San Antonio Shoemakers, known for orthopedics, is updating its shoes to attract a younger, fashion-conscious customer

Ugly footwear has never been more fashionable — see Chanel’s Dad sandal and how Crocs, the ne plus ultra of hideous shoes, is teaming up with celebs like Justin Bieber and Diplo. So leaders at San Antonio Shoemakers are shaking up their grandma-approved orthopedic footwear styles to appeal to a […]

Ugly footwear has never been more fashionable — see Chanel’s Dad sandal and how Crocs, the ne plus ultra of hideous shoes, is teaming up with celebs like Justin Bieber and Diplo. So leaders at San Antonio Shoemakers are shaking up their grandma-approved orthopedic footwear styles to appeal to a younger, more fashion conscious demographic.

Company executives insist that these new offerings do not mean that SAS, which handcrafts its footwear from factories on the Southwest Side and in Del Rio, is abandoning its 45-year commitment to making shoes that are, above all, comfortable to wear.

“For us, comfort isn’t a trend; it’s a core philosophy,” said Chris Schmitzer, head of development. “It’s what the company was built on.”

The closely held private company has built a loyal, if elderly, customer base of people with foot health problems who need comfort first, style second. For these customers, and there are millions of them according to SAS execs, clunky styling and dated color palettes aren’t a deterrent, and they’re willing to pay $100 to $300 or more to look past the fashion to get to the foot relief they need.

That kind of brand identity isn’t always perceived as a positive. Beth Johnson, a violinist with the San Antonio Symphony, calls SAS’ offerings birth control shoes.

Chris Schmitzer, head of development for San Antonio Shoemakers, holds a sample of The 76, a still-in-development men’s sneaker with a retro look. The old school San Antonio shoe company is giving its dowdy shoes a makeover to attract a younger crowd.

Kin Man Hui /Staff photographer

The company takes such criticism in stride, as it were. But in an effort to expand past that narrow demographic at a rare time when comfortable shoes are fashion-forward, the company has launched a number of new, more stylish shoes, some built from the ground up and other adapted from its classic, comfy best-sellers. These include men’s and women’s sandals with more pizzazz in the detailing, a retro-style sneaker for men in new colors and men’s dress shoe with a younger, fresher silhouette.

This is actually the second recent wave of the so-ugly-and-comf-it’s-haute shoe trend. In 2002, Crocs first appeared, becoming popular for a hot minute before being relegated to gardening and cooking duty. Well, they’re in again.

In 2011, Isabel Marant launched the ugly, heeled wedge Bekett sneaker. A recent New York Times article said, “Like the Juicy Couture tracksuit, low-rise jeans and Uggs, the orthopedic-looking wedge sneaker was the kind of design you either professed your undying love for or wouldn’t be caught dead in.” She just released an updated version last month.

The ugly wedge sneaker in 2013.

The ugly wedge sneaker in 2013.

Noel Vasquez /Getty Images

Then in 2013, Birkenstocks started popping up on runways and in celebrity photos. They never really left, in part because the company kept updating the look, launching new patterns, new styles and new colors.

What’s bringing ugly back? SAS officials say people working from home during the pandemic turned to more relaxed clothing and footwear. And once they get used to wearing really comfortable shoes, it’ll be hard for them to go back to stilettos and wing-tips.

And if they don’t, the company will be ready for them, with plenty of new styles in more vibrant colors and up to six different widths, all made with the company’s signature comfort technology.

Some of these new shoes have been built from the ground up. The 76, for example, is a retro sneaker still in development for men that recalls the classic 1970s/80s low-slung silhouette that brands such as New Balance have kept alive for decades.

Also completely new are two sports sandals, the Embark for women and the Maverick for men. With leather and mesh uppers, fabric fasteners for a better fit and shock-absorbing soles, the sandals are targeted at those who want to look snazzier while hiking or doing other outdoor activities.

The Embark for women is a completely new sports sandal. Shown here in cobalt, it has leather and mesh uppers with fabric fasteners for better fit and shock-absorbing soles for hiking and other outdoor activities. The men's version is called the Maverick.

The Embark for women is a completely new sports sandal. Shown here in cobalt, it has leather and mesh uppers with fabric fasteners for better fit and shock-absorbing soles for hiking and other outdoor activities. The men’s version is called the Maverick.

San Antonio Shoemakers

The company recently offered a limited edition collection called Desert Rose for women with slide sandal, open- and closed-toe sandals and an athletic shoe, all in blush pink with snake-printed leathers.

Suzanne Naus recently purchased a pair of the brand new Relaxed Heel Strap Sandals ($164) in rainbow red — a thatched red print with blue details. But looks aren’t all that attracted her to them.

“I like that they have a nonslip sole,” said Naus, who lives in Sarasota, Fla. “But they’re fancy enough that they don’t look like you work in a soup kitchen when you wear them.”

The company also is upgrading and renaming some of their their classic best-sellers, adding new colors, materials, hardware and other details that, while not haute couture, will make them more relevant to today’s consumers.

Take the Free Time, a women’s walking shoe that, with its large toe box and basket weave on the side, long has been a favorite of active retirees. The shoe recently got what Schmitzer calls a refresh with a thicker, more visible sole similar to that on Vans or Converse. The new style was dubbed the Free Rein and is available in seven colors, including a printed foil leather than looks like snakeskin. It sells online for $179.

The Seight women's wedge sandal has a polyurethane footbed topped with foam formed to cradle and cushion the foot and toe and ankle straps highlighted by round buckles.

The Seight women’s wedge sandal has a polyurethane footbed topped with foam formed to cradle and cushion the foot and toe and ankle straps highlighted by round buckles.

San Antonio Shoemakers

The women’s wedge sandal the Seight is another style the company developed from an existing model by adding a polyurethane footbed topped with foam that cradles and cushions the foot. It also has a two-tone polyurethane and rubber wedge and toe and ankle straps highlighted by handsome round buckles.

The Seight is one of 15 SAS shoes available on Nordstrom.com, where it sells for $178.95.

SAS execs hope that these and other more modern footwear looks will help carry the brand’s legacy to a new generation of consumers. Fran DiCarlo, head of marketing, said, “We also know that people’s style changes throughout their lives, and we invite any skeptics to try on some of our newer styles, as there’s truly a style to fit everyone.”

[email protected] | Twitter: @RichardMarini

 

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