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Red Wing’s grip on footwear extends more than a century – Post Bulletin

RED WING, Minn. — In the lining of Red Wing is the footwear industry.

The city thrives on the industry with manufacturing leaders Red Wing Shoe Company and Riedell Skates remaining rooted in the city of 16,547. There’s a hometown pride in the longstanding products manufactured in Red Wing.

“When you talk about Red Wing to anybody from outside Red Wing that’s one of the first things they mention is the shoes. In a lot of ways the city and that brand are synonymous to some people, which I think is a good thing because I think it plays on the strengths of both our organizations,” said Kyle Klatt, Red Wing community development director. “That’s been a really good relationship and is exciting to see just how much power that that brand has outside of Red Wing.”

Shoes are a part of the soul — or the sole — of the community. There’s a series of boot sculptures around downtown. The sculptures recognize more than 100 years of craftsmanship in Red Wing. The boots are painted with downtown buildings, bluffs, the Mississippi River and an ode to the city’s businesses.

Footwear created in Red Wing is worn by people around the globe, from people working on the docks to the Super Bowl halftime show and everywhere in between.

“We’re very proud of our USA manufacturing history and legacy. We continue to make premium, purpose-built work boots and lifestyle, fashion footwear here in Red Wing,” Red Wing Shoes Chief Services Officer Mike VanGoethem said in an email. “We’ve been doing this for 119 years and it’s a privilege to continue this tradition.”

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development lists manufacturing as the leading industry in Goodhue County, with Red Wing as the county seat, at 22.6% of total jobs. The next industry is health care and social assistance at 13.8%.

“As an economic development authority, too, we’re charged with helping promote job growth and jobs in the community, economic activity, supporting tax base and our manufacturers do all that for us as well,” Klatt said. “They certainly contribute a large portion of the tax revenue that comes to the city to help us operate and maintain the city.”

“With the Red Wing Shoe and Riedell, it’s an area in the country that’s very unique with two major, major powerful brands in one small community is very, very rare,” Riedell Vice President Scott Riegelman said.

The companies focus on quality and designing products to last.

Scott Riegelman described the work Riedell does as “old-fashioned” shoemaking. The process for making each shoe, boot and skate involves a person. Individuals soak and dry the leather, cut it into shoe pieces, handmark and stitch each piece, form the boots to their shoe size with lasts and attach soles.

At Red Wing Shoes, practical elegance starts with leather from S.B. Foot Tanning Company. Red Wing Shoes owns the tannery.

The workers crafting the boots want them to last “through the years, gears, beers, n tears,” as a customer described on Facebook.

VanGoethem said his love of shoes includes “style and self-expression, comfort, durability, quality, craftsmanship, cultural importance, and most importantly, historical significance (especially in Red Wing’s case).” Their styles range from work safety to hunting, hiking and lifestyle shoes.

“It starts with getting to know our customers, then their feet. Because the work each of our customers do is unique to each of them—the fit should be, too,” VanGoethem said in an email. “We pride ourselves on these relationships and making it the best experience possible for the customer.”

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A customer tries on a new boot on Wednesday, April 3, 2024, at the Red Wing Shoe store in Rochester.

Maya Giron / Post Bulletin

Shoes are a family business for Riedell

For Riedell, the legacy started with Paul and Sophie Riedell building on their love of ice and roller skating to develop the best skates in 1945. Paul Riedell left Red Wing Shoes and a few people joined them in their venture out of a garage.

“He had a lot of community help, a lot of assistance along the way,” described CEO and President Bob Riegelman, whose grandparents founded Riedell. He also runs the company with his brother and two sons.

After 52 years with Riedell, cutter Helen Stewart said “I just love the job.” She’s worked in the fitting, sole and cutting departments. She shifts through an array of dies to cut the leather into sized skate boot uppers. Scott Riegelman said the “lost art” is not like a bread machine where the product pops out, it takes a lot of craftsmanship.

Each skate requires upwards of 100 operations with the custom skates having closer to 200 operations. When custom orders come through an instruction sheet details colors, embroidered pieces, wheel selections and any range of special requests. People are creating their own skate in “every color of the rainbow,” finishing supervisor Brenda Gold and fitting supervisor Angel Nord said.

“It’s been told to me by some customers, actually one this week, that what we do here in the skating industry is like the Rolex of skating,” Bob Riegelman said.

When

Usher broke into a choreographed roller dance on the Super Bowl LVIII stage,

his skates were Riedell models. While creating 57 pairs of custom skates for Usher and his backup dancers, pattern engineer Anthony Berghammer said “we were able to thread the needle a thousand times really fast.” Usher described the skates he designed as “iconic” in an Instagram post following the performance.

It was a showcase of Riedell’s advanced techniques — in one minute of fame. During the after party, Usher roller skated the whole time on a rink floating above a swimming pool. Berghammer said “it was great to see him skating, he was having a blast.” He joins the presidents, superstars, Olympians and actors and actresses who have Riedell-created skates.

The high-end skates are available to the public, with about 20 orders since the Super Bowl, Bob Riegelman said in March. Riedell produces lifestyle, outdoor, indoor, speed, derby and recreational roller skates; and competitive, performance, dance and recreational figure skates.

“(The Usher project) was the opportunity of a lifetime, whether we make any money out of it in the long run I’ll never know,” Bob Riegelman said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a big volume deal but it gave us the opportunity to project the image of roller skating and to build our image with the public. Not very many times you get put in front of 123 million fans that are going to watch a game and they get to see your product out there.”

Riedell Skates Factory

Richard Brown, with Riedell Skates, cleans a skate boot before its inspected at the Riedell Skates factory Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in Red Wing.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

But people don’t have to be a celebrity to lace up a pair of Riedell roller skates. Scott Riegelman said rinks across the U.S. have several of their models.

It’s not conveyor belt production, rather people switch between skate models and carefully add each aspect. Scott Riegelman said shoe production in the United States decreased in the 1990s with most footwear production moving overseas. Riedell also has a portion of imports.

“We’re very proud to be located in Red Wing. We do partnerships offshore but our main U.S. manufacturing has always been here in Red Wing since day one,” Scott Riegelman said. “In a rural area, I think we’re very fortunate to have very family-oriented people that really understand coming to work is an honor and being part of a big team is also an honor.”

The city laced with history and legacy is where the company will remain.

“This is our home,” Bob Riegelman said. “They’re our extended family. It’s a family business, that’s just the way we feel.”

“I’m interested in all these people that work here,” he added. “That’s why it’s important to be here.”

From leather to Red Wing Shoe stores

Red Wing Shoes found its footing in Red Wing starting with Silas B. Foot’s Foot Sterling Shoe Factory in 1861. The tannery opened several years later in 1872. Charles Beckman set their path to craftsmanship in 1905 to support farmers, loggers and miners. Owner J.R. Sweasy and the next three generations of Sweasys continue forming boots workers are proud to wear.

The people of Red Wing do more than just create the shoes, they can also help them look their best long after they are purchased.

Between cases of fine clothing and cupboards of dress shoes, people can have their shoes shined at Heime’s Haberdashery, which opened in the former Josephson’s storefront in fall 2022. Red Wing store manager Jeff Caza said people can stop by or drop off their shoes for a shine. There is a minimal fee for the service.

“It’s always like a little side service that we have, it’s not a main focus of our business … but it’s a service we want to offer. If somebody comes in and is buying something, or if they just come off the street and need a shoe shine,” Caza said.

Red Wing and Shoes

Heimie’s Haberdashery offers shoe shining at their downtown Red Wing store. Benjamin Koutz, left, a haberdasher, and Jeff Caza, the manager of the Red Wing Heimie’s, show off the service Wednesday, April 10, 2024, in Red Wing.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Caza said they plan to add a shoe shine stand in the future, similar to their St. Paul store. Still, the community said

goodbye to Walt’s Shoe Service in 2020.

Red Wing Shoes resoles and repairs boots at their repair shop in the Red Wing manufacturing facility.

At the S.B. Foot tannery, Caza said they enjoyed seeing the smaller drums for the leather bags they’ve sold for over 20 years. He’s amazed at the work produced right in Red Wing.

As customer needs have evolved, VanGoethem said the company’s new shoe styles number in the hundreds every year. Thousands of pairs of boots are manufactured each week.

“The concept,” VanGoethem said of his favorite piece of creating a shoe. “Sitting down with my product creation and supply chain teams to better understand consumers wants and needs. Creating a brief outlining the purpose of the boot, how it should be worn, where it should be used, and what features are needed.”

“My grandfather had a belief that no matter who you were, handicap, non-handicap, great skater, beginner, we would be able to make a skate for every person and that’s his philosophy,” Bob Riegelman said. “We built skates for blind skaters, we built skates for kids with Down Syndrome. That’s what makes me happy is just to know that no matter if you’re an Olympic champion or a beginner that just wants to skate, we’ll do our best to take care of you.”

On the Riedell factory floor there is laughing, where friends work with each other and they constantly check on quality. Whether customs or longstanding models, it’s “one pair at a time,” Scott Riegelman said. It’s only a matter of how the team will put their best foot forward: “There’s no challenge big enough, is there?” Berghammer remarked.

The custom orders have increased since the ColorLab tool, where customers choose colors for each part of the skate, was introduced about 10 years ago. Bob Riegelman said customs account for 15 to 20% of their business.

“In the customs, we get to work with everybody. Everybody gets to have a hand on it,” Berghammer said. “It’s very magical to take somebody’s idea and their measurements and have an end product that fits perfect every time is huge.”

As a Red Wing Shoe store manager in Rochester, Paul Haase said, “I wear boots more than shoes.” He enjoys helping customers find shoes often crafted by a fellow Minnesotan.

“What I truly love about Red Wing (Shoes) is the fact that it’s made only 40 minutes away from here, not everything, but we still do have that product available for customers and that is ultimately what I like the most about the product is the heritage behind it,” Haase said. Red Wing Shoes also has a factory in Potosi, Missouri. “You come into a store like this grab something off the shelf and it was made by your fellow work union laborer in Red Wing, Minnesota.”

The Rochester store, owned by Paul Kieffer, sells the workwear, Heritage, Vasque and Irish Setter lines. There are also local dealer stores in Plainview, Winona, Grand Meadow and Austin.

“Ultimately, the Red Wing store is a destination store. It’s hard to compete with that and they have the giant boot there. I don’t have those kind of draws,” Haase said. “What draws people to this store is its convenience, I’m right off (Highway) 52. You can get to me and out of here within 10 minutes sometimes. If we got that longtime farmer that’s been a good customer of ours, it’s like going to get a gallon of milk.”

Red Wing and Shoes

A decorative design in the shape of a boot sole is pictured on a light pole in Red Wing on Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

While producing shoes and skates as two of the last dinosaurs in the footwear industry, Riedell Skates and Red Wing Shoes remain a footprint of the community. The companies hope to continue to walk forward for years to come.

“Legacy can tie you down because it becomes too precious to change, but there’s a way to honor heritage that is relevant to our future,” Red Wing Shoes president and CEO Allison Gettings shared with the

University of Minnesota in 2023.

She is also the great-granddaughter of J.R. Sweasy. “The good news is, for us, who can imagine a future where we don’t have to strap boots on our feet? That’s timeless, and for that, I’m thankful.”

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The Red Wing Shoes store includes a 638.5 size boot in downtown Red Wing. The boot was created for the company’s 100th anniversary in 2005.

Contributed / Red Wing Shoe Company

Riedell Skates Factory

Kelly Langer, a production worker, thins out the edges of pieces of leather that will go into a skate upper at the Riedell Skates factory Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in Red Wing.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

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Boots are shown in the backroom of the Red Wing Shoe store on Wednesday, April 3, 2024, in Rochester.

Maya Giron / Post Bulletin

Riedell Skates Factory

Skate boots dry at the Riedell Skates factory Wednesday, March 20, 2024, in Red Wing.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

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A selection of boots in the Repair Shop at the Red Wing Shoe Manufacturing Facility in Red Wing.

Contributed / Red Wing Shoe Company