When George Vlagos was a teenager growing up in suburban Chicago, his father John summoned him to be his apprentice during weekends and times off from school. John, a cobbler who immigrated from Greece at 18, made his son toil with his hands to clean, polish, and service shoe after shoe after shoe.
It was an experience meant to sear into George the strenuousness of working with one's hands and the importance of pursuing an education so he could one day find a different type of work outside of the family business.
Well, the plan didn't work out exactly as John had planned. His son, of course, did go on to graduate college and receive a master's degree. But those days spent in the shop left George with a love of working with his hands, a deeper appreciation for craftsmanship, and a dream to continue on in the shoe industry.
So in 2010, George created a shoe company built on two things: American craftsmanship and simply but handsomely designed products of the highest quality. He invested money to revitalize a Maine factory and hired New England craftspeople to hand make the classics - leather bluchers, oxfords, loafers, and such. Oak Street Bootmakers was born.
The brand launched solely through the Internet, namely the blog Secret Forts, and George was instantly flooded with orders on a global scale. It's a funny dynamic - creating a brand that strictly adheres to traditional and increasingly rare values and seeing it succeed on a wholly new and young platform. The strange marriage of old and new is an increasingly frequent one for guys like George who are intent on reviving American craftsmanship in a 21st century world.
But the most striking thing about Oak Street Bootmakers is an authenticity so inherent that it doesn't need to be expressed or advertised, announced or contrived. It is just there.
George still answers the phones, oversees designs and production, and employs a network of Maine craftspeople for whom shoemaking is something inherited from their grandparents (who got it from their grandparents) and, along the way, made the tiny towns that dot the Maine woods and coast one of America's hubs of quality shoemaking.
Due to the brand's success, George is in the final stages of opening a Chicago flagship store. It will be in Chicago's Gold Coast on, most fittingly, Oak Street.
In the shop windows will be a few pairs of beautiful shoes meant to last as long as the wisdom George learned during those days at his father's shop - forever.
Visit Oak Street here.
Oak Street Bootmakers Camp Boot next to Lotuff's Working Tote