The world of shoemaking has its major players, its usual suspects. Northamptonshire, England lays claim to venerated names like Edward Green and John Lobb while Italy’s foot in the race is run by the likes of Ferragamo and Stefano Bemer. Eastern European brands certainly enjoy their share of the limelight with Saint Crispins and Vass which literally wrote the book on handmade shoes. Alden, Red Wing and Viberg have their place at the table, too. Not to mention the swathe of Japanese craftspeople in the business of cordwaining.
But the shoe capital of the world can’t be found in any of these countries. You’ll find it in Mexico. Specifically León in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. The city was founded in 1576 by Spanish conquistadors looking to guard the area against the local tribes, and the European vaqueros brought with them farming and cattle. The cattle, along with horses, prospered over hundreds of years birthing a vibrant leather industry essential to the local economy. Today, the region is home to generations-old tanneries that supply premium leathers to local shoemakers and leather-goods producers.
Rancher Workman by Unmarked $450
In Texas, Cowboy boots became prominent partially thanks to the Lucchese family in the late 1800s. As the family made a name for itself with its premium footwear, it acquired the latest technology, notably Goodyear welting machines, that would help build superior, resoleable boots. The technology eventually made its way south of the border to León and Goodyear welted shoes were then added to the city’s specialties.
Those reliable skills came in handy during World War II when the U.S. military looked to Mexico to contract factories for quality shoes. Production ramped up intensely for León and the region imported more machinery from overseas.
The Shane by Tecovas $245
Currently, Mexico produces upwards of 250 million pairs of shoes — 70 percent of which are made in León. With that amount of shoes, not every pair is a world-class build, but mass production, quick turnarounds and cheaper materials can be found in any manufacturing region. A number of shoemakers continue to produce incredible footwear, the kind of you’d expect in a region that’s specialized in the craft for centuries, and people have noticed.
Top-tier designers and brands look to León, not just for its margins, but for its skills. Goodyear-welt, Blake stitch and stitchdown construction, along with higher stitch counts and faster lead teams are all attractive production qualities. Frye, Wolverine and Lucchese all produce shoes of comparable quality to their stateside offerings in the region. For some brands, they’re even better. Yuketen’s most intricate and highest-pricepoint shoes are made in Mexico because of the level of quality and skill required for such ambitious designs. Along with them, brands like Taylor Stitch and Tecovas aren’t shy about their Mexican manufacturing. Rightly so.
The Ranch Boot by Taylor Stitch $348
And while many international brands turn to León with their designs, there are fewer Mexican brands that actually finding much success on their own outside of the country. Hugo Fonce, designer for León-based brand Unmarked says that part of the reason is that many Mexican factories don’t believe that they can have success selling their own designs, though they possess the skills to produce top-quality products. Instead, they’re more likely to contract their work to companies. But, Unmarked is just one brand making the case for the region. Lemon-wood pegs, invisible channels, leather-lining and intricate embroidery are just some of the details you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere and are just a few of the details inherent to the brand.
Mexican-made footwear isn’t good because other countries made it good. It’s good simply because it is. León’s shoemakers have built their prowess upon generations of shoemakers before them and centuries of history. Guanajuato is paved with cobblers and stores dedicated to the product and the craft, and there’s nowhere else quite like it.
Yulka 02gxl by Unmarked $350
Loafer by 2120 $335
Eric by Yuketen $396
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