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FEET FIRST In their Vancouver workshop, the Love Jules team carefully crafts their limited-edition boots. (Darby Magill)
FEET FIRST In their Vancouver workshop, the Love Jules team carefully crafts their limited-edition boots. (Darby Magill)

Built from the ground up: Canada’s fast-growing footwear scene Add to ...

Enzo Ramacieri holds a men’s brown-leather shoe in his hands, examining it with an appraiser’s eye. The shoe is a cap-toe derby made from oiled brown leather with the dull sheen of a well-worn baseball glove. It’s sturdy looking, with a crepe rubber sole and a reassuring weight, and it’s simple: An Ivy League silhouette with just enough patina to make its wearer feel like he’s had it for a decade.

To Ramacieri, creative director of men’s product for Aldo, it represents the result of a months-long development process. Countless conversations with designers, suppliers and executives have contributed to its form. Samples have been shipped from factories overseas to the company’s Montreal headquarters to be dissected before a finished product emerges. He sounds immensely proud of what he does as he explains the intricacies of finding the right shape, the right material and the myriad other elements involved in refining a design. “When you get the pieces of the puzzle right...” Ramacieri says, “All these details make the shoe what it should become. That’s when the magic happens.”

With over 1,300 stores in 95 countries and annual revenue approaching $2-billion, Aldo is by far the biggest shoe brand in Canada, but it’s just the tip of the country’s footwear iceberg. Start to hunt for local makers, as I did over the summer, and you’ll find an industry teeming with companies selling high-quality boots and shoes, each pair the result of passionate craftspeople and designers like Ramacieri and his team. If wearing local on your feet is a priority, you should have no trouble sourcing Canadian kicks.

On the west coast, both Dayton and Viberg make sturdy, rugged boots in the same way they have for generations: imbued with the hardworking spirit of the loggers and tradespeople who wore them first. There’s also Toronto-based Outclass, a skate-inspired fashion brand that released its first shoe, a classic minimalist trainer in high-quality leather, in the spring. In Montreal, Naked & Famous Denim recently launched its own line of retro low-tops, made in Japan from Japanese denim and kimono-print cotton.

In 2009, B.C.’s Native started selling a stylish moulded rubber slip-on, perfect for strolling on a rocky beach. This fall’s collection has swelled to include dozens of styles of sneakers, boat shoes, ankle boots and espadrilles. Fashion-industry veterans George Sully and Henry Wong started their business, Sully Wong, in Toronto in 2010, and have since grown it into a 5,000 pair-per-year enterprise, shipping their fashion-forward sneakers to fans around the world. As is often the case with Aldo, Canadians might not recognize these brands as homegrown, but the rest of the world does – and that’s a good thing. “Being a Canadian brand has never hindered us,” Sully says. “In fact, it has only helped us – you can blame it on Drizzy.”

Aldo’s success has been in large part due to the company’s ability to zero in on the needs of customers who visit a global network of retail stores, and as a result the brand can sell upwards of 100,000 pairs of a hit shoe style. For start-up Canadian footwear brands like Vancouver’s Love Jules Leather, success depends on tapping into a much smaller customer base. In the East Vancouver workshop Josh Blodans and Julia Vagelatos share with a handful of assistants, the duo spend their days cutting leather, punching lace holes and Goodyear-welting soles. Their latest creation is the 1906 Derby, a limited-edition made-to-measure boot sold exclusively through their website. Only 50 pairs were made, each priced at $1,000.

Instead of trying to grow too fast, Love Jules’s founders are gambling on the combined appeal of hyper-exclusivity, quality craftsmanship and made-in-Vancouver bragging rights. “Domestic production costs will always be higher than choosing to produce abroad,” says Blodans, adding that opting to live and work in a city as expensive as Vancouver doesn’t help their bottom line. “You need to offer your customers something they’re not able to access anywhere else.” Blodans dreams of someday opening a small Vancouver atelier with a sidewalk shoe-shine station and walk-up repair window. But for now, he and Vagelatos are busy making boots. The 1906 Derby sold out within a week and they’re already planning their next limited-edition release.

At a glance, Love Jules’s operation might seem worlds away from the sprawling Aldo campus in Montreal, but, at their core, all of these brands are trying to achieve a similar result. Julia Vagelatos, Enzo Ramacieri, George Sully and dozens of others across the country have spent years thinking obsessively about what makes the perfect shoe and now spend their days trying to bring that to life. It’s about creating footwear, one pair at a time, for people who’ll love them as much as they do.

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