A Return To Craftsmanship: Allison Gettings Of Red Wing Shoes
A century-old heritage brand—and the city it shaped—charges forward with a new face at the helm.
Allison Gettings is 6,000 miles from home. She’s standing at a bustling intersection in the heart of the business district in Osaka, Japan. As she’s about to cross the street, a young woman on the back of a motorcycle catches her eye. The woman has long, platinum blonde hair and wears black leather biker gear from head to toe—except for her boots. Their vibrant orange-red leather pop against her otherwise monochromatic outfit. “She looked so cool on that bike,” says Gettings. “I felt like such a small-town girl right then. Most days I wear what I can find in my closet, so it’s surreal to see people all over the world with awesome style wearing boots that were made in my hometown.” As director of product creation for Red Wing’s Heritage line, Gettings oversees the style of boots the woman was wearing—from the other side of the world. “In that moment, I realized the scope of my family’s legacy and that I’m connected to so many people who wear our shoes,” says Gettings. “I thought, ‘I’m not cool enough to be working for this brand.’” But in fact, Red Wing Shoes has been in her family for four generations.
The company is named after the town where Charles Beckman started it 111 years ago: Red Wing, Minnesota. It’s a town of 16,000 people, located about an hour south of the Twin Cities. Right along the west bank of the Mississippi River, Red Wing was originally a trading town. It’s grown in the past century, but even today you can drive across town in about 15 minutes. Farmland stretches for about an hour outside the city in every direction. Much of the city revolves around Red Wing’s boot factory, which started by making leather work boots for farmers, miners, loggers and other American workers. Soon after the factory opened, Gettings’ great-grandfather took over its finances and became president of the company shortly thereafter. In the next generation, Gettings’ grandfather expanded the business globally and created the legacy we know today.
Although work boots still remain the biggest part of the company’s business, the brand has exploded among fashion insiders, Brooklyn hipsters and everyone in between. But the people who wear Red Wing know the hype is well-founded. “Red Wing shoes are a staple in American workwear,” says Sandra Nygaard, menswear veteran and fashion director at Men’s Health. “The factory itself is an institution. It’s steeped in tradition. They still tan and manufacture every part of the boot right on site. It’s what America was like at the height of its manufacturing era.” Some of the company’s traditions and techniques have been updated, but many have not. The upper portion of each shoe has a signature triple stitch that’s still made with Puritan sewing machines, many of which date back nearly 100 years. They’re so old, in fact, that the factory’s full-time maintenance team now has to manufacture parts themselves to make repairs. Every sole is still attached with a Goodyear welt, a nearly 150-year-old process that creates a tough, durable foundation which allows the soles to be replaced after they wear out.
By the time a new shoe is finished, no less than 30 skilled artisans have worked on it before it leaves the factory. “They have salt-of-the-Earth people crafting these shoes by hand, so there’s plenty of attention to detail, but there’s also a sense of ownership and pride in the end product,” says Nygaard. “The brand really is one of the last strongholds for the old traditions of American craftsmanship.” But because Red Wing doesn’t see a lot of outsiders, its people aren’t as influenced by nationwide fashion trends. “It’s not out of the pages of Vogue,” says Gettings. “There’s a slower pace here, and that’s an important part of our company. We’re consistently true to our roots.” By fostering and developing new products in the brand’s Heritage line, part of Gettings’ job is to ensure that every product keeps within the company’s rich heritage.
Although Red Wing has always been a family business, Gettings didn’t originally plan to work there. Her father was CEO when she was growing up, but he never pressured her to follow in his footsteps. Gettings studied neuroscience at college in Minnesota, but later decided to start product development for Red Wing in 2006. For years she helped create new shoes and accessories, but after a while decided to break out on her own. In 2013, Gettings moved with her husband to Los Angeles to start her own shoe line. “I was out there creating shoes, hauling them everywhere, and doing sales by myself,” she says. “It was grueling, and I felt very alone.”
Then the couple had a daughter, Grace. So in 2015, when Gettings saw the opportunity to come back to Red Wing and launch the brand’s first women’s Heritage line, she didn’t think twice. “I jumped at the opportunity,” she says. “I was so happy to develop a new collection with the resources and support of so many people.” The 24 styles in the women’s line adopted some of the classic men’s silhouettes, but introduced new heeled boots as well. “Translating the brand for the women’s market was special for me,” says Gettings. “As a woman in a male-dominated industry, I’m always asking myself what makes a man tick, so it was a nice change. I think women are really having a moment right now, and this line symbolizes that for me. It’s so inspiring to see women from all over the world come into their own and support each other. For so long women have tried to fit into a male stereotype. Now, it feels less about being like a man and more about achieving success on our own terms without trying to cover up our femininity.”
Working with every aspect of a new product, from market research and analysis to manufacturing and the technical aspects, Gettings describes her job as a balancing act of sorts. “We’re always trying to connect with consumers, push forward, and stay relevant, but we want also to stay true to Red Wing and its history, too,” she says. One way she achieves that with all Red Wing shoes is through authenticity. “It’s a big part of our brand, but people experience that differently. For example, my husband grew up on a farm, and when his feet stopped growing his dad bought him his first pair of Red Wings, which is very common here and all over the country.” Because their shoes can last generations, sons will often send back their fathers’ shoes to be refurbished and repaired.
“The brand—and the city, for that matter—both have a real sense of community,” says Nygaard. “In the past few years, there’s much more interest in American workwear, but I don’t think Red Wing ever sought to be trendy. I think fashion just caught up with them.” Although her job brings Gettings all over the world, each time she sees a pair of her family’s shoes on one of her international business trips, she’s thinks about her community back in Red Wing. “I’m reminded of the great people whose livelihoods are impacted by the work we do,” she says. “The responsibility weighs on me. I want to do right by them, and my hometown.”
Photography by Attilio D’Agostino