Wonder what it takes to make one of America's best-selling boots? From selecting skins to the Arkansas benchcraft process, Michael Petry shares his passion as a "maker" for The Frye Company.
When I got the call to meet Michael Petry, Creative Director of The Frye Company, I got so excited that I actually called my mother…and my sister. It’s true. See, we’re all Frye fanatics and for good reason. There is something very special about brands that have deep rooted American history and, of course, that are handmade. In case you didn’t know, The Frye Company is celebrating 150 years – it’s sort of a big deal.
The special part is not that I got to shake hands, hang with a brand rep and talk about how much we LOVE boots. I mean, I love boots, but I can hold that conversation with a brick wall, really. The exciting part is meeting the “maker.” Yes, the maker! The man who not only dreams up designs of your favorite footwear, but also visits the tannery, picks out skins, prefers a specific thread or stitch and who is lucky enough to make a shoe from beginning to end as he sits next to a Frye boot master with over 40 years of making under his well worn belt.
I knew when I walked into the new Chicago flagship store I was going to meet someone special. Michael is a down-to-earth, cool guy. He listened to my many Frye family stories of boots gone missing or (gasp) given away. We strolled over to preview the 150th Anniversary Collection, where we started our hour-long chat about the brand and the incredible craft of being a “maker.”
SK: So, do you have a favorite style from the Anniversary Collection?
MP: That’s like asking me to pick my favorite child! For me, I really like the Engineer Boot, [we did it] with just a little more of a tapered toe and shows you all the detailing. As for Men’s, the Prison Boot is actually based on the Arkansas prison boots that are issued out to the prisoners, so we remade it and made it a little more comfortable. [Laughing]
You see, The Frye Company makes boots the same way they did back in 1863. It takes more than 190 steps to make one pair of Frye boots. I was pretty sure Michael didn’t want to be tested on all the steps, so we started to chat about the process in its entirety and the Arkansas factory where they shot an incredible video. (see below)
SK: How about those 190 steps?
MP: [Laughs] Well, we did a thing with Discovery Channel while we were there. And thing about it is that everyone who gets into the factory thinks they understand manufacturing. And they were just blown away by how many people physically touch the shoe before it actually winds up in the box.
The process starts six months before that. We do a concept and draw it. We send the drawing down to make a pattern. It gets cut out of cardstock or oak tag. Then that goes to the leather. The leather gets cut and then they (shoe) last it. And even before that there is the componentry that gets ordered, so it get shortened when you see the process (in the video). Someone is making the last that the leather gets stretched over, the stitching room, the bottoming room, the Goodyear welting that goes and it’s incredible what happens there.
SK: The leather selection has always been my favorite.
MP: It’s got to be one of the best parts of my job.
SK: So you visit a lot of tanneries?
MP: Next Monday I fly to Italy for the week and visit all of our tanneries.
SK: Can you take me through what it’s like?
MP: Sure. It’s really what the whole brand is founded upon. We consider ourselves a leather goods company, not just a boot company. We do handbags, men’s, women’s, and anything that we do we use the best Italian leather we can find.
Next week I’ll go and usually there are about 30 tanneries and we try to meet with about 15, which are really our top 15. We look at what we have in production now, what we want to make changes to and then they’ll present (options) that they think are really good for our brand and other things they think will be a stretch for our brand and things we should try.
It’s 15 tanneries over 5 days. It’s really lengthy. It’s takes us a lot of time, but you think about it. We stretch it, we cut it, but it’s the basis of the whole brand. So, when you get a Frye product, it’s the best Italian leather you can find or the best American hide you can find.
Lesson to learn: American hides are more hearty- just like us, go figure! It’s great to know The Frye Company does source from Chicago tannery, Horween. The Italian hides are a whole lot sexier though. We giggled and really, are you surprised? Italian skins are cleaner, smoother and sexier. We both share an affinity for Florence, Italy. Michael actually lived there and around Tuscany during previous design jobs, which included Adidas, Prada and Ralph Lauren. He learned his craft from designing sneakers to high-end Italian goods. There was a story in there about going over a concept with David Beckham right on the soccer field. Michael’s a lucky guy with a lot of experience and wonderful friends and memories collected while designing around the world.
SK: Let’s talk about hardware. Most importantly, Frye Hardware?
MP: We do a lot of motorcycle driven stuff. We also go into this heavily studded biker kind of feeling. It all started around six years ago when I came. The idea was to have something that looked like it was repurpose. Like you had bought it and had put the studs on it yourself.
Then we started to get into the more motorcycle and rock ‘n’ roll kind of stuff.
Passing through the studded section we happened upon the photos displayed of actual makers that have been with The Frye Company for 20 to 40 years. Pictures hang of tanneries in Italy, as well as the founding father of the brand. Not to mention the two manufacturing facilities in the United States, one in Arkansas and the other in Pennsylvania.
Michael and I went on to talk about all the hands that it takes to make the heritage brand what it is today. Not to mention the respect for the craft and true talent it takes to be an actual “maker.”
SK: People really need to understand, and I’ve always said this, if you don’t understand how things are made, then you won’t understand why they cost what they do.
MP: And that’s actually true. One of the guys [who was at the factory from a magazine] he came in (to see the process) and said, “Now I understand why these things cost what they do.”
The idea of manufacturing is what’s really the element of the foundation of the brand. The Goodyear welt, we hand stitch out, we do constructions that take a lot of handwork and lasts a lifetime.We make a great product for a great value. Doesn’t matter where you’re at, people can recognize quality.
The Chicago flagship store has 800 different shoes, so there is something for everybody ages six to sixty. The store is impeccably designed and branded Frye from a harness installation, which hangs from the ceiling, to the well-worn floors. The smell of leather is perfectly balanced by the incredible displays of the heritage brand.
SK: Is there something that is sort of on the horizon for The Frye Company that’s outside of footwear? You do accessories and bags. Do you see the brand going beyond that? Is there something that you are dying to do?
MP: Right now we feel like we are doing a good job of executing the things we should be doing. We make quality products and that’s a premise you shouldn’t get away from.
There are a couple of areas we can expand-men’s business. We are primarily 70% women’s. We’ve reinvested in what we do for our men’s and then also our bags. Bags are real natural for us. We kind of re-launched about six years ago and now it’s really starting to come on strong. It’s the same core values as used for our shoes.
If we do those three things really well, then that’s a great three-year plan for us. Beyond that, we’ll keep an open mind!
- Suzanne Kopulos
For more information visit The Frye Company, or
visit the Chicago Flagship at:
1007 North Rush Street - Chicago, IL 60611 - 312.642.3793