In this cynical and cutthroat age in which we live, craftsmanship seems to be a relic of the past as brands sacrifice everything for a fast buck. That's why GREG SALAS is such a refreshingly forthright character. With a healthy dose of heart and persistence, his new footwear venture LASCO is determined to show corporate America how things can be done. The beauty and quality of LASCO's materials and construction techniques are a sight for even the most jaded eyes, but at the end of the day, there's only one thing that really counts, a label that proudly says ‘Made in America'.
How did LASCO develop as an idea? Was it shoes first, concept second?
LASCO has been a culmination of a lot of different projects and experiences. Back in 1997 I started my first clothing company in downtown LA, and since then I've jumped around a lot, designing, forecasting trends, marketing. I did a little bit of everything, which really helped to get me where I am today. In 2008 I was laid off at one of the worst times in the US economy, but I got hit up by a small footwear company that wanted me to source an apparel collection. I've always been into shoes and tried to convince them to make their shoes in the US so I spent months sourcing the project and needless to say, the prices to manufacture in the US were just too high, so they passed on the project. All the time I spent researching this is what really inspired me to start LASCO and do something that hadn't been done in years... make sneakers in the USA.
LASCO is really defined by that idea of where it's made. Why is ‘Made in the USA' so important to you?
When I started to source all my materials, I realised that my supply chain was super important to ensure quality and consistency. I knew if I started importing materials from overseas, lead-times and quality issues would be my demise. I've worked with China, I've spent time in Vietnam working with factories, so I know what can go wrong. In doing my research, I heard a lot of stories from workers that were completely displaced by big footwear companies back in the ‘80s, so I was determined to show these big footwear companies and corporate America that one person can accomplish a lot and hopefully change the industry. There's no excuse why we don't make products here in the US and I want to prove that it is possible to make a far superior shoe and that it can also be profitable.
There's an important distinction about your idea of ‘Made in the USA'. Every single piece of your shoe - from the sole to the leather to the laces - is sourced within America.
Yes, that's correct. It's quite an undertaking, but three and a half years later I've been able to accomplish it.
You obviously have a pretty strong vision, but what was the first step when starting LASCO?
Well, I realised that it was going to be extremely difficult to make a sneaker in the US, since most of the machinery is now in Mexico and China. I figured I'd import the upper and just assemble it here in the US until I could set up a factory with the machines I needed. After talking to numerous overseas factories and realising the headaches, the answer was clear, do everything domestically. I called every shoe factory in the US that manufactured shoes and boots but no one really wanted to help, and if they did want to help, they didn't have the specialised machines to make sneakers. I found one factory, but after a year it just didn't work out. It's been a struggle and in the end I had no choice but to source all the machines I needed to make these shoes. I couldn't even find them in used condition, so I had to buy them brand new.
You had to buy your own sneaker-making machines?
Yeah, every machine needed to make a sneaker I had to buy. This week we bought the Gerber Taurus XD CAD Cutter so we can cut 12-14 hides an hour.
I take it that's a pretty exciting acquisition?
It's really, really efficient. That's the competitive advantage we'll need to eventually compete with China when we offer a lower priced collection.
You mentioned the North East region was the traditional home of shoemaking in the US. I imagine a huge hole was left in those communities when production moved to Asia?
Oh, completely. To hear some of the stories, it's sad. It's hard to convey, but thousands of people were displaced throughout New England in the ‘80s when the big footwear companies just packed up and left the US. These workers lost a lot and had to start new careers in their mid 40s and 50s. It was a really devastating time for New England.
You're employing many of those same guys again. Did you put a sign in the main street saying, ‘All you old shoe-dogs come out here, I know you want to make shoes again!'
Yeah, well not exactly. It was a slow progression. My production manager Dan knows where to find these ‘shoe-dogs' since most of them worked for, or with him, over the past 20-30 years.
The car industry is the recipient of enormous tax benefits and investment grants. Have you found the government any help with LASCO's mission?
Well, we were just contacted by the office of Lieutenant Governor of California after they saw the LASCO introduction video and they seemed like they really want to help us out. We also talked with the State of Maine as well, but the reality is, whether we are in California or Maine, if we are not investing millions of dollars, getting a dime will be hard. It's sad when all the big companies get money they don't need and the ‘little guy' can never get a helping hand.
Let's talk a little bit about the shoes. Is LASCO reflective of your personal style?
Well, for me and my friends, we grew up skateboarding, so we would always wear skateboarding shoes even though we skated less and less as we got older. I wanted to design a collection that was not only comfortable, but a shoe that was refined and still street.
Well said. One name I've just noticed recently a few times is Horween, your American leather supplier. Tell us about them as a company.
Basically I was searching for tanneries in the United States and spent months ordering leather swatches and Horween really just stood out from the rest. The company is over 100 years old, but when you see their leathers and how they wear, it's like a pair of raw selvedge jeans. As you use them, they change, giving them a unique look and that's what I like about Horween leather. They have a really unique pull-up and the depth of the leather is nothing I've seen on a sneaker. Nick Horween has really helped me out and we've been able to select the perfect leathers for the collection.
There's a reason sneakers are made in China and it's all about money. Manufacturing domestically in the US, what's the price range for Lasco?
Right now, our high end collection retails between $375-420, it really depends on whether they want our hand-made wooden box.
Is ‘Made in the USA', a persuasive selling point from a marketing point of view?
Oh, completely! The type of emails I get from all over the world, it's incredible. People are on board and they feel that regardless of the price, it's something they want to support, because it's something that's groundbreaking and they want to support the cause. Eventually we will have a lower priced line, but at this time we really want to focus on quality and getting the sneakers to look the way we need them to look, which is perfect.
Are you seeing any progress? Are there people in other industries with similar ideas to you?
Yeah, I am seeing manufacturing in general in the United States turning around in the past few years. It's nice to see, but without the help of tariffs, we're always going to be bombarded with cheap imports. The real goal with LASCO is to generate awareness of buying and supporting products made in the United States. Buying and sourcing locally is going to be key for the world economy moving forward.