When we started working with Zimmerman Shoes to create 2 pairs of tiny leather shoes for the dolls and animals, we had no idea how incredible their story was! We even talked about taking a trip to Pennsylvania so we could see the doll shoes being made. We weren't able to make it out there (there's still a pandemic, after all) but Jane made sure to hop on a call with owner and designer, Audrey, and her father, Steve, to learn all about the history of this family-owned shoe operation.
And stay tuned for our collaboration with Zimmerman Shoes – it launches on Friday, April 23rd at 1 PM Eastern!
Jane: So, Audrey, when you were a kid, was the shoe factory in your life?
Audrey: Oh, yeah. Growing up I would go on sales trips with my dad, we would go to shoe shows, I would visit the factory and hang out with the employees and write them little love notes and run around in my shoes in the factory.
Jane: Tell me an example of a love note.
Audrey: There’s actually one still hanging up, and it just says “Hi Barry! Love, Audrey.”
Jane: Aw! Good letter writing. Super cute.
Audrey: So yes, just hanging around the shoe factory and wearing our shoes obviously—
Jane: Yeah, were you a model ever for them?
Steve: You were!
Audrey: Yeah, I mean I don’t remember it but yes.
Steve: She even has a shoe named after her!
Audrey: I do, yes, it’s an Audrey sandal. I don’t think we have one hanging around, but it’s a little closed toed sandal, it’s really cute.
Jane: Oh, nice! So, the business was selling wholesale, selling to shoe stores?
Audrey: Right, back in the day it was a big production. They would bring the sales people in and they would design footwear for each season, and there were all these wholesale shows. Obviously that has changed so much over the years.
Jane: Oh, there’s the Audrey! Oh, it’s so cute!
Audrey: Yes, that’s my shoe. And then—so my dad never wears shorts, always wears jeans, never wears sandals, so of course I had to make a sandal for him because it’s hilarious, so this is our Stevie Sandal. And you can remove this piece and wear it two different ways.
Jane: Oh, nice! And when you took it over, what was that transition like?
Audrey: Well, we’re really still in the transition. There’s so much that we’re still doing to transition. With Zimmerman Shoes, what we did was bring back retired and vintage styles and designs, and kind of brought them back to life. The old stuff always comes back, always circulates and comes around again. So we took vintage patterns, like our Milo boot for example was created by my great grandfather Milo.
Jane: It’s so good.
Audrey: Yeah, so he created that in the early 1960s and then over the years my dad added a touch—he added actually the V, and then I added the backstay for some texture, like an added design element.
Steve: It’s a three-generation collaboration.
Jane: It shows, it’s beautiful. So, did you know you would want to do this or is this sort of a surprise for you that you’re doing it?
Audrey: No, I mean, when I visited the factory I always admired the people, and it was just so wild to me that I could walk in and see a hide of leather lying there and then I could go upstairs and out of that same hide of leather there was this little shoe. It was such a beautiful craft that these people could do, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it.
Jane: So often the narrative of American manufacturing is “it got harder and harder.” I don’t know how much that is what you experienced—it sounds like you’ve just been making stuff, making it work, and like changing a little?
Audrey: Yeah, you have to be adaptive. If you’ve been in business for 130 years, you kind of have to adapt with what’s happening in the world.
Steve: 133 years.
Audrey: Yeah, 133 years. Although we just found the original deed and we might be older.
Audrey: It might be more like 150, we don’t know for sure. But you just have to adapt with the world—obviously, the internet was not around 130 years ago. You just have to build up your online presence, and make it easy for people to size—do you know what a Brannock device is?
Jane: Like one of those shoe store sizing things?
Audrey: Yeah, those big metal things that you used to get your foot sized when you were a kid. So we built one on our website. It’s a paper version, so parents can print it out and size their children’s feet from home. We actually used the original molds that make the shoes to build this Brannock device online.
Jane: That’s a good idea. I wish I had realized that before I went picking shoes for my kid! So, how do you see Zimmerman shoes growing? What do you want to do more of?
Audrey: Just keep creating, you know. Collaborations really help—this collaboration was so much fun. You’re so used to seeing shoes come through the factory, and then seeing something a little different—seeing people’s faces, you know, our employees, it was fun. They’re like, “Oh, doll shoes!” And when I brought the outfits out they were like “No way.”
It’s interesting because in the last 130 years we have been in continuous business and never closed our doors until March of 2020, when we were forced to close up. It was really stressful for me, obviously—my dad’s on the phone, I’m in the car, trying to process everything—my sister is a nurse practitioner, and I have a best friend in healthcare, and I was like, “These people aren’t getting masks. They’re not getting masks. We can make masks.” And at that point I was already bugging him to make something besides shoes. We can make leather bags, we have this amazing team of seamstresses who can just make anything out of leather. So I was like, “Well, we can start making masks.”
With every shoe design it starts with a pattern, as you know, and we can start just manufacturing them. So we started out, donating them, and...I actually got a call from a COVID task force working under the secretary of defense. A woman called me, and she asked, “Is this Audrey?” and I’m thinking, “Did I not pay my taxes? Like what is happening?” And she said, “I just saw a friend of yours at Costco in DC and she had this beautiful fabric mask on.” At that point nobody was making masks, it was hard to find them anywhere. She said, “We need masks now. If I don’t have them by Monday morning I don’t know what we’re going to do.” So we overnighted her masks to DC, and it was just a wild experience. From there we could keep our seamstresses and our factory running, and put them on our website. We made masks through the whole entire summer.
Steve: We had a big contract with a neighboring county and we had 50,000 masks to make for them, but in the beginning as Audrey said we were donating them, and a couple of our seamstresses came in and said “We’d like to help. You don’t need to pay us.”
Jane: Oh, wow.
Steve: We did end up paying them, but the point is that they offered to do that.
Jane: They wanted to help the world. Yeah, it was crazy. At that time I went through this weird gymnastics of wondering how we could make masks and worrying—like now we know a cloth mask does a lot—but at the time no one knew anything and I was so worried about what materials to use and how to do it. How did you think about that?
Steve: Well, we had a situation where once the masks ballooned into this huge order—we had all kinds of orders from local industry and everywhere—we had to sub out some of the stitching. And I had contacts in the Amish community because we make shoes for the Amish community. And they were lifesavers as far as getting fabric and elastic. Elastic was really tough—
Jane: I know, elastic got so weird!
Audrey: It was a weird time for elastic.
Steve: But they were able to supply us. Our last order of elastic was like 5,000 yards or something like that.
Audrey: Something crazy.
Audrey: Yeah, it was nuts. And I was so grateful that we had the connections of the Amish and Mennonite communities, because it’s not like you can just call up the Amish and be like, “Hey, we need help!” Every Friday I would run down to Lancaster and pick these masks up.
Steve: We had 3 Amish/Mennonite contractors helping us make these masks, plus we had 3 outside stitchers that either used to work for us or were willing to work with us, and then we brought back all our stitchers here and we were at full guns.
Jane: It sounds so familiar, being scrappy like that. It was just like, “How can I get this done when the entire world is wonky?”
Audrey: I know. Even the Wall Street Journal picked up our story and posted a whole story about our seamstresses, and how we had to retool and everything. I was like, “What world are we living in?” It was just cool, you know. It was cool that we could help, that we had the ability to do that.
Steve: We should speak a little bit about the history of the industry in the town.
Jane: Yes, tell me!
Steve: There were eleven shoe companies here in 1913, and collectively they produced 1,400,000 shoes annually.
Steve: We estimate we’ve made over 10 million pairs of shoes in our 133 years, but we’re the only remaining shoe company. But in 1913 the town’s population was about 2200 people, and we had eleven shoe factories, and each factory employed an average of 50 people. So pretty much the entire adult population in town worked in the shoe factory. And that just trickled down from generation to generation. So some of the people we have, their parents worked in a shoe factory, grandparents worked in a shoe factory, so on and so forth. The longest employee that we have is Barry.
Audrey's Grandfather, Clair, in the Sewing Room
Audrey: Yeah, we have an employee in our packing room—he’s actually packing your doll shoes as we speak—he has been with us since he graduated high school when he was 18.
Steve: He’s 78 now. So that’s 60 years.
Audrey: He’s been with us forever.
Jane: And that’s who you wrote the letter to?
Audrey: Yes. He was here when my great grandfather purchased the company in the 1960s. So he has seen four generations come through this factory. Let me get an old photo and I can show you him when he was younger. So this is a photo from 1972. This is Barry here on the end.
Steve: How do you like the mutton chop sideburns?
Audrey: So this here is my great grandfather Milo, who made the Milo boot. My grandfather Clair and my grandmother, and my dad is right here.
Jane: That’s great.
Audrey: There’s a lot of history here.
Jane: What do you think allowed you to keep going when the other factories didn’t?
Audrey: Hard work. And dedication to our employees. My dad has seen so many of our competitors go either overseas or out of business. And we always found a way to just stay here, and found niche businesses throughout the years, and just really stay true to our employees. They have been amazing to us over the years and we just work really hard to make sure that we can keep that going.
Steve: And also in the mid-80s when globalization was trending forward, we had to make the decision of are we going to stay and continue manufacturing or are we going to source overseas. And I talked it over with our work family, and they’re dedicated. They said we’ll do what we have to do to stay, to have our jobs. And that’s what we did. We found pathways after most of the shoe industry exited the United States, and most of them worked out for us.
Audrey: And now, to say that we’re America’s oldest children’s shoe company is amazing. And that’s because of the hard work the generations put in front of me, and that I’m trying to do today. My great grandfather purchased this shoe company with his savings that he got from—he was actually forced into retirement.
Steve: He was a principal at another shoe company, and at 65 their policy was you retire. And he said he didn’t want to retire, but they said no you’re going to retire. So he got mad at them and he sold all his shares in the company, and said I’m looking for a shoe company to buy. And of course he found Kepner Scott. And he had 3 of his sons join him, one being my dad, Audrey’s grandfather. And I know for the first two years they lost money, and my grandfather said “I don’t know if we should keep going for a third year, maybe we should just shut the door.” And my dad said “Don’t worry, I’ll make us profitable in year 3.” And he did. And ever since then it’s been a viable business.
Jane: That’s very cool. You’re telling me about determination, not stopping, partnership with the employees; making sure everyone knows that they respect each other, and then the power of the group is stronger.
Audrey: He has this weird old sign, he always shows this.
Steve: *showing sign* I’ll tell you what it says. “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.”
Audrey: And women.
Steve: And women. It doesn’t say women, but I’m reading it verbatim. “Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” So that’s been sort of our motto over the years.
Audrey: That sign is like the first thing you see when you walk in, he shows everybody.
Jane: Yeah. I can see why you made it through corona times, because it was a time for scrappiness. I’m excited for the launch! I think people will like them, they’re really cute. I’m very happy we’re doing this.
Audrey in the cutting department
Hazel Village x Zimmerman Shoes launches Friday, April 23rd at 1 PM ET!