A TRIP TO THE COMFORT ZONE
(Words by Gary Warnett)
Mephisto is a brand that just seems to be there. If you know about it, you’ve probably become attuned to spotting that telltale tag on other feet. If you don’t, it probably just passes you by as some matter-of-fact extra mature shoe. But to legions of fans, wearing was believing. That’s part of how Amsterdam’s Patta and the French handmade footwear company ended up crossing paths.
The company’s origins are a curious example of iron willing a business into existence. German-born founder Martin Michaeli — who, at 81 years young is still the chairman — was intent on learning every aspect of the shoe business, from sales to distribution to the tricky process of making them, travelling to the USA after completing a degree and staying there for six years.
“His family was in the shoe business as a retailer. His big advantage was doing everything by himself, “ says genial Mephisto CEO and fellow German in the family business Frank Weber, “I’ve been with Mephisto for 20 years — I was born in a shoebox like Mr. Michaeli! My father had a sports shoe factory — during holidays I had to work in the factory, cutting and lasting. I swore never to work in that world but it’s in my blood!”
“He went alone at 22 from Hamburg to New York by boat,” continues Frank, “He could not talk English and then he arrived in New York. He is a good communicator though. He asked someone where to go and was sent to the Empire State Building, where all the shoe factories in America had their offices at that time. It was around 1958. He went there and told them he wanted to work in a shoe factory. They told him that in five minutes a car would be there to take him to the factory, so he started in the cutting department there.”
Martin was particularly taken with the footwear production process in Maine — an area with a significant shoemaking pedigree. Martin returned to Germany and started his brand Michaela that specialised in a line of women’s moccasins.
Initially opting to run a tiny business in Dulhanden — a tiny French commune situated a short distance from the German border — the name would change after Martin stayed in a hotel that contained a small exhibit dedicated to Goethe, author of Faust. That book reinterpreted the age-old story of Doctor Faustus who sells his soul in a wager with the devil’s agent Mephistopheles, with the dark consequences you’d expect from such a crooked deal.
“He started two or three times as a young man because it was not easy,” says Frank, “Nobody wanted to work with him and he couldn’t find the right partner so he came here to Sarrebourg and started alone with a little bit of money.”
Intent on selling soles rather than his soul, the demonic name resonated with this budding businessman — pronounceable in every language, Mephisto replaced Michaela in 1965. That same year Mephisto opened up in the small town of Sarrebourg, Lorraine, still close to that border. Unlike Maine, the region wasn’t necessarily famed for crafting footwear, but from an initial staff of 30, production began to grow and ultimately the focus would shift to men and women’s shoes.
Throughout the 1960s, growth was so significant that in 1969 the company moved to an ultra-modern facility located in the town’s industrial zone. From there, the popularity of Mephisto erupted. In 1991 a supplementary production unit opened in Viana do Castela, Portugal to handle demand.
While Mephisto makes hundreds of styles, two key models and their stylistic siblings seem to have become insiders’ choices over the last few years. The Rainbow — Patta’s silhouette of choice — has maintained a certain cult status across Europe and America with a crowd who love its matter-of-fact appearance, versatility and absurd level of comfort. The design was originally part of the Raglers line, introduced in 1972 as a pioneering hybrid of city and sports shoe. Its latex sole and speed lacing were key innovations, and the heavily patented design was well received in Germany before it boomed in popularity with a French marketplace in the mid 1970s. Part of a collection that included an array of memorable mid and high cut comfort hikers, eventually it was renamed the Rainbow which would incorporate the bonus of 1978’s Soft-Air technology too. It was with the Raglers that Mephisto truly went worldwide.
In successive decades, progressive post-casuals in the north of England harassed walking shoe stores for pairs, while eagle-eyed footwear fans in the States paid attention when Mephisto made a real push into key territories during the early 1990s. Another key model was the Match — a white leather tennis style that was a spinoff of 1980’s Runoff, a leather lined high-performance design with an anatomical interior and lateral stabilisers. In America the shoe’s box price was colossal compared to well-known big-brand offerings, which only increased its appeal in some regions. There are some heavyweight co-signs for that model in particular. Fans of the Match included no less than Luciano Pavarotti and Sean Connery, who was criticised for wearing training shoes to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and clapped back in defense of Mephisto, declaring them, “…possibly the best shoes that you can buy.” A signed photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the brand’s headquarters thanking Martin Michaeli reiterates the rumour that Arnie is a Match disciple too.
Patta co-founder Guillaume “Gee” Schmidt enthuses about Mephisto brand over an appropriately French breakfast. “My first recollection of Mephisto was teachers wearing it in my hometown. Teachers, policemen and nurses all wearing Mephisto. I was sort of fascinated by them — they had a specific aesthetic.”
Much of what’s coveted in the streetwear realm was never targeted at that audience. That’s what ups its appeal. It’s authenticity that drew Gee to the Rainbow, “Sometimes it’s about taking stuff out of its context and putting it in a new one. It sheds a different light on it and gives it a different look. Reappropriation happened with a lot of things — it happened with Patagonia, and I’m not trying to compare these two brands, but again, that was through solely making great stuff.”
Patta’s interpretations of Mephisto’s bestseller are particularly restrained in line with the shoe’s versatility — two low key takes that incorporate the Patta label alongside the classic tag that were made in very, very low numbers. It was an appreciation from Gee’s side that sparked the collaboration, “We started this project around a year ago. I saw someone else wearing it and it was a girl this time. Also, Vincent [Patta’s creative director] was teaching at an art school and he saw people wearing them. Then we started working on the idea, wondering how we work with these people.”
In a world where every single brand seems to want some of those blog-fuelled hype euros, pounds or dollars, it was refreshing that Mephisto did none of the chasing and were initially reluctant to the idea of a partnership. Gee’s plan was speculative and initially rejected, “We just reached out to the distributor in The Netherlands. In the first instance there was no real reaction. Then they they were like, ‘Just send us your portfolio and idea — let us know where you guys are coming from.’ I didn’t think that he’d actually do it but after a couple of months I got an email from Richard Brekelmans — who is a really nice guy — and he was was like, ‘We can give it a go — send us your ideas.”
Patta’s Mephisto push began quietly during recent seasons in line with Gee’s plans for the project, “We already started using the shoes in our lookbooks — the old version in a simple black. A lot of young people now don’t have that teacher association,” he says, “You have to bring something different to your customer and what I like about Mephisto is that they’re not necessarily involved with anything that is in our world. I like the fact that it’s about the quality, and the demographic buying that shoe is very different. We don’t work with anything we don’t feel.”
Seeing the provenance of a product firsthand — and fully understanding its origins — awakens a certain curiosity in this self-professed fan of the brand, “I don’t get hung up on that stuff but it’s the cherry on the cake if you know what I mean. If you see the reasons as to why things are like they are, it gives some extra appeal. I don’t geek out on it but I like it.”
To get to Mephisto’s corporate headquarters, which are still at that Sarrebourg site, isn’t particularly easy if you’re not local to that German/Franco border. It isn’t Mordor tough, but after taking an infrequently timetabled 50-minute train ride from Strasbourg’s spectacular station to Sarrebourg — which also boasts an unexpectedly impressive, albeit smaller, station — the taxi sign outside is a little optimistic. That means an extra 20-minute walk down some quiet streets and a main road where the tarmac disseminates as you enter an industrial area. Comfortable shoes are definitely a must. Then you see vast flags that mirror those familiar tags on the footwear and realise that Mephisto might be a far bigger deal than you anticipated.
These facilities house the production unit, administration, design and logistics department — a 600 staff operation that stretches to 3,000 across other sites elsewhere, which Frank reiterates is still a close knit affair, “It’s family. I know everybody in the company. I respect everybody in the company, irrespective of their position. Working together is what makes Mephisto. This is our life.”
The Rainbow silhouette is a recurring element too, immortalised behind the reception area and amplified alongside the brand’s logos on banners externally. In a meeting room photo display it’s gold plated as awards, on hoardings by football pitches and even on a goalkeeper’s jersey in a shot from the early 1990s. It’s still the brand’s number one seller in e-commerce across every territory.
Despite that initial caution, agreeing to collaborate is the easy part. Making it is where it gets intricate. With respected Mephisto veteran Christian Jacquemin as a tour guide, every single process behind the making of a pair of Rainbows is unveiled. It’s a multi-process system that runs well into the double digits, and the location makes even more sense when that blend of Gallic pride and Germanic efficiency is seen in motion.
It begins with the leather selection process — a shelved space that holds hundreds of different rolls of leathers. Each is individually signed. For the Patta Rainbow, that colourful name is contradicted by the brown and black shades of thick ‘Mammoth’ leather (taken from a cow despite the prehistoric image that name conjures) used on each pair. With its tumbled, tactile look and feel, plus an unexpected softness, it’s carefully picked by suppliers for Mephisto, then scrutinised and cut part by part with specific knives for specific sizes. For the more flamboyant, those shelves hold multiple iterations of snakeskin effect and a particularly arresting orange patent, all treated with exactly the same reverence when it comes down to the cut.
Clad in his pristine white Mephisto coat, Christian goes to great pains to explain the importance of that foundation, “It’s very, very expensive — to have the best quality, we must have the best material in the world. We buy our leather in Europe — Germany, Italy and Spain. We send three people from Mephisto to each tannery. We use 500 different leathers in our collection.”
While the handmade process — which allows for several styles to be made on one production line — is rooted in tradition, the sample process of part cutting is more contemporary, utilising a computer programmed water-cutting process for extra precision. Lasers would be ineffective, as they’d burn the materials.
Waste is kept to a minimum, but if it isn’t right, it isn’t going on a shoe. As with every other stage, a manager obsesses over quality control. The toe piece is particularly important in terms of aesthetics — while it might be cut from the same roll, it needs to match and maintain symmetry. Real leather includes nature’s own patterns and these perfect imperfections give a shoe character, but it has to correlate on a Rainbow. When a complete set of parts are cut and rubber banded together they’re assigned a code that tells the story of the shoe and ensures it stays together — the year of the fabric, week of manufacture, place (01 denotes the French factory) and left and right parts are all called out in the numbers.
Those sets of parts are sent via conveyor belts to the workers at their sewing machines, with over 100 desks at work. After stitching is finished, it’s over to fabrication. Uppers are placed over custom lasts — which don’t come cheap — to give the shoes their form. While a Rainbow doesn’t use a Goodyear welt, the shoes that do require an operative with one to two years training on that process alone.
The layer of materials between the upper and sole are stitched at this point creating a sock-like form, before the shoes are prepped for a sole.
Edges are smoothed, and then glue is applied with ultraviolet light assistance for tracking visibility where the adhesive has been applied. On a Rainbow, the Soft-Air layer is applied, before the latex — a natural shock absorber that’s used in an estimated 50 percent of Mephisto shoes — then the familiar midsole wrap and the outsole prior to a stitch around. And then the last can be removed.
Factory lacing is done by hand at rapid speed, filling three eyelets. There are final flourishes too — leathers usually need to be polished, but in the case of the Rainbow, a little oil brings the material to life. After that, it’s make or break — despite the shoe passing multiple quality checks along the way, one senior manager will co-sign it or consign it to reject status. If it makes the grade, hang tags are added before it’s bagged and boxed by hand, though staff are spared the misery of a tedious box build, as a machine brings them to life from their flat pack state.
Of course, all the above is just a simplification of an extremely complicated set of tasks. Even seemingly basic moves are impossible to execute if you’re just a factory tourist asked to have a go. But the resulting shoes are matter-of-fact masterpieces.
On handling the finished article, Gee is impressed, “It has an aesthetic appeal, but at its core it’s just good. That’s something that’s very interesting about Mephisto — everything on the Rainbow has a reason, down to the laces, the grid on the outsole and construction of the tongue. We wanted to stay close to that aesthetic.”