PENDLETON HAS BEEN grabbing most of the headlines lately, as popular culture continues to re-embrace the sturdy, timeworn handsomeness of heritage brands. But if you take Highway 30 out past Sauvie Island to Scappoose, you'll find another regional treasure in Wesco Shoes (sometimes called West Coast Shoe Company). Originally located in downtown Portland, the modestly sized factory employs about 40 people and is nestled in a peaceful residential neighborhood, churning out handcrafted boots, many of which are custom fitted to each client. The Wesco brand got its start outfitting logging workers, and more recently has primarily trafficked in work and motorcycle boots for men. That changed this year when they launched a women's line, as well as a fashion line called Van Spijker—both of which were designed by a young Wesco cobbler named Carrie Wilson.
Van Spijker launched quietly in late summer of 2010, garnering a first-look write-up in Women's Wear Daily, but unless you happened to catch the trunk show that was hosted by Jane's Vanity last year, the Van Spijker line is most likely under your radar. Wesco is a family affair, founded by—I kid you not—John Shoemaker in 1918. His granddaughter, Roberta Shoemaker, is the current CEO and the first woman at the helm. In the spirit of their family tradition, the Van Spijker line takes its name from the founding Shoemaker's wife's maiden name, and the styles—Jentje, Klaasje, Harmina, Fenna, and Johanna—are all family names too, named for the couple's five daughters.
In keeping with the company's rich traditions, Wilson sought to preserve some of the era in which it was founded—for example, in the leather-covered buttons on a pair of boots that you really have to button (no hidden zippers here, that's cheating). With a background in formalwear, including wedding gowns and corsetry, Wilson's respect for the vintage aesthetic is balanced by modern touches, like a punchy contrast piping and leather laces.
Wesco often forgoes the modern shortcuts in the construction of all its products, emphasizing the artisanal nature of the process (they claim a pair of work boots undergoes 155 separate steps), and that ethic is carried through even more so in the Van Spijker line, which despite its femininity is built to last (a structurally sound high heel is a rare and beautiful thing, but it does exist). Another young cobbler, Amber Scott, works only on the Van Spijker orders.
None of Wesco's products are cheap; their work boots hover around $400, but a recent tour of the factory revealed hundreds of well-worn boots being rebuilt to their original shine (note: they will only rebuild Wesco products, which seems pretty fair). The Van Spijker collection retails between $1,200 and $1,800, and while stock sizes are available, Wesco is known for their custom fittings—available for a relatively modest additional fee, since everything is done by hand as it is. Customers all over the world come to them for this reason, and the factory is stocked with thousands of records of each person's specifications, and custom lasts are stored on long rows of shelves. For obvious reasons, many of their customers tend to be people who have difficulty finding shoes in their size, so they tend to be impressively big or small, and in at least one case of elephantiasis, truly gigantic. But what it boils down to is if you're going to make that kind of investment, why not go all the way?
The Van Spijker line seems destined to become a cult item, and many of its earliest customers are the wives and girlfriends of men who stumbled upon them while shopping for work boots. Wilson admits that to some degree it's an experiment, and its evolution will be dependent upon how well it does. Although the overall aim is to—like the rest of Wesco's catalog—create modern classics that can be customizable through material choices and variables like boot height, Wilson does not discount the possibility of adding new styles to the line. The low profile only adds to its status as one of the region's best-kept secrets, but one that Portland women above all should know.
See the slideshow from inside the Wesco/Van Spijker factory, above right.