George Vlagos has a dream to revitalize shoemaking in the U.S. — one moccasin at a time. So when the Maine factory that had been producing hand-sewn shoes for his men’s brand, Oak Street Bootmakers, went up for sale, the 36-year-old entrepreneur decided to make a play for it.
“Purchasing the factory and keeping the manufacturing alive was very much at the forefront of our desires, so we were aggressive in our bid,” said Vlagos, who acquired the Highland Shoe factory from Justin Brands Inc. in February 2017.
The 7,500-square-foot facility had been making shoes for Oak Street since the brand’s launch in 2010, but it also produced private-label footwear for other companies. Vlagos said he plans to maintain that part of the business, which now accounts for roughly 20 percent of the factory’s production.
In addition to making hand-sewn offerings, Oak Street offers a companion line of Goodyear-welt shoes that are produced at another domestic factory in New York state. Rounding out its collection is a series of bags and belts.
Despite his enthusiasm for manufacturing, Vlagos admits that keeping the facility going has its challenges. “In Maine, you can find people who’ve worked for L.L.Bean and Bass, but they’re not young,” said Vlagos, who is constantly trying to recruit workers and retain them once they’re trained. Depending on the season, the factory employs 12 to 20 workers.
However, he noted its ownership contributed to an 18 percent uptick in sales in the first 10 months of the year. “We can control our own fate,” Vlagos said about his Chicago-based brand, which is mainly a direct-to-consumer business that also wholesales to stores such as Nordstrom and Trunk Club.
“It’s about being able to have faster turnaround time for our customers and control the manufacturing and design,” he added. “We can now constantly have shoes on the shelf, [enabling] us to fill our retail partners’ orders.”
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