One of the oldest remaining shoe and bootmakers in the US are going for a renaissance under new ownership. Shoegazing has visited their store and workshop on central Manhattan, and got a glimpse into the high ambitions of the company to create a new American powerhouse for custom made shoes and boots.
In the beginning of 2022 I noticed that the old, classic New York company Vogel had started posting on Instagram again. First I was happy, since it’s a company I’ve followed extra after I visited their workshop / small factory at the outskirts of SoHo the first time I was in New York ten years ago (you can see a short article from that visit here on the Swedish version of Shoegazing, it’s been moved from the old version of the blog so formatting is a bit weird though). Then I got concerned, when it looked like they would be focusing solely on equestrian boots, which only was part of what they made before. I soon realised a new owner must had taken over the company, and I thought it would mean the end of proper shoemaking on Manhattan and that someone just wanted to ride on the Vogel heritage and sell simply made footwear at inflated prices, similar to how many other traditional American shoe brands has developed. Luckily, I was completely wrong.
In the late 19th century the German Egidius Vogel had immigrated to USA, and he set up a shoemaking workshop on Wall Street on lower Manhattan. Relatively quickly the finely made shoes and boots gained attention, and he soon had outgrown the location. The company moved a bit north, to Howard Street of the south part of SoHo, where it thrived for several decades even during hard times for the country in general. On the famous metal sign outside its premises, over a drawing of a high boot, one could read: “E. Vogel – Custom Made Shoes & Boots since 1879 – All work done on premises”.
As for many others in the business of making custom made footwear, the second half ot the 20th century saw a decline, and even if the company lived on in the new millennium run by the fourth Vogel generation – Dean Vogel and his cousin Jack Lynch – times were tough. First Dean left the company and then Jack run it by himself for a few years. But the company was really old-school, their business model was old-school, and the customers were old-school. What do you do when you know something needs to be done, but you don’t have the energy to do it? Jack decided to sell the company, to the right buyer.
When I was in New York this October for the super trunk show event I co-organise, one of my other appointments was to visit the new Vogel premises. A few blocks down 7th avenue from the Times Square, you turn right onto the West 39th Street, and right there in a seriously excellent location, the new Vogel storefront greets you. It’s an elongated, bright store with a relatively modern feel. It’s first when one see the glass wall at the back of the premises that one realises that it’s not just your ordinary shoe store. Behind that glass, that’s where Vogel’s boots and shoes are made.
Right next to the Vogel store the new owner has its own store. Kask. The Italian family owned company is one of the most well-renowned helmet manufacturers in the world, who produce safety helmets, ski helmets, cycling helmets and horse riding helmets. It was through the latter that they had a connection to Vogel, with their praised riding boots, and this connection is what made it all possible, basically.
One of the persons who run the new business is the Sales Manager Fabio Berardi. He, together with a bunch of the Vogel workshop staff, had visited the super trunk a few days before, so he was already a familiar face to me when we met in their store..
– When we decided to buy the Vogel company, we already had a long term plan for the business, which we had developed together with previous owner Jack Lynch, who still work in the company, says Fabio Berardi.
He explains that Kask is quite different in this regard. The founder and owner Angelo Gotti still design helmets himself, and their business plan don’t focus on the next quarter, or even the next year, they think decades forward.
– I had to reset my mindset when I started working here, but now I love it. We have the possibility to do things properly and calmly plan ahead and work solely towards long term goals, which is quite rare for a sales company, Fabio says.
In the store, there’s one side focusing on regular classic, mainly men’s, shoe models, and one side on their lovely riding boots. The decision to launch the equestrian side first now totally makes sense to me. And Fabio explains that this was a given approach:
– We had the foundation with Vogel being known to make some of the best riding boots you could get, and add to that the knowledge and built-up sales and marketing channels Kask have within the equestrian world, from selling riding helmets for many years.
They refreshed some of Vogels riding boots designs, participated in various equestrian events, and have already made the brand known to a much wider audience within the equestrian world. Given that the price for a pair of custom-made boots done in the Manhattan workshop is relatively high, starting at $2,000, they also wanted to offer Ready to Wear. As mentioned, this is a company that plan ahead, so instead of just having some factory make them private label boots, they purchased a factory in Italy’s shoemaking district Marche, and had their boot experts in America develop the RTW boots based on their bespoke offerings. These boots cost $1,300.
After getting the equestrian side on track, they now move on to refreshing and building up the classic shoe and boot side as well. Here their Head Shoemaker Michael Campbell has an important role. He has been training and working in Europe for many years, and is thrilled to be back making handmade shoes in his home country.
– Honestly, I never thought I’d get the possibility to do this work for a company with this high ambitions, here in the US. Not only how one have moved and built up this whole new workshop here in this great space, but also how all of us making shoes receive continuous training to elevate our craft, Michael Campbell says.
When we head in to the workshop part, we’re joined by Factory Manager David Ruperto. He’s one of five new employees, who work together with seven other that came from the old Vogel – including the legendary Jose Reyes who has been making shoes for 60 years and been with Vogel for 40. In the first room, they do the pattern making and the closing of the uppers.
– The standard way when we do modified lasts is what’s normally called Made to Measure in the classic shoe world, with modifications to standard lasts. It’s the traditional way in the US for example for cowboy boots and so on. Since we have several different last shapes, from size US3-15, in eight different widths, it basically always work out really well, David Ruperto says.
Passing through a doorway, one enter the main room. Here the ceiling height is really high, and shelves go from top to floor with lasts, shaft shapers and shoemaking materials. David Ruperto is particularly proud of their work with the shafts.
– To make a well-fitting shaft is a very different skill to making a well fitting shoe. You have to interpret different things, and you have to work in a different way. After all the years we’ve done it at Vogel, we surely have come to master it.
Even if it’s late when I visit and most workers are not on-site, we hear hammer blows from one part of the room. At the making table one of the workers is lasting a pair of boots. I looked at the photos from my first visit before coming here, and recognise both the bottom maker and the table in front of him from the old premises.
Also many of the machines are the same. Vogel hand last all shoes, use proper thick insoles, and while standard for riding boots is cemented construction, they offer Blake and Goodyear welted as well. The same for classic shoes and boots, where Goodyear welted ones are more common. For the latter, one can also do proper full bespoke with fully personalised lasts made from scratch that are hand welted with hand stitched soles. Price for this start at $5,000.
– We have the skill to do really good fully handmade bespoke shoes, which is important for many reasons, even if that business may never be our main thing, says head shoemaker Michael Campbell.
The mix of hand work and machine-made shoes makes their prices more reasonable, and production capacity higher. The 12 people working here produces an average of about 60 pairs a month, but they can do more if needed.
– We have customers from all over the world. When you’re based in New York, where people travel to, this is easier achievable, Sales Manager Fabio Berardi says. And he believes the new location should continue this development, with a lot more traffic passing this area than the old space, hopefully discovering them.
On our way out to the store section again we pass by a room where they keep some special lasts – from customers like Paul Newman, Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller and a bunch of other old and new fame. In the store we look at some of their old and new classic shoe and boot samples, and talk about their thoughts for the revamp of this part. How they want to make a clearer customer proposition, as Fabio puts it.
– But again, we’re not in a rush, we want do it properly and get it right. The Vogel brand deserves that.