we headed all the way up to Maine to see our latest New Balance collaboration come together.
Stepping out of the car at New Balance’s Skowhegan, Maine, factory you immediately pick up on two things: You probably should have worn boots (there’s a lot of snow on the ground for April) and you probably shouldn’t mention the Yankees (the uniform here seems to require a red “B”). It’s not the type of place you’d expect would generate effusive Internet commentary or serve as a sneakerhead mecca, but that’s exactly what it is. So here we are, because if you want to see some of the last shoe craftspeople in Maine make some of the most sought after sneakers in the world, this is where you go.
“We—New Balance—were the best-kept secret here for years,” says line supervisor Margaret Daigle proudly, and she would know, having 33 years of experience at the company under her belt. She raises her voice to be heard over the buzz and chirp of the factory lines, which have just come alive this morning, all in service of creating 998 Independence Day sneakers, which, right now, are just piles of red, white and blue parts.
Walking the brightly lit assembly floor it’s hard not to notice that, despite the modern technology, making sneakers is still very much a hands-on business of cutting, stitching and finishing. Susan Collier, who’s responsible for employee learning and development, sums it up well: “As you can see, there aren’t robots out here putting these shoes together. It’s a craft.”
The factory’s lines are each capable of producing up to 600 pairs of athletic shoes a day, and a goal sign lets everybody know how they’re doing in real time (every finished pair gets tallied as it comes off the line). But nobody is going to get anything done until Oscar Brann (14 years on the job) fills the rolling carts high with pigskin sourced from a local Maine factory. Thankfully, Brann works the die-cutting machine like a pro—’cause he is one.
True, there are no robots here. But there are a lot of American flags: some tucked into machines, some found on workers wearing T-shirts with New Balance’s “Made Here” logo. Unsurprisingly, there are some pretty strong feelings associated with what the logo represents. “There is unbelievable amount of pride in this building around making a made-in-the-USA product,” says Collier. Daigle agrees, “I wouldn’t want them made anywhere else. We take a lot of pride in what we do.”
A few hours later, the completed 998s are being nestled into their boxes—the only ones this factory will ever make—and everyone is breaking for lunch. Employees head for their cars or for one of the Ping-Pong tables downstairs. I quiz people on their plans for the Fourth of July and common themes take shape: family, fireworks and barbecues at lakeside camps—not houses, as the locals quickly correct me.
I pose the same question about plans for the Fourth to Brann, and he wants to know if I want an honest answer. (Of course I do.) “Fish and drink beer,” he says with a smile.
Photography by Bryan Derballa