After decades of decline, “Made in America” is finally making a comeback. We’ve all heard the lamentations declaring the death of American manufacture. When the financial crisis hit, more than 5.8 million factory jobs were lost in what some pundits called a point of no return, and in 2010 China surpassed the US as the world’s largest producer. But just as the economy struggles to right itself, the American manufacturing sector is seeing tremendous growth. Since 2010, approximately 600,000 manufacturing jobs have been created, countering the decades-old trend of outsourcing and cheap foreign production.
Though there are certain economic incentives for companies producing locally–declining energy prices, increasing international transportation costs, and a desire to shorten supply chains–one can’t help but feel a sense of pride and nostalgia upon seeing a tag that reads “Made in America.” There is certainly a bit of romanticism to it all–the tannery in Chicago mastering its craft over 5 generations to produce some of the finest leather on the market, or the new American watch-making epicenter in Detroit that’s bringing jobs back to a hard-hit city once known for its engineering prowess. But as a consumer, I also value knowing that the people making the things I buy are doing so in safe conditions and are earning a living wage. More and more companies, both big and small, are beginning to see this value, too.
The last few years have seen a call to arms–a push to make things locally and for consumers to “buy American.” The blogosphere has been especially influential in this regard, with people like Michael Williams of A Continuous Lean and startups like Maker’s Row advocating for companies producing or looking to produce in the States. To do our part in honoring the men and women dedicated to making goods right here on American soil, we’re launching the “American-Built” series. From time to time, we’ll highlight the brands we think are doing it right, taking an in-depth look at some of their best-known products. These are companies that we’d recommend to our friends and families because we’re, in many instances, satisfied customers ourselves.
Rancourt & Co., Lewiston, Maine
First up is Rancourt & Company, a family owned and operated business known for producing some of the finest hand-sewn shoes on the market, all out of Lewiston, Maine. The company was founded by two generations of Rancourt men, Mike and his son, Kyle. The former oversees operations, and the latter handles customer service and marketing.
The elder Rancourt has been in the hand-sewn shoe game for most of his life, having learned the trade from his father, Dave, with whom he founded Down East Casual Footwear. After 5 years, they sold their successful company to Cole Haan, one of their largest customers at the time, with Mike staying on to become president of manufacturing for the brand. Cole Haan was eventually acquired by Nike, who sought to cut costs via overseas production. Mike left the company shortly thereafter, and in 1992 he founded Maine Shoe Co. in Lewiston with his wife, Debbie. Their business grew, and in 1998, Allen Edmonds bought the company from the Rancourts. In 2009, Allen Edmonds changed hands, and the new management decided to close the Lewiston plant, a cost-cutting measure that would move hand-sewn production overseas. Mike bought the plant back, saving jobs in the process, and launched Rancourt & Co. with his son.
In 2010, after decades of contract manufacturing for private labels like Ralph Lauren, Rancourt launched an in-house brand and a MTO line to be sold directly to customers. The decision was a big success, and Rancourt regularly turns down contract work and wholesale clients to keep up with the current demand for custom orders. Rancourt & Co. employs 62 people, all of whom earn at least twice the minimum wage, with highly skilled employees making even more. 90% of the raw materials Rancourt uses are sourced from within the United States (with leather procured from both Horween and SB Foot), and their output is roughly 800-900 shoes per week.
Today, we’re going to take a look out on of their most popular shoes and a style they’re best known for, the hand-sewn 4-eyelet Ranger Moccasin in natural Chromexcel.
Construction and Materials
Many of the people working at Rancourt have been making shoes in one form or another for decades, honing their craft and becoming masters at what they do.
All of Rancourt’s moccasins are genuine hand-sewns, which means there is absolutely no pre-punching of holes that connect the main parts of the shoe. Instead, master sewers tack the leather over a last, then hand-stitch together the plug (the piece of leather covering the toes) and vamp (the bottom piece of leather stitched to the sole) with needles and waxed thread, creating the moccasin upper. This type of construction gives sewers more leeway when shaping the leather over the last, thereby ensuring a better fit. The vamp, in true moccasin fashion, is stitched directly to the sole, which is in this case a red rubber Amazonas-brand camp moc sole (one of many styles to choose from, but we’ll delve into options later).
The leather is a wonderful natural Chromexcel courtesy of Chicago’s Horween tannery. Chromexcel is one of Horween’s best-kept secrets. It’s both chrome and vegetable tanned, a lengthy process that results in a beautiful hide prized for its pliability, durability, and tendency to develop a stunning patina. The leather is also packed with oils (known as pull-up), which shift when the leather is folded or pulled and give it that attractive multi-tone look.
This particular pair is unlined, making them just as great for the summer months as they are for the fall. You have the option off getting any pair lined in deerskin, but I prefer the versatility of an unlined shoes.
The Ranger Mocs are surprisingly versatile, despite their relatively casual styling. You can easily pair them with a tee shirt and shorts in the summer, and come fall they’ll look right at home with a pair of jeans or corduroys, a windbreaker, and some fair isle socks. You shouldn’t feel out of place wearing them to the office if the dress code calls for business casual, though you can always opt for a subdued color for the sole if you feel red is too flashy.
As previously mentioned, the makeup shown here is just one of many possibilities. Rancourt’s Custom Made program allows for nearly endless customization. You can mix and match the leather, thread color, laces and eyelets, and soles. You can even order one of the shoes in a different size should you need to. There is a slight surcharge for using the Custom Made program ($280 for custom Ranger Mocs versus the $250 you’d pay for the standard version), but it’s totally worth it to have something made to spec. And if you’re really feeling the urge to splurge, you can even request a makeup in shell cordovan, which Rancourt sources from Horween and dyes in-house.
Like with any pair of high quality leather shoes, you need to take the proper steps to ensure the longevity of your Ranger Mocs. This includes using shoe trees, not wearing the same pair two days in a row, and cleaning and conditioning the leather from time to time. Because these are largely unstructured shoes made of softer leathers, you should be mindful of the size of trees you use. They should be small enough so as not to exert too much pressure against the shoes in both width and length or you risk stretching them. Another important consideration is the use of loafer socks for when you’re going for the sockless look, especially in the summer. They’ll go a long way in protecting the leather from sweat and bacteria, both of which can significantly diminish the lifespan of your shoes.
One of the great perks of ordering directly from a manufacturer is that they’ll stand behind their product, and Rancourt is no exception. Rancourt offers a full factory recraft** for a fraction of the price of a new pair of shoes. For $50, you can re-sole any pair of Rancourt-branded shoes with a boat shoe sole or camp moc sole, without refinishing. For $85, you can re-sole any Rancourt-branded shoe with a premium sole, which includes Vibram, Reltex Lactae Hevea, Montello, Plantation Crepe, and leather. For $125, they’ll practically rebuild your shoes. Rancourt will swap in a new sole, replace the laces and sock liners, and they’ll clean, condition, moisturize and, if necessary, color the leather. They’ll also remove the old plug and replace it with a fresh piece of leather.
**Recrafting is only possible with house-branded and co-branded merchandise (e.g., Rancourt for Brooks Brothers). It is not offered for shoes made for other private labels, like Eastland’s Made in Maine line. A good rule of thumb is to check the sock liner for the Rancourt stamp. The primary reason for this policy is that many of the shoes Rancourt makes for other companies are done to spec, and Rancourt can’t guarantee availability of the same raw materials needed to remake your shoes should they get damaged in their care.
This particular pair was extremely comfortable right out of the box, thanks in large part to the supple Chromexcel leather, and the shoes conformed to my foot rather quickly. The sock liner, which is more of a padded heel cushion, provides some support, but otherwise your foot is resting on the leather foot bed, which is quite flat. It’s by no means uncomfortable, but should you decide you prefer a softer foot bed, these German-made leather inserts should do the trick without taking up too much space.
Sizing is always a bit tricky to gauge. My Brannock measurement** is roughly 8.5D, but I also have a higher than average instep. I purchased these in my true size and the fit is ideal. Some have suggested going down half a size, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have narrow feet, as the toe box is quite narrow. And in that case, you’d be better off sizing down a width.
If you’re still quite unsure about your size, Rancourt’s created a solution. For a $50 deposit and a promise to return the shoes in two days, Rancourt will send you two pairs of fit-test shoes in different sizes. That $50 will then be applied to your next shoe purchase from Rancourt, simplifying the whole process of finding your correct size.
**Note on sizing
If you haven’t owned a pair of high quality leather shoes before, you likely don’t know your true size. Sneakers are often vanity sized and padded, so they’re not a good indicator of proper fit. I recommend getting measured with a Brannock Device at any shoe store.
by Ilya Ryvin