okay, let’s make a product that will last you for a year, and then you can throw it away and buy another one, but not feel guilty that something like this is going to end up in the ocean.
Stitchdown: I hope you’re able to succeed in making that kind of boot come to life. I have just a couple more quick questions. Why the name “Unmarked?”
Hugo Fonce: The idea was…you have this shoe, right? Super new and everything. It has no marks of use. So you buy an “unmarked” shoe, and then all the marks that you will have will come from your own history. So it’s part of telling your history with shoes.
Stitchdown: I see. So it’s like you’re giving a canvas to your customers to tell their story.
Hugo Fonce: [Leaving briefly and coming back with a beat-up pair of shoes] A customer came in, he bought this pair of sneakers two years ago.
Marie Hébert: They are, like, finished.
Hugo Fonce: He used these shoes every day for two years. Hiking, climbing…
Stitchdown: Wow. They’re toast.
Hugo Fonce: He asked me, “Can you repair them?” Oh, I’m not sure, man. [Laugh] I’m going to try.
Stitchdown: Man. That is wild.
Hugo Fonce: Going climbing with these, I mean, wow.
Stitchdown: Yeah. I can’t imagine hiking in those, or climbing, for that matter. That’s nuts. It’s really cool to see an extreme example of where people take their Unmarked pairs. Anyway, last question…what is your favorite Unmarked product?
Hugo Fonce: You know, it changes every day. Because, as we’ve told you, we are searching for new materials, new stuff, new ways to make shoes. So each time we make a new one, it’s like, “This one is better.” “This one is better.”
Marie Hébert: Your main product, I think, is the DB Hunter.
Hugo Fonce: The DB Hunter, yes. And the new cowboy boots! I mean, these are my favorite right now. I don’t use cowboy boots, but I like to make them a lot. It’s like the most fun style to make, because everything for it is made by hand. The embroidery is made by hand. All the punto marcado is made by hand. It’s hand lasted. You can make very complicated embroidery and work on the details on the outsole. This is my favorite style (right now).
Stitchdown: Got it. What about you, Marie? Do you have a favorite?
Marie Hébert: I think right now the Jack penny loafers. I use them a lot, and I like them a lot!
Stitchdown: Well cool, guys! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it.