Mesh health sneakers worn by grandpa that young people think are cool

Paul Ben Chemhoun is the founder of Brut, a Paris-based vintage store so focused on selling outdated, old Americana that it’s more like a store that opened in Kansas. A few years ago, Paul stumbled across a few pairs of sneakers from a San Antonio shoemaker. These shoes grabbed him. They looked good, but it was where they came from that really got him excited. Shockingly, these shoes were, well, made in America. “I was greatly surprised by that.” said Ben Shermon, who thought only New Balance had American-made shoes.

Attracted by cheap labor, most major U.S. athletic shoe manufacturers moved production overseas years ago. In the world of footwear, an American company that actually produces shoes in the United States is as rare as a dog with three heads: today, there are only an increasingly rare number of shoe companies that can print “Made in the USA” on their labels, and New Balance in Boston is by far the largest. Like its neighbor in the same area, the Alamo Fortress, the San Antonio Shoe Factory is an American relic. For close to half a century, the factory produced sneakers, Louboutins and elaborate boots in the heart of America.
But SAS (an acronym for San Antonio Shoemaker) isn’t a big factory like New Balance. It’s not even well known among Nike-obsessed sneaker collectors. That’s because SAS primarily serves a clientele that lives in retirement communities. Its traditional audience is more “old school” than the TikTok generation. That’s all starting to change. Last year, Ye, a rapper formerly known as Kanye West, posted a photo of the SAS logo on Instagram, sparking speculation that the two unrelated parties might be working together. (They didn’t.) Lately, SAS has been in the midst of a wacky moment that can be boldly described as cool, thanks to the pops shoe trend, or the grandpa shoe trend, as some people call it. On Instagram, you can see people decades away from joining the AARP wearing the brand’s moccasins with pleated pants and aviator jackets.
Ryan Chang, 35, a Los Angeles professor who teaches writing, has been a fan of SAS for years. Much of the reason he was attracted to the shoes was that they so clearly didn’t directly target the under-50 demographic to which he himself belongs. “Those shoes weren’t recommended to me by an algorithm.” Chang said. He reveled in the fact that his mesh travel shoes had lasted so many years – and that they were so comfortable to wear. “They weren’t designed for style to begin with,” he says, “they really focus on foot health.” His friends who are well into their forties have even become SAS devotees, not for the shoe’s styling, but for their orthopedic benefits. Chang says, “The main reason they buy SAS shoes is because their feet really hurt.” After all, arch pain can happen at any age. The wide look of the shoes also has fans.” I’m very interested in the grandpa style. ” says Ben Shermont. His store even released a co-branded version of those mesh travel shoes in July.
Priced at $245, the soft-feeling sneakers look like the kind of shoes some sweatpants-wearing retiree would stomp around his neighborhood. It’s as if Ben Shermont said the shoes just happened to be the kind his own twenty-something guests would wear to roam Paris’ Third Arrondissement. Online, the shoes, which use a lot of mesh uppers, are already sold out in several sizes. Ben Shermont says he wrote many emails over the course of several months before receiving a response from SAS about the co-branding. “It was hard to get in touch with them.” This, he says, reflects the fact that SAS is sometimes unsure of how to target a clientele below the age of its own core users.
“We’re not a fashion brand in any way, shape or form, or from a fashion perspective.” SAS’s outspoken CEO Nancy Richardson said. Distinguishing itself from the shoe brands that are usually obsessed with youthfulness and fill all their ads with smiling skateboarders and basketball players, SAS has no focus on the teenage clientele. “We’re really focusing on people 35 and up.” She said. Not that Richardson is a slow, unthinking CEO. when she joined the company in 2012, SAS was only able to launch a new shoe every five years. “It was like this company hit the pause button,” she says. She says. (By the time she became CEO, Richardson already had front-line manufacturing experience-between 1986 and 1992, she ran the company’s accounting department.) Under her leadership, the brand came back to life, launching four to five new shoes a year. “I felt there was a huge opportunity to move from a high focus on the comfort of wearing shoes to combining fashion and comfort.”
Today, under the “New Arrivals” tab on the brand’s website, there are $329 dressy boots and $225 lace-up dress shoes with a thick rubber outsole. Each pair takes 65 to 80 steps to make. Everything from finalizing the shape, to sewing the mesh upper, to folding the shoebox is done in the factory. On the brand’s website, the company’s target audience is clearly defined. The product description begins with the word comfort and states that any style is Medicare-certified for older Americans. For consumers with foot pain, SAS offers a range of shoe widths to choose from. This is something that millennial consumers will hardly care about.
SAS is a privately held company that does not disclose its revenue, number of employees or production. It has three factories in South Texas, still owned by the family of Terry Armstrong, a Maine-born entrepreneur who started the company with his friend Lew Hayden in 1976. “They were very strong about keeping jobs in the United States.” Richardson says of the founders. Investing in American manufacturing is exactly what the apparel industry is advocating and what politicians are calling for, and Richardson says in his own experience, it’s not really the way to persuade consumers to spend their money. “Every piece of research we do says ‘no,'” she said, referring to the responses she received each time she researched whether people were buying SAS shoes simply because they were made in the U.S. “I think people buy our shoes just because we offer an amazing product.”

Made in America is an uphill climb that needs to be sustained, no matter how comfortable your shoes can be. Because skilled workers are in short supply, this company assumes that everyone they hire knows nothing about shoemaking. “It takes about six months in the factory before we consider a given worker adequately trained.” Richardson said. The high cost of U.S. manufacturing also means that SAS sneakers, like Nike’s $110 Air Force One or Reebok’s $90 Club C, are sold at much higher prices, which consumers occasionally complain about.
Interestingly, the consumers who see American manufacturing as a huge plus are often from overseas, which is SAS’s fastest-growing market. On Instagram, most of the hipsters endorsing the brand are from Japan. “Made in America is still widely respected around the world.” Richardson said. “I’m a big fan of American-made,” said Mario Romano, a 50-something Italian actor and vintage-clothing aficionado who used to wear New Balance and now binges on SAS shoes. “These are the ideal sneakers I’d wear for the rest of my life with old American-made Levi’s 501 jeans.”



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