There are pendulum swings and then there’s what Tull Price did. Price, who grew up skateboarding in Australia, always wondered why there weren’t more shoes without laces since he never tied his when he went skating. In 1996, Price made the shoes himself and started Royal Elastics, which was dedicated to creating sneakers without laces that stayed on your foot via velcro and elastic. The brand produced a huge quantity of shoes at affordable prices, became a big success, and was eventually acquired by K-Swiss. There’s a capitalist happy ending, so end of story, right? Not exactly.
Somewhere the along the line, Price had become disenchanted with making sneakers based on margins and economies of scale. He had never gotten into the business to discover the ideal ratio of how cheaply a shoe could be made compared with how much it could be sold for. Put simply, he just wanted to make cool shit. He shifted his attention from making the most shoes to making the best shoes. In 2005, he started Feit with his brother Josh. Using the absolute best leathers he could find, assembled by fine craftsmen into Price’s super clean designs that prized minimalism over a bunch of useless doohickies, Feit was in many ways the opposite Royal Elastics. But a funny thing happened. Despite taking a completely different approach, the business still succeeded, albeit on a different scale.
Feit has established a loyal following of creative types—architects, ad execs—who prize the skill that goes into each pair of hand-sewn shoes. The shoes are not cheap, with pairs starting at $500. But dress shoes that are made with similar techniques cost four times as much. Feit shoes are built to last 10 to 15 years (they can be resoled) and age more gracefully than Robert Redford. The minimal design is timeless so you don’t have to worry about your shoes looking out of style from one season to the next. Price also discovered that making shoes in this manner was more sustainable.
And that is still not the end of the story. Feit may slowly expand into other categories beyond shoes in the future, and is constantly looking for new approaches to products. We caught up with Price for coffee near one of Feit’s shop in the West Village, one of two locations in New York City (the brand is also stocked by Mr Porter), to talk about his approach to design, the environmental impact of his shoes, and why “Made in China” gets a bad rap.
Where does the name Feit come from?
I have been in the shoe business for 20 years. When I was in high school, we would ride around on skateboards and you would never tie your laces. I never understood why they didn’t make more laceless skate shoes. After school, I started this company called Royal Elastics in 1996. We made laceless sneakers. We built that business up and it was quite successful. But what I found was that in order to keep a mass production like that going, we needed to keep growing and growing. What happens is you end up dumbing down the quality of the materials in order to have more margin. Then you start creating products that aren’t really as good. In 2002 we sold the company to K-Swiss. After that it got even worse. I stayed on, but after the first two years, I was like this is not for me. The name Feit was born after that. It’s really about that struggle. After I left I said, “OK, I want to learn more about real shoemaking. I want to learn about what are the best materials used for shoes, not what are the cheapest.” The next company I wanted to start would be the opposite of mass production. The name Feit come from this idea of creating something that you’re passionate about and this struggle to stay focused on doing something extremely well without compromising.
How many shoes do you guys make?
Because everything is handmade we’re limited by the number of hand sewers we have. At the moment, we have probably 30-40 people hand sewing shoes. Our volume is still small but we’re making about 5,000 pairs a year.
Where does all of this take place?
We break up our manufacturing depending on the speciality of what we need. All of our lasts are made in Italy because Italy has the best last makers. Then we source our materials usually from Italy, but we get quite a bit of stuff from England. We’re starting to work more with Sweden. All the design I do here in New York. The technique that we use is called a handstitched technique or a handmade Goodyear technique in bespoke shoes. It is the way they used to make all men’s dress shoes and sturdy work boots. It used to be done in America, but not really anymore. In Italy you’ve got a few little cobblers who are old guys who still make their shoes that way, but mainly on a bespoke level. The people who make shoes like that are Berluti, for example, in France and then Tom Ford’s top-end men’s dress shoes. You end up with products that are $2,000-$3,000. Our customers can’t afford that. So what I did was I had one resource in southern China that was a specialist at hand sewing men’s moccasins. We trained them from hand sewing men’s moccasins to the handsewn Goodyear thing.
There can be a negative connotation around Chinese manufacturing. Do you find that the workers there still take pride in their work?
There is only one place in China and only one group of people that can make shoes like this. The way our shoes our made and the people that are making them? Totally [there’s pride]. With Feit shoes, we’re focused on one thing which is trying to make a really great product by a great construction. When you have that, I think people feel good about their work as soon as you put a level of skill to it. They’re very proud of their work. There’s the connotation that’s “Oh, that’s China. That’s just mass production. It’s from Italy, it must be good.” With Feit, the reason we do certain things in certain places is purely because that’s the place that they can do it the best. I don’t discriminate on a place because it happens to be located in a certain region. I’m just trying to find the absolute highest skill set.
The environmental impact also seems to be very important for Feit. Where did that approach come from?
That was a happy coincidence to tell you the truth. My goal was purely to try and make the best product. So I said, “What material does that mean I need to use?” I researched and found that the best materials to use are real leather so I’m going to start there. Then I looked into the best leather to use and learned more about vegetable tanning, which is less toxic. Then I said what’s the best design construction for a shoe? I always thought the reason athletic shoes use so many pieces was for structure and support. But the truth is, the more small pieces you have, the more use you can get out of a synthetic material. It’s a cost savings thing that they’ve marketed as a benefit. If you want shoes to move and break with the foot, you don’t want seams. So I said all of our designs need to be one piece of leather, no seams. I kept looking into each and every component and what I found out every single time was that the natural option was the best. Then I started to say, ‘Wait a second, look at the toxicity that it takes to make all of these synthetic materials, look at the amount of petrol that goes into it, and the amount of energy.’ Then once you have the shoes, you can never destroy them. They become landfill. When I looked at the natural side, people are already eating meat, and leather’s a byproduct. Then when that leather is treated naturally and given to a production process that focuses on humans instead of machinery, the difference in the impact is massive. Also if you create shoes like this they can be resoled.
Are you seeing that happen?
Yeah, a lot of people come to get their shoes resoled. So instead of them spending a quick $120 wearing it for a couple of seasons and then it’s landfill that can never be destroyed, they’re buying a shoe that costs more money but they’re wearing it for 10-15 years. We charge more but they buy less. We produce less, which is also lower impact.
Does that then influence design when you’re thinking about styles that can look good 10 years from now?
Our design process is quite different from other companies. I think about how we’re going to make it, who’s going to make it, where are we going to make it. Then I think about the material that we’ll use. Those things create a lot of confines around what I can do with the design. Some companies start with design and drawing on paper. We’re kind of the opposite. We start thinking about the construction and materials and then we go into the design.
Feit has these staple styles. What does it take for a new style to make the cut?
Feit is really a labor of love. I tried to create something where we didn’t have to rush. We definitely don’t want to put products out there that are out for a season and then they disappear. I’m always trying to think about the the key essentials of what a person wants. All guys like a basic lace-up court sneaker, so we have a basic lace-up court sneaker but in our way. Everyone likes to have a slip-on, so we make a slip-on. We go through iconic things but we make them in our refined manner.
Does that liberate you from being married to the fashion calendar when you’re focused on more timeless silhouettes?
Definitely. The seasonal calendar puts so much pressure on you. The truth is it’s not the seasonal calendar, it’s the requirement of these public companies to deliver quarterly profits and from there it just trickles down. At the beginning of Feit we knew that was one of the things we didn’t want to get caught up in. This spring, we made one new style and it was just the upper. We made a few new colors, but that was it. It is liberating because you’re not under pressure to make things that are average. With Feit our motivation is not to make huge amounts of money, it’s to to stay in business and have a stable business. Our main motivation is just to try and build great products that people appreciate.
And if you follow that approach of growth-at-all-costs out to its logical conclusion, it’s untenable.
Our aim at Feit is to have it at a scale where we people can enjoy working on the business and make sure that we have enough so that we can eat and drink and send kids to school but beyond that, we don’t have to have massive aspirations because we can enjoy the time that we’re spending and what we’re doing. You still have to balance it with the reality of being able to stay in business. I only came to that realization after the Royal Elastics experience. I saw that I’m in this business because I really love making great product so I tried to create a structure in which that was possible.