‘Made in USA’ carries quite a lot of weight for many people in clothing, especially for boots. There are so many brands that build their entire image and reputation on their boots being made in America and how that makes them inherently better made and more rugged and durable than other boots. Are those claims actually true though?
In my experience, they are not because overall, Japanese boots are made better than American boots. I even wrote an article on how in general, amekaji-heritage clothing is made better in Japan than in the US. However, is even ‘made in Japan’ necessary for boots? Recently, there have been more and more great looking boots being made in places across the world, from Scandinavia, to China, Indonesia, and even Russia.
Some of these boots looked so good that I’ve actually bought a few pairs and it made me consider the idea of where clothing, especially boots are actually made and how much that matters in regard to the quality of them. The general impression is that boots made in Japan, the USA, and England are the best, but is that actually true?
First, we have to look at each of these three countries that seem to be the big three and see if they actually make boots that are worthy of being the gold standard.
Let’s start with Great Britain. While England certainly has a proud shoemaking tradition, most of their shoes and boots are too formal to be on our radar. As much as I think makers such as John Lobb, Edward Green, and Gaziano and Girling make great dress shoes and dress boots, I most likely will not ever be wearing them with anything but a suit or slacks and a sport coat. However, there are more casual boots being made in England. Loake, William Lennon, Dr. Martens, Solovair, Grenson, Crockett and Jones, and Trickers all make boots that are more casual and wearable with jeans and other Amekaji clothing.
I do not have as much experience with English shoes as I do with other countries’ boots. However, I have worn a couple of pairs of Trickers which along with Crockett and Jones, are generally considered to be the best on this list. The Trickers boots I handled and wore were pretty nice and I definitely would like a pair for myself one day, but I would not rate them as highly as other boots that I have and have handled from other countries. While England does make great footwear, I would not say that their casual boots are of a quality that makers in other countries could not match. For example, my Carmina boots are just as nicely, if not slightly nicer made and finished than the Trickers I tried and those were made in Spain and less expensive than Trickers.
Next up is what most people would think of as the true heavyweight champ – The United States of America. In terms of actual heavy duty work boots, I actually agree that the USA cannot be beat. The Pacific Northwest makers, including brands such as Wesco, Nick’s, White’s, Frank’s, and more make some seriously tough boots for actual tough, blue collar work. Some of these boots are even built to withstand use in fire which is pretty wild. However, this website is not about actual work boots. I do not work a blue collar job, so I am ill suited to comment in detail on work boots. If you want information on that, check out Carl Murawski on Youtube. He is into this type of clothing and he actually needs to wear serious work boots for his job.
In terms of casual boots, the US certainly has a lot to offer, but the picture is not as rosy as some may think. In the first place, a lot of American brands actually make many of their products overseas in order to save money. Red Wing, Thursday, Wolverine, Taft, and more all do this, though some of those brands do also make many boots in the USA as well. What about the quality of the boots that are made in the USA?
With so many different boot brands in this country, quality is all over the map, though the floor is decently high. Even the cheapest American made boots that I have seen and handled are at least of decent, wearable quality just like in England. At the lower end ($200-$400) you will certainly not be getting the top quality in boots, but everything I have tried at this price point has been at least solid and durable with Goodyear Welt construction. Sure, you will likely find flaws, but what do you expect at that price point?
The USA is fairly strong in the mid range of boots. Those Pacific Northwest brands not only make great work boots, but they make pretty solid casual boots as well. I own boots from both Wesco and Nicks and both use excellent materials, look nice, and are built to last. With that said, boots from these brands are never finished as well as they could be. They are tough and durable, sure, but is their being made in America essential to this durability? No. It’s down to the construction methods and materials used which anyone could replicate.
At the higher end, you have brands such as Julian, Mister Freedom, Kreosote, and Role Club. All of these brands offer fantastic quality boots with Kreosote and Role Club both being hand welted. Of course, hand welting is not exclusive to the USA and even these boots are not the best that I have ever worn.
Japan is the third of the big three countries for boots right now in the Amekaji-heritage world of clothing. I have owned, handled, and tried on a large number of boots and I feel that Japan overall makes the highest quality casual boots in the world overall. There are not many options under $400, but in terms of actual quality Japan consistently produces incredibly well made boots. John Lofgren, Rolling Dub Trio, Motor, The Real McCoys, Zerrows, Addict Clothing, Attractions, and many more all make seriously high quality boots with fantastic materials, seriously strong attention to detail, beautiful designs and patterns, and finishing quality that is only beaten by other Japanese bootmakers and dress shoe brands.
At the higher end, you have Clinch by Brass Tokyo and White Kloud. Brass makes absolutely gorgeous boots with dress shoe level quality and work boot durability. White Kloud goes further by offering true bespoke shoemaker quality, finishing, and customization in a casual/work-style boot. This is something that cannot be matched by any other maker.
Is there anything inherent to these countries that make their boots good, however? Well, sort of. I would say that there is something unique to Japan that makes many craft products such as clothing and boots generally extremely well made. There is a perfectionist mindset that I have not seen anywhere else and it struck me even more profoundly when I actually visited the country. However, this does not mean that people in other countries could not have the same mindsets and become just as proficient at making their boots.
The United States definitely has a strong tie to blue collar, rugged work. Our massive amount of cowboy boots and strong Pacific Northwest bootmaking tradition prove this. However, as with Japan, there is nothing about these boots in terms of quality that other makers could not match. Also, the fact that Viberg and Dayton are part of that Pacific Northwest group of bootmakers with both being based in Canada prove that was the requirements of the area and the jobs being done there that birthed the rugged boots of the PNW, not The United States itself.
At this point, it is time to take a look at the boots I own made in countries besides these first three and see how they stack up. My one pair of dress boots is a pair of Carmina Chelsea boots which are made in Spain, the country that Carmina is based in. These cost me under $400 (they are around $500 now) and are impressive for the price. In fact, I have had a total of three pairs of boots from Carmina and all of them were better made than any of the many pairs of Aldens from America that I have handled and in fact, better than the Trickers from England that I had for a few weeks.
My pair of Urban Shepherd boots was made in Portugal and they are certainly acceptable for their price of around $200-$250. They certainly aren’t perfect, but I have boots that are just as flawed made in the USA. At that price point, there are no major differences between those boots and boots made in the USA.
Where the subject of this article really starts getting interesting is when you start to look at the hand welted boots coming out of Indonesia and China. I received boots from both Onderhoud Handmade from Indonesia and Flame Panda from China this year and both of them seriously shocked me in a good way. In fact, these two boots are the reasons that I am even writing this article.
Both of these boots are made by either one person or a tiny family shop of less than 5 people, both have some high quality materials used, and both are hand welted. In fact, not only are both boots hand welted, both boots have their outsole stitching done by hand as well. The only other pair of boots that I have with this feature are my White Klouds.
Additionally, both the Onderhouds and Flame Pandas are very well made and have high quality finishing. Both are finished better than the American boots I own or have tried with only Role Club being just as good. In terms of quality and finishing, only my Japanese boots are better, though most of those Japanese boots are not hand welted and do not have hand sewn outsoles and midsoles. Overall, the only two brands that I can confidently say are better in every way are Clinch and White Kloud which is even more impressive when you realize that my Onderhouds cost around $470 and my Flame Pandas were $680 while Clinch boots start at over $1,000 and go up to basically $2,000 while White Kloud starts at over $1,000 and can get to over $2,500 before you even get into the bespoke fit options. Of course, being less expensive does not make boots better, but it is something impressive to point out. What I think these boots do prove is that extremely high quality boots can be made in places such as China and Indonesia. As long as some talented, passionate people are behind the products, boots can be well made anywhere.
Are there any drawbacks to boots like these, then? Well, I think there are a couple. The first is fairly subjective, but is something that I feel that I have to point out. This point is that in general, I would say that the designs of boots from these newer makers from Asia are lacking a bit. The engineer boots in particular get quite a few details wrong and a lot of boots appear to be leaning forward at all times awkwardly. This is something that friends of mine have pointed out to me as well, so I know I am not alone in having these thoughts. This is something that I hope will improve with time.
I also think that these brands focus on the construction more than they do the design which isn’t a bad thing, but in my opinion, they just are not as refined as many other more established brands. Clinch in particular not only spends time to make sure their boots are extremely well made, but also have spent an incredible amount of time on their designs to the point that they even make sure the boots age in a specific way where the leather in the vamp folds instead of creases. John Lofgren spent years perfecting his engineer design and it absolutely shows. It is a unique and beautiful engineer design that looks like nothing else on the market.
The other issue is that I have seen quite a few people share quality control issues with these newer boot brands from Indonesia. Onderhoud does not have any of these issues that I have seen, but I have seen major issues with several other brands from this country. With that said, I have seen major flaws from brands from other countries too. Everyone makes mistakes of course.
One final point of concern is in regard to the materials used in these newer brands, especially in Indonesia. In particular, my experience with uppers made with Indonesian leather has been quite poor. Straight up, Indonesian leather seems to be really quite terrible. I’ve seen leathers crack and wrinkle horribly. Even when it doesn’t have these issues, the Indonesian leather that I have seen is still obviously of lower quality than the leathers coming out of Japan, Italy, and the USA. If you are ordering boots from Indonesia, I cannot recommend enough to avoid ordering anything made with Indonesian leather uppers. Hopefully the quality improves, but I think it will be some time before that happens.
Flame Panda has an advantage here because Peng, the owner, imports all of his leather from Italy, The USA, and Japan. For the other materials, these brands often rely on local suppliers for their materials. For some people, I suppose this could be an issue. Onderhoud specifically uses leather from Bangladesh for insoles which I am not sure about personally. With that said, the midsole, welt, and heel stack leather is from Italy. Additionally, this does not mean that the leathers used for the heel stacks and midsoles in all American, British, and Japanese boots is high quality. In fact, Red Wing sometimes doesn’t even use leather for their heel stacks which is pretty unforgivable. I also know that Flame Panda uses shanks and hardware made in China, but again, that does not mean that they are low quality.
These materials are probably still equal with anything at the same price or lower than these boots. I am only mentioning these minor concerns because I am comparing Flame Panda and Onderhoud with Clinch and White Kloud. I am trying to see if these brands can match up with the best of the best.
Time to actually answer the question, then. Does it actually matter where your boots are made? I would say that it slightly matters. For one thing, the styles of boots made in different countries are often pretty unique in certain ways. Additionally, I still think the very best boots are made in Japan and there are some material quality and design concerns that I have with some newer brands. However, other than that, it really doesn’t matter where your boots are made as long as they are not being outsourced to save money. The geographic location does not matter as much as the specific people making the boots.
My Flame Panda and Onderhoud boots are already better than any English casual boots that I have worn or handled, better than most American made boots, and even better than some Japanese boots. On top of this, these brands and others like them are highly motivated to prove themselves and I see them only improving over time for the foreseeable future. Carmina as well proves that great dress boots can be made in Spain instead of just England, Italy, and France.*
In fact, I would say that these new shoe and bootmakers make me think of Japan developing denim in the later 20th century. The Japanese were so obsessed with American jeans that they ended up making the best jeans in the world and they still do to this day. I think a lot of these new bootmakers are passionate in the same way and I could absolutely see them becoming the new standard one day, especially given how Japan’s population is aging.
My point with this article is basically to say to those people that think great boots can only be made in certain countries: You are wrong. American boots are not inherently better than other boots and Japan is not the only country that can make exquisitely finished boots. White Kloud is still unmatched, but that is because Show Goto is one in a billion, not just because he is Japanese. I think makers like Peng from Flame Panda and Rizky from Onderhoud are the future of great bootmaking and I am glad to see that they are getting more love from around the world because they deserve it.
My conclusion is that the precise location of construction does not matter as much as who specifically is making the boots and why they are making them where they are making them. If American boot brands are having their boots made outside of the USA, then in general I would be wary of that because they are likely doing that to save money. Even within the USA, cheaper brands will be cutting corners so “made in USA” does not guarantee the best products. However, if the brand is a small or one person shop that is hand welting boots themselves, then there is a high likelihood that they will be as well made as boots made anywhere else, and in fact better than many of them too.
Even within Japan, nobody else can match Show Goto of White Kloud so it’s not like Japan is just a magical land of perfect boots. He just does things that nobody else even bothers to do such as making his own welt and outsole thread from raw materials himself. His boots are the best in the world not because they are made in Japan, but because they are made by Show Goto. Peng from Flame Panda and Rizky from Onderhoud make incredible boots that are better than many more famous brands in more established bootmaking countries because they are talented and dedicated boot makers. They have proven that where your boots are made does not matter as much as who is making your boots.
*Saint Crispins proves this even better, but I haven’t owned any of their beautiful Romanian-made shoes or boots yet.