Over the past couple months, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting on and off with Mr. John Lofgren, of John Lofgren Footwear. This began when I met him in person some months ago and asked if he would at all be interested in doing an interview with me that I would put up on the internet, as I was planning on doing a brand spotlight for his brand and thought that more information is always better, and that it would pair well with it. He happily agreed, and I started frantically thinking of what to ask him.
I’ve never given an interview before, formal or otherwise, so please forgive any awkward questions or phrasing on my part. I did my best to ask him questions that I thought would give interesting answers, and things I was genuinely curious about.
This interview was conducted exclusively over email, one question at a time. Rather than bombarding him with questions, or asking everything in bullet point, I opted for a more conversational approach. I asked, he answered. I thought of a new question, then he would wait 4 days for me to return his email...etc. The whole interview took about two and a half months, start to finish, and halfway through John took an extended amount of time to reply because, in his words:
“Elliot, Sorry, I've been crazy busy, and to top it off I got the s**t bit out of me by a dog we rescued. Got several punctures on my right arm and hand. The dog and I are friends now so all's well that ends well. That f****r really got me though. Lol.”
As for the John Lofgren brand spotlight, expect that to come a little later in the week. By the time I post this, it should be all finished up, so keep your eyes peeled.
So without further ado, here you are:
Q#1 - I would venture to say that a key element of the John Lofgren Footwear identity is the practice of ethical production, if you'd agree. I was wondering if you could build on what that means to you, and how you make sure that your production meets your high standards?
"Ethical production is certainly part of the John Lofgren brand ethos. When my footwear brand was in its infant days I was travelling around Japan meeting with suppliers and makers for everything needed to bring the brand to life. Most conversations would start enthusiastically then end with a disappointed look when I'd say I wanted the brand to be ethically made from sole to upper and everything in between. Over the years between factories and tradeshows I certainly talked with close to 1000 people in the footwear business. From that 1000 people there's only a few dozen people that share my enthusiasm, and those are the people I work with. Visiting factories is one of my favorite things to do. It's my Disneyland. And I get to see what's going on, the workers faces, the cars they drive, how clean the facilities are. Spend enough time around these places and you can tell how the company treats their employees. You can tell if they're being paid a living wage or not.*
When I was 21 years old I traveled through Egypt. I was talked into a tour that stopped by a rug weaving factory. The guide proudly showed us the skilled children whose tiny fingers were needed to weave the colorful wool weft yarns through the warp. The tiny girl in front of me couldn't have been more than 5 to 7 years old. It's not like I became an activist right then and there...But a seed was definitely planted, as I thought, that poor thing should be in kindergarten, not here weaving rugs for tourists. That seed finally germinated while I was in China attending Beijing University in 1997. As a class we visited some factories, and I was also allowed a lot of time to roam around various Chinese cities in the countryside. I really loved the country and its people (I gained so much weight because of the delicious food!), but the harsh reality and miniscule pay of workers was jarring. So, if I can help it, I don't buy Chinese made products. Of course my iPhone comes from there, and most of us know the factory that makes iPhones has suicide nets. I hate that I don't have a solution for that. The computer I'm typing on now is not made in China, it's a Fujitsu that's made in a factory in the Tohoku region of Japan. So there you go, you do what you can when you can. That's how I look at it.*
I'm fortunate that I don't have to compromise my brand, and fortunate that a lot of people seem to want to support me in this enterprise."
Q#2 - Wow, thank you for the very detailed answer. Following up on that, your shoes are very well made. Handling them, it really feels like no detail has been overlooked. Is this something more inherent in ethical production, or an aspect you’ve worked towards? What goes into your design process in regards to quality?
"Actually what I do is somewhat rare I think. Shoes and apparel that are ethically made tend to be really simple in design, moderately priced, and tend to be for women. I'm not exactly sure why that is. Perhaps makers feel women will respond more to ethically made goods? What I make tends to be detail oriented and heavily built using the best materials I can find. And on top of that it's ethically made. I'm not reinventing the wheel here, most of the designs I'm inspired by have been around since the 1900s to the 1950s, it's just I strive to improve on the construction and the fit. I think my footwear has a good reputation for being comfortable right out of the box. That's no accident. For each design multiple samples are made in two different sizes, my size and one of my staff's size. We wear them for a minimum of a couple weeks, taking notes on trouble spots and etc. These notes are gone over with the pattern maker and people at the factory. Then more samples are made and that process repeats itself until we're satisfied with design and comfort. This is why I can only do one to two new styles a year. The factory told me nobody comes close to us regarding the time and effort we put into the John Lofgren brand. Of course they're not always happy about that!"
Q#3 - That's a very interesting glimpse into your design process. I'm also curious how you go about deciding what styles to make? Your stuff is all quite heavily heritage and repro-inspired, so what is the first step in creating a new style? Where do you go looking for inspiration when you want to make a new shoe?
"I usually answer questions like this simply, which is I make what I want to wear. And rely on the customers and I having the same taste. I never look at it as "targeting" a certain customer base when developing a shoe or boot. That feels disingenuous. If I don't want to wear it myself then naturally I don't want to make it.
It's a nice to know there's a lot of like-minded people out there to support my brand. I think most brands live in the realm of just wanting to cash in on the latest fashion trends. For me it's style over fashion, full stop.
When looking for ideas and inspiration it's all about the research. I love research like Oprah loves bread. In my office in Japan I have a small library of vintage apparel and footwear related books and catalogs that date mostly from the 1890s to the 1950s. And I'm always on the lookout for interesting vintage shoes and boots. It's not rocket science, but I love it."
Q#4 - I enjoy how simple and straightforward that answer is. If I was setting out to make shoes, or any sort of clothing, I would certainly design for myself. Diving further into your design, where do you feel you have the most freedom when you're working on a shoe? Since so many of your styles are heritage or reproductions, do you work for accuracy first, or do you have your own vision? How do you balance your own creative vision when you're making these very classic styles?
"I have a 100% freedom to do what I like. The envelope can be pushed as far as I want to push it. Boundaries do exist of course, but I have no desire to cross them. For example, Chinese made custom soles are ubiquitous now, even on so-called heritage brands. If I used them I could certainly lower the price of my footwear and gain a larger share of the market, but that's something I don't want to do. It makes me happy that my shoes and boots use soles that are made in the U.S.A. and Japan.
I'm influenced by vintage footwear, of course, but replicating it isn't what I do. You see, I take cues from an old style and build my own shoe or boot upon it. Standing on the shoulders of giants, if you will. Sounds silly, but it's very true. I attempt to make it better built, use superior materials, and aesthetically pleasing to me. And to top it off they have to be comfortable. Very comfortable. That's the hardest part, and it can take a very, very long time before I'm satisfied with the comfort. In the end everything comes out classic looking by default. It's what I like, and luckily enough a lot of people seem to share that taste."
Q#5 - Your current lineup of footwear is beautiful, and a great variety of styles. You're certainly well known for your Engineer Boots and M-43s, but you've also created some more unconventional stuff, from your "Donkey Puncher" boot, to the "Tanker Boot" prototype you're working on for Eastman Leather, you definitely aren't afraid to build some less normal styles. Do you have any other more obscure shoes or boots you're interested in? Regardless of whether or not you intend to ever produce them, what types of footwear are you finding cool or interesting lately?
"How about those tanker boots??? I really like those! Eastman Leather Clothing sent me an original WWII era pair to work from. I've seen them in pictures before, but have never had an original pair in my hands. Pretty exciting stuff! The pair had Cat's Paw heels and U.S. Army half soles. So that's the way we made them. The Cat's Paw heels that come from Japan are actually made in China, so we sourced them from Canada. There's plenty of deadstock WWII era U.S. Army half soles still available, but I don't recommend using them because some would certainly crack from being dried-out and brittle. We respect our customers too much to use them. We found a company in Japan to make them for us, and they turned out perfect. Sorry, you didn't even ask about those boots, did you?
Back to your question... That's a difficult question to answer, because I'm interested in all obscure vintage footwear, as long as it's aesthetically pleasing to my eye. I'll pretty much buy (if I can afford it) any rare boots (from logger to boxing) or sneakers to add to my collection and use as inspiration.
Lately I find myself wanting a nice pair of semi-dressy chukka boots. Something that can go with either denim or chino pants or even a suit. Like my desert boot I think it'll be great for travelling too, something easy to remove while sitting in an airline seat. It'll compliment my line-up nicely."
Q#6 - Once upon a time, you made apparel as well. Recently, you were posting old labels from various garments on your instagram. What inspired you to get started in producing clothing, and how did you move from there to footwear?
"Well, I still make apparel, but only for a few select brands. It was the early 2000s and I had these various Japanese brands in my shop but I couldn't fit into any of the clothes. So, it started with me just paying some brands to make larger patterns. If they made trousers up to size 34, I paid the pattern costs to make sizes 36 and 38. Sometimes we even went up to size 40. This was totally unheard of before. Now it's pretty normal for Japanese brands to make "foreigner sizes" with such a high demand these days. But when Japanese sizes were still the norm, I just thought I could make these clothes too. I had a large vintage archive to work from in the beginning, then eventually I just started making designs myself. Footwear has always been important to me, so it was a natural progression into designing and making shoes and boots. I soon realized making apparel and footwear for my own brand wasn't going to work because it simply took all of my time. I didn't have enough bandwidth to think about all the different design details for everything. Right around that time people from outside of Japan were contacting me to help make some special pieces of apparel for their brands. They'd decide what they wanted made, and I'd give tips on design and make sure it got manufactured in a period correct way. So I ended up dividing my time between helping others with apparel and making my own footwear brand for myself. Now I have excellent staff that helps me do everything. Surrounding myself with like-minded people was the key to success."
Q#7 - What initially brought you to Japan? You mentioned traveling through Egypt, and studying at Beijing University, and your forays into the Chinese countryside from there. Today, you run shops in Japan (Speedway, Cabourn? Any others?) as well as produce your shoes in Japan. What made you choose Japan?
"I just own Speedway and the Nigel Cabourn Army Gym store in Sendai. And my company office. That's it. If you're ever in Sendai please stop by, my staff loves meeting customers from other countries. It usually ends up in an invite to the office or going to lunch or dinner together.
There were a couple reasons why I moved to Japan in the 90s. The main was an opportunity to study vintage clothing. In the US it was easy to learn what was valuable and could be flipped to Japanese buyers for a tremendous profit, but that didn't interest me, I wanted to a more in depth knowledge about what made the clothes valuable, about the fabrics and construction methods. It would be silly these days to move to another country for that purpose since there are so many people into that niche, but back then it was only dealers into vintage, and the only concern was how much money one can make off a certain piece of vintage. Japan was where the best vintage was, and was the best place to be around others that had a genuine interest in the clothes, not just the monetary value. Plus Japan is pretty awesome, everyone should visit there if they have a chance."
Q#8 - In the Western world, especially in regards to clothing, there is a heavy perception of mysticism and the superiority of Japanese-made goods. Is this something you find to ring true, to any degree?
"Yes, it very much rings true. There's probably a thousand different reasons why this is. From Japan simply being an ancient culture that had thousands of years to develop a love and appreciation for the arts, to a culture that values the master artisan and apprentice relationship. In Japan it's common for people to study under a teacher to develop their talent. You see this in the traditional arts of Japan, and the not-so-traditional arts like apparel design and leather craftspeople. Thus, in Japan you have fewer choices of say, bag makers, but most are extremely high quality. In the West there's many, many more makers, but most are mediocre quality at best. I didn't mean to pick on only bag makers, but recently a bag maker in the US ask what I thought of their product compared to what was coming out of Japan, and I didn't want to have that conversation. There are some great bag makers in the USA though (you know who you are)."
Q#9 - What's your favorite thing you've ever made (apparel/footwear)? What was either the most interesting to do, or just the thing you've made that you're most proud of? And why?
"Well, I guess the answer to that question has to be the John Lofgren Engineer Boots. A lot of time and effort went into making them. Sample after sample was made to get what I thought was the perfect balance. When they were first released the yen/dollar exchange rate made them over a thousand dollars, yet I still managed to get 50 pre-order sales. That helped a lot because I had spent a large amount of money in their development. And it confirmed that people had trust in me, and most importantly, people were willing to pay extra for the materials and craftsmanship that went into them. People were willing to pay for ethically made engineer boots. Isn't that something?! That gave me the confidence to move forward and design and produce others styles of shoes and boots. Of course it's just not me, I'm surrounded by dedicated staff, I sought advice and help from various people around the world, and people in factories gave me countless hours of their time. Without all of these generous people I couldn't do what I do."
And that’s that! Thanks for reading through. I’ve gotten to know John pretty well over the last couple months from this, as well as from having the opportunity to work with him through the shop. He's a really excellent human being, and he's creating some amazing stuff.
Also, keep your eyes peeled for the John Lofgren Footwear Brand Spotlight going up in a day or two!