Most shoemakers left the United States for cheaper factories abroad decades ago. Here’s how two small, family-owned firms with strong consumer followings—Sabah and Okabashi—are bucking the trend.
Mickey Ashmore started Sabah, which makes shoes inspired by Turkish slippers, after being gifted a pair of traditional ones and searching out the best factory in Turkey that could make a more modern version. But these days, the company’s charismatic founder and CEO is excited about something closer to home: This spring, he quietly opened a new shoe factory in El Paso, Texas, to test new materials and styles of his shoes, which he calls sabahs and babahs, near his American consumers.
The move bucks a decades-long trend of footwear manufacturers moving overseas to save on costs.
“El Paso has a long history of leather crafts with cowboy boots and saddles,” says Ashmore, 35, who is a native Texan. “The way you make a cowboy boot is very similar to the way you make a sabah.”
To be fair, Sabah, whose main shoe retails for $195, is handmade, creating a somewhat different challenge than that faced by mass-production shoemakers. But the move is intriguing at a time when discussions of reshoring and expansion of American manufacturing to meet supply-chain challenges has been front-and-center.
In Georgia, another family-owned shoemaker, Okabashi, which has always produced its footwear locally, recently announced a $20 million expansion to its own 100,000-square-foot American factory. Okabashi, whose founding family is Iranian and once owned the largest footwear business in the Middle East, has been manufacturing in Buford, Georgia since its 1984 start. Its recycled men’s and women’s flip flops and kids’ rain boots (made partly of U.S.-grown soy) are sold at Walmart and Target, as well as online.
“People would ask my father, ‘Have you ever thought of moving your factory to China?’ time and time again. He just made this commitment,” says Sara Irvani, 34, who took over as CEO five years ago.
The moves of these two small, family-owned businesses are at odds with the vast majority of the industry, which has largely departed from one-time American shoe manufacturing hubs, like New England. Today, some 99% of shoes sold in the United States are imported, mostly from Asia.
When far-larger Rothy’s looked to set up its manufacturing in a 3,000-square-foot factory in Maine, for example, it ran into quality problems producing its knitted flats at scale. So after a year of trying, Rothy’s shut down its U.S. factory and set up shop in the industrial city of Dongguan, China, where it now operates a 300,000-square-foot factory. (For more on Rothy’s, see our July 2019 magazine feature.).
A decade ago, Sabah’s Ashmore, a former finance guy and Microsoft employee who’d lived in Istanbul, fell in love with his gifted Turkish slippers. Back in New York City, he searched for a shoemaker who could make him a modified version with a more modern look and higher-quality materials. Soon he was selling the shoes, made at a more than century-old factory in Gazientep, to friends and friends of friends out of his living in the East Village, like a far more stylish version of an old-school Tupperware party.
When Ashmore started to look for a second factory in the United States, he considered Los Angeles and New York. Not only did he want more capacity, but skyrocketing inflation in Turkey had become a risk. “Doing something domestically was a challenge,” he says. “There’s not a lot of people making shoes in the U.S. anymore, and certainly not expanding in the U.S.
In 2018, he settled on El Paso, wooed by its history of leather crafts and boot making. The new factory’s manager is a third-generation footwear maker and master tooler. “I built a lot of my business on intuition. It feels good to keep following that,” says Ashmore, who continues to own the business with no venture funding. “Being informal and not overly metricked gives us our soul and our customers love that.”
With the new, 3,000-square-foot factory, he hopes to produce higher-top boots that will blend the heritages of Turkey and Texas, as well as new versions of its existing slippers with new materials and designs. Its first run of slippers made with undyed saddle leather launched June 11 and sold out in seven hours, he says. A second run sold out quickly as well.
New versions of the shoes will be made out of materials other than leather, perhaps canvas, fabric, velvet or denim. “One of the things we are most excited about is the ability to bring in different types of materials. It’s difficult to bring other materials in to Turkey,” he says.
Okabashi, meanwhile, which has sales of more than $20 million, targets a different customers, with its sustainably made sandals, many of which sell for below $20 at mass retailers and on Amazon. It’s sold a total of more than 35 million pairs of shoes since its founding. With the new factory expansion, Irvani figures on doubling manufacturing capacity to “a few million” a year.
“I think people appreciate sustainably made in the USA in ways that they didn’t even five years ago,” she says.