Lewiston Maine seems to be the epicenter of hand sewing here in the United States. This week we talk about Rancourt & Co, last week we talked about Quoddy, the other shoe maker in Lewiston. I am no expert on this, so I am only hypothesizing, but I would say that between the two they produce a majority of hand sewn moccasins here in the United States. Odd that both companies are based in the same small New England town? Not really. It’s one of the few places left where people have the knowledge and skill to hand sew. It goes without saying, but the question of whether or not they are competition begs to be asked. So I asked both of them and got slightly different answers, unsurprisingly. But my opinion, for what it matters, is that although they are in the same industry and make very similar products there seems to be enough demand in the market that they are both able to exist in a successful manner. So yes, they compete with each other, but I do not think it is a fierce contest. Furthermore, I would not be surprised if both firms benefit from the existence of the other because they are both supporting the same supply chain and labor pool, namely the coveted hand sewers. But onward.
Rancourt & Co is a small family run operation based out of a rather unassuming boxy building in the western part of Lewiston. The office area resembles both a ski lodge and what I imagine a winery would look like, both of which are two of Mike Rancourt’s (the mastermind and owner of the whole operation) favorite things. Mike has been in the shoe making industry for 35 years and his son Kyle is also involved in the business and shares ownership of the company with his father, so it is a family affair.
The shoes that come out of this building are worthy of praise. The leathers come from tanneries like Horween and SB Foot. And the construction, as far as I can tell, is at a high level. Certainly enough to merit the prices of their shoes, which start at $227 for a basic boat shoe. But the product spread goes beyond boat shoes and into a wide array of other types of loafers and mocs. And interestingly enough, Rancourt is looking to add wingtips with plans to make other oxfords. So a new Made In America dress shoe company could be on the horizon; something I look forward to.
Rancourt is larger in size than Quoddy, producing around 45,000 pairs of shoes per year. However, they have three types of customers, whereas Quoddy only has two. Both companies sell directly to consumers and in collaboration with other brands, like Rancourt for Brooks Brothers. Rancourt also does private label sales, where other companies will design the shoes and Rancourt will produce them, there is no mention of Rancourt on the shoes, only the selling brand; brands like Ralph Lauren, Redwing, Footjoy and Eastland. In fact, when Mike Rancourt started Rancourt three and a half years ago (by buying back part of a different company that he had previously sold to Allen Edmonds once Allen Edmonds decided they were going to ship some of their sewing to the Dominican Republic) Rancourt only did private label.
Mike Rancourt’s decision to help keep hand sewing alive here in the United States is something of merit and should not be overshadowed when thinking of Rancourt. It is perhaps also what says the most about his philosophy as a business man and shoe maker – America is his home, Maine is his home and Lewiston is his home. And although the industry may not be as robust as it used to be, it is still a living and breathing thing. Obviously, this is not a philosophy that appeals to or makes sense for all people; but for those that it does, like Mike Rancourt, it seems to be of the utmost importance.
The production method at Rancourt is nearly identical to that at Quoddy, which is certainly not a bad thing for either maker. Leather is selected then cut, uppers are stitched together, lasted, hand sewn, heated and shrunk, soled and then inspected byt the ‘magicians’ (whom I was told can fix nearly anything mistake on a shoe); or something along those lines. However, the factory at Rancourt had a more formal ambiance. The workers were diligent, each seemed to carry out their task with methodical precision backed by years of experience.
Reflecting back on my visit I remember there was something beautiful and elegant about entering the workfloor, closing my eyes and listening to the men and machines at work at the Rancourt & Co factory. It had that old school romantic charm to it, or at least that’s how I envisioned it. By the time my tour of the factory was done the workers had left, many of the lights had shut off and a calming silence fell over the building. Only for the clamour to start again the next day. Many of those ‘next days’ I suspect Rancourt & Co will have and we are better off for it. All is not lost.