The History of Red Wing Shoes

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As one of the oldest footwear brands in America, Red Wing know exactly what it takes to maintain a brand's position at the top of the game. Read on for the full history of Red Wing!

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Manufacturers of some of the most work suited footwear in the world, Red Wing shoes have come a long way since their initial jaunt into footwear back in the early 20th century. Moving with the times, they've developed from a brand that catered to the blue-collar labourers, to the service industry workers and finally included the needs of the casual wearer in their remit.

Nowadays, they strike the balance of providing to all three sectors while still remaining relevant, contemporary and desirable - not an easy task to accomplish. With over 400 Red Wing stores across the US, and 15% of all revenue coming from outside the country, they're a brand that has stood the test of time with clever marketing and a surefire aesthetic. Want to know a little more?

Read on for the complete history of Red Wing.

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The History of Red Wing Shoes

1905 - 1918

As with most brands, the story of Red Wing shoes begins with a practical touch. When German immigrant in the US, Charles Beckman realised there was a shortage of practical, hard-working shoes available in Red Wing USA he decided to set up shop by himself with the support of 14 other investors.

Starting out, the company got off to a relatively efficient operation, manufacturing one-hundred and ten pairs of shoes in a ten hour day. From there, the steady flow of customers from the railroad, farming, logging, mining and smithing industries saw the brand experience a year on year growth. The clever finessing of their business towards the working class population of Red Wing proved to be a smart move as the popularity soon led to the expansion of their collections into different sizes in width as well as a bolstering of their specialist product lines tailored to different professions.

By 1908, Red Wing began producing welt-constructed shoes which featured leather strips attached to the upper and sole. These finishes enhanced both the comfort and durability of their boots which only increased their popularity among working communities, particularly those in agriculture. This unprecedented growth saw the expansion of their manufacturing base into a four-story factory, increasing their daily output capabilities to 450 pairs a day.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

By 1912, the company had added new styles to their lineup, notably the 'Chief' collection, or 'farmers shoe'. This move was, once again, welcomed by farming communities and strengthened the relationship between them and the brand. The chief line featured the improvements from the last updates but swapped out the original leather for a specially tanned, exceptionally durable alternative.

1918 - 1940

As the company continued to experience growth within its commercial sector, the onset of World War I saw them focus on military contacts alongside this. By the 1930s, post-war times led to an increased focus on innovation once again by Red Wing seeing them produce steel toe lined boots which became increasingly popular among miners and other hard labourers for obvious reasons. Interestingly, these also became quite popular among punk culture in the seventies.

It was during these times that they developed comfortable, oil-resistant boots suitably dubbed the 'Oil King', which preceded to become popular among oil field workers. As well as designing the two new styles, Red Wing also began to cater to the elite horse-riding markets of the time, creating the premium 'Aristo' boots for outdoor pursuits and riding.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
RedWing Boots | PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

At a management level, previous 'cost man' J.R. Sweasy became company manager in 1918, and quickly gained majority control over the company through a series of stock purchases, becoming vice-president by 1921 on the death of the previous president.

Over the coming years, Red Wing began to incorporate rubber into their designs which led to increased suitability and increased sales among the working public due to its durable nature and cost-effective manufacturing price. Sweasy began to integrate rubber cord soles into their boots as opposed to the traditional leather option, which quickly became a normal substitute among competitors and set the industry on a path to relying exclusively on synthetic materials.

While the added durability of rubber was a welcome advancement in work suited footwear, it was the lowered costs that really gave the company a boost. With the great economic depression of the times, man-made materials came at a greatly reduced cost to their natural counterparts meaning the company could continue doing business through tough times. This was most evident with their model no.99 boots, selling for a meagre 99 cents - they kept Red Wing in business through the recession.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
Red Wings | PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

1940 - 1980

With the advancement of synthetic materials, Red Wing continued to grow at a steady rate regardless of the tough times and by the end of the second world war had begun selling at a national, and eventually international level. As with most quality manufacturers of the time, Red Wing profited immensely from wartimes, creating combat suited boots for the military over large contract periods.

By the late 1940s, J.R. Sweasy was replaced by his son, William D.Sweasy. Through the reputation they had built for quality and reliability over war times, Red Wing had created an efficient hierarchy of department heads, development teams and managers which proved to be incredibly rewarding company structure. Sweasy placed increased emphasis on this moving forward, as well as integrating a new distribution strategy that saw Red Wing set up shops all along the east coast.

This new strategy proved to be incredibly rewarding with the company hitting their highest profits ever by 1952. While the new management had a role to play in this, it was also largely down to their new Irish Setter Sports Boot. By adding their Vasque outdoor division in 1965 which specialised in R&D, Red Wing were in pole position to harness the popularity of hiking boots at the time. Adding several unique iterations of the popular style, they became one of the market leaders in the boot game.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

1980 - 1990

By the time the eighties had rolled around, big corporations were the name of the game. Red Wing began changing out many of their small-time marketing strategies for bigger ideas, as well as updating their products for the more contemporary times.

Although the company we're staying afloat, In 1984, product manager, Tom McConnell spoke to Footwear News identifying the challenges they we're facing at the time including; an increased move from rural to urban areas, a downturn in the number of blue-collar laborers and an increase of women in the workplace all pushed Red Wing to begin changing their tactics.

While they continued to serve the working customer who had helped them build the company, they soon began to focus on promising new market sectors such as the service industry and altered their motto from 'work shoes' to 'shoes for work'. This change in design direction was bolstered with an increased push towards a younger demographic with their marketing strategies and, conveniently, this was matched by the new, younger management team.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

By 1984, William J.Sweasy Jr had stepped up to the role of president after the older Jensen had retired from the role, serving as the third generation of Sweasy's to run the company, while his father, William, continued as CEO. Under the new president's remit, a modern approach was taken with communication, strategy, product diversity and a younger, more forward thinking team.

Before, the upper management team operated intuitively; they shot from the hip, so to speak.

 - Company Spokesperson, Red Wing

In 1989, representing the fresh new direction for the company, William Sweasy Jr. was elected to the chair of the Better Business Bureau of Minnesota, becoming the first executive outside the Twin Cities areas to do so. It was this kind of development that helped keep Red Wing at the forefront of the rapidly changing times. Representing this practical, innovational thinking, Red Wing were pioneers in creating dedicated collections for women with their Ladies Red Wings.

Previously, while many companies were simply scaling down men's offerings, Red Wing began to change this by incorporating safety features, lightweight soles, and a more feminine silhouette than many of their competitors. They became an instant hit, shifting over 250,000 pairs.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

It was in the innovative eighties that Vasque Outdoor Footwear division was also rapidly developed to keep up with the times. Creating design-led footwear that also featured unique, practical features such as heel counters and lacing systems became renowned with the Red Wing name.

The consumer today really is concerned with cosmetically fine footwear, boots that can function and still look nice.

 - Art Kenyon, Divisional Manager, Vasque

1990 - Present

The early nineties saw the hiking boot trend hit its peak with and Red Wing's Vasque line saw a major financial boost as a result. Although Vasque had seen a steady decline in the style since the 1970s, they maintained their production and by the time the resurgence had come around, they were ready.

Alongside the steady growth of their Vasque hiking boots for adults, the company introduced a line of kids boots dubbed 'Kids Klimbers' featuring a fit that can fluctuate along with children's rapid growth. As a result, the combined efforts of their adult and kids lines led to them becoming the fastest-growing segment of the Red Wing Shoe company in the early nineties.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

Along with their focus on the hiking boot, Red Wing also continued their innovative direction with their work shoes. Responding to the public's predilection to wearing athletic shoes when outside the workplace, they introduced steel toe trainers to their lineup as well as making the materials used to create their existing lines lighter and softer.

As the nineties continued, Red Wing ran comprehensive marketing initiatives to push their most popular products including; TV commercials, print advertisements, and editorial coverage. However, Red Wing were aware of the impending death of age-old advertising techniques and began to use different techniques in an attempt to garner interest once again. One such measure saw them include a toll-free number in their TV ads which allowed to customers to call up for further information.

In the late nineties, while many of Red Wing's competitors began to outsource their manufacturing to cheaper labour bases such as China and India, they continued to produce a large amount of their boots in the US. While they did outsource certain products to Mexico, China and further afield, they continued to open new manufacturing bases in America through the decade in both Potosi, Missouri, and Danville, Kentucky.

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

Just before the turn of the century, Red Wing decided to lay concrete division lines between all of their collections. This allowed each 'brand within the brand' to solely focus on their respective markets.

  • Red Wing: Work footwear including steel toe, rugged work, work casual, service, and women's footwear.
  • Irish Setter: Outdoor, hunting, and sports boots.
  • Vasque: Footwear for adventure seekers, hikers, and backpackers.
  • WORX: Work shoes and boots similar to Red Wing, but at a more economical price point.

In 1999 Red Wing shoes opened their first flagship in the largest shopping centre in the country, The Mall of America in Minnesota which had an astounding 43 million visitors a year. Hoping to use it as a base to convert and educate shoppers on their premium wares, the store featured a multimedia center where customers could learn about the company's history, products, and manufacturing process.

We feel very strongly that one of the hidden benefits of buying Red Wing boots is the construction, the craftsmanship, the fact that we control all processes in Red Wing. We're not real sure that most of the buying public is even aware of those benefits.

 - Roger Bunn, Vice President / General Manager at Red Wing

PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest
PHOTO CREDIT: Pinterest

Your Quick Guide to The History of Red Wing

  • By 1908, Red Wing began producing shoes which featured leather strips attached to the upper and sole. These finishes enhanced both the comfort and durability of their boots which only increased their popularity among working communities.
  • After a brief focus on wartime efforts, post-war times led to an increased focus on innovation once again by Red Wing seeing them produce steel toe lined boots which became increasingly popular among miners and other hard labourers.
  • New marketing and distribution strategies in the fifties proved to be incredibly rewarding with the company hitting their highest profits ever by 1952.
  • In the 1980s, while they continued to serve the working customer, Red Wing soon began to focus on promising new market sectors such as the service industry and altered their motto from 'work shoes' to 'shoes for work'.
  • As the nineties continued, Red Wing ran comprehensive marketing initiatives to push their most popular products including; TV commercials, print advertisements, and editorial coverage.

Conclusion

That's your lot! With a history steeped in workwear roots, you can be sure that if you pick up a pair of Red Wing boots - they're going to last. Inspiring the idea of buying a few well made, quality pieces a year, opposed to the current fast fashion model of grabbing trend-led pieces, Red Wing have developed a reputation as a responsible, transparent and quaility driven brand.

While still producing their renowned work suited boots and shoes, Red Wing now offers a plethora of stylish casual footwear suited to the everyday wearer - while retaining their durable nature. Sound like something up your street? Head on over to their brand page to pick up some Red Wing shoes!

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