A rejuvenated Quoddy Footwear finds a niche in the maker movement.
By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Jared Lank
[O]n the second floor of a massive brick mill overlooking Lewiston’s congested Lisbon Street, Kevin Shorey straddles a wooden bench and slides a pair of beaded and fur-trimmed moccasins across a table. “My grandmother made these for my dad,” says Shorey, a fourth-generation Maine shoemaker and, with wife Kirsten, the co-owner of Quoddy Footwear, the iconic brand that they resuscitated 18 years ago.
The Shoreys practice their trade much the way Kevin’s great-grandfather did when he made shoes at the turn of the 20th century — by hand-cutting pieces of leather that are then stitched together around a foot-shaped last. In an era when most shoes are mass-produced in Asia, such individualization is rare — so rare that customers occasionally drop by to see how it’s done.
Some of those curious visitors happen to be famous, like the members of the Los Angeles folk-rock band Dawes, who toured the factory, took a turn at stitching, and even custom-designed their own shoes. (“I’m so excited,” says keyboardist and multiple Quoddy shoe owner Tay Strathairn in a video of the band’s visit on the Quoddy website.) Other well-known Quoddy wearers include New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and his fashion model wife, Gisele Bündchen.
Quoddys, which occupied a lucrative niche in the footwear industry for more than a quarter-century before falling into a precipitous decline, are once again hip.
Heritage brands — brands rooted in cultural history and tradition — are hot right now, and Quoddy further benefits from its association with Maine. Thanks to companies like L.L.Bean, the state has a reputation for craftsmanship and quality, says John Andreliunas, a longtime footwear exec, now the Shoreys’ business partner and the company’s CEO. “I have always known about Quoddy,” says Andreliunas, who recalls walking into the Kittery Trading Post several years ago when he was working for Timberland and snapping up a pair of distinctive Quoddy Ring Boot moccasins. “I wanted to show it to my designers to say, ‘This is handcrafted shoemaking at its finest.’”
Kevin Shorey’s family history intersects with that of Quoddy Moccasins in the small Passamaquoddy Bay town of Perry during the 1950s and 1960s. There, Kevin’s grandfather sold Quoddy Moccasins and Native American crafts at the Quoddy Wigwam Gift Shop, a Route 1 landmark with bright yellow siding and a tepee next to a pair of mannequins in a canoe out front.
At the time, Quoddy Moccasins, which was founded in Portland in 1947 by Jack and Anne Spiegel, was a leading national brand sold in more than 1,500 stores around the country. But the company ran into financial problems in the 1980s. By 1995, when Kevin, a salesman for the Chicago Tribune, returned with Kirsten to his native Maine to purchase his grandfather’s shop in Perry, Quoddy Moccasins was defunct. The Shoreys revived the brand three years later as Quoddy Footwear LLC, buying the shoemaking equipment of a Kenduskeag company and recruiting its retired owner to teach them in a workshop they’d set up in their barn.
Soon they had six employees, but the remote location made shipping and finding skilled workers difficult. Six years ago, they moved production to its current home, an 1876 textile mill on the Androscoggin River in Lewiston, which, along with Auburn, was once one of the largest producers of shoes in the world. “It has to be here,” says Kevin, who now employs 40 designers, cutters, and stitchers. “It’s where the people with the skills are.”
Rather than compete on price, Quoddy competes on quality, Kevin explains during a tour of the mill. Workers, their fingers taped against nail and needle sticks, stand at rough wooden benches in a room with a soaring ceiling and tall arched windows. Mounds of discarded leather rise against one wall. A second room is filled with antique cast-iron sewing machines, another with industrial rolls of leather.
“I followed every shoe shop in Auburn and Lewiston,” says Helen Williams, a lean woman with strong hands who bends over a sewing machine to stitch a brown leather stay before sending the shoe to be shod. Williams left school to make shoes at 15, and like many of the company’s workers (who each have an average of two decades of shoemaking experience), she’s glad her skills are needed again. Her sewing machine looks identical to those in photos of mill workers from a century ago because that’s how old the equipment is. The rolling wooden racks on which the shoes are stacked are the same ones pushed by factory workers in the 1940s. Only the styles have changed.
Every Quoddy shoe — styles include boots, loafers, chukkas, oxfords, bluchers, and boat shoes — is fashioned in moccasin style without a separate heel and with a turned-up sole that is sewn to the upper with a gathered seam. And most Quoddy shoes are made to order — customers go online to select their preferred combination of leathers, laces, threads, grommets, and soles, and six to eight weeks later, their custom shoes arrive at their door. “We don’t have a warehouse,” Kevin says. “We don’t have an inventory.”
Quoddy’s customer service operations remain in Perry, where workers who once made shoes now answer phones and take orders from customers in more than 80 countries. With prices starting at $99 for a pair of soft, sheepskin baby booties and $200 for a LoBoy moccasin, such workmanship comes with a price, but the company also re-soles and repairs for longer wear.
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Lacking a marketing budget, Quoddy sometimes partners with other companies, like shoemaker Ugg, with which it made shearling-lined mocs, and whiskey distiller Basil Hayden, with which it produced a limited-edition gift set that included a pair of shoes, four leather-wrapped drinking glasses, and a matching case. It’s helped to be featured in high-profile magazines like Paris Vogue and luxury goods websites like the Robb Report.
So does being headquartered in Maine. “If you went to camp here as a kid and you come back, not much has changed,” says Andreliunas, who spent vacations in Eastport as a boy and remembers driving past the Wigwam store. “Maine is beloved around the world. There’s that magical mixture that makes Maine a special place in people’s hearts, and we are part of that.”