So far, the reactions to Patta working with Mephisto have been reverential from folk who know their stuff and laughter tear emojis from folks who list “Sneakers, life, god” as their interests atop a feed of pixellated memes and repost to win entries. “They look like geography teacher shoes” they say. Yeah, that’s the point dipshit.
I had the privilege of visiting Mephisto’s factory in France a couple of weeks ago with my friends Gee and Lee. They were extremely welcoming and gave us an extremely in-depth look at the manufacturing process. So in-depth in fact, that @mastalee had plenty of shots to spare, so there are a few bonus photos here. There’s a little writeup on the Patta site ahead of the shoe release this weekend.
A TRIP TO THE COMFORT ZONE
Mephisto is a brand that just seems to be there. If you know about it, you’ve probably become attuned to spotting that telltale tag on other feet. If you don’t, it probably just looks passes you by as some matter-of-fact extra mature shoe. But to legions of fans, wearing was believing. That’s part of how Amsterdam’s Patta and the French handmade footwear company ended up crossing paths.
The company’s origins are a curious example of iron willing a business into existence. German-born founder Martin Michaeli — who, at 81 years young is still the chairman — was intent on learning every aspect of the shoe business, from sales to distribution to the tricky process of making them, travelling to the USA after completing a degree and staying there for six years.
“His family was in the shoe business as a retailer. His big advantage was doing everything by himself,“ says genial Mephisto CEO and fellow German in the family business Frank Weber, “I’ve been with Mephisto for 20 years — I was born in a shoebox like Mr. Michaeli! My father had a sports shoe factory — during holidays I had to work in the factory, cutting and lasting. I swore never to work in that world but it’s in my blood!”
“He went alone at 22 from Hamburg to New York by boat,” continues Frank, “He could not talk English and then he arrived in New York. He is a good communicator though. He asked someone where to go and was sent to the Empire State Building, was where all the shoe factories in America had their offices at that time. It was around 1958. He went there and told them he wanted to work in a shoe factory. They told him that in five minutes a car would be there to take him to the factory, so he started in the cutting department there.”
Martin was particularly taken with the footwear production process in Maine — an area with a significant shoemaking pedigree. Martin returned to Germany and started his brand Michaela that specialised in a line of women’s moccasins.
Initially opting to run a tiny business in Dulhanden — a tiny French commune situated a short distance from the German border — the name would change after Martin stayed in a hotel that contained a small exhibit dedicated to Goethe, author of Faust. That book reinterpreted the age-old story of Doctor Faustus who sells his soul in a wager with the devil’s agent Mephistopheles, with the dark consequences you’d expect from such a crooked deal.
“He started two or three times as a young man because it was not easy,” says Frank, “Nobody wanted to work with him and he couldn’t find the right partner so he came here to Sarrebourg and started alone with a little bit of money.”
Intent on selling soles rather than his soul, the demonic name resonated with this budding businessman — pronounceable in every language, Mephisto replaced Michaela in 1965. That same year Mephisto opened up in the small town of Sarrebourg, Lorraine, still close to that border. Unlike Maine, the region wasn’t necessarily famed for crafting footwear, but from an initial a staff of 30, production began to grow and ultimately the focus would shift to men and women’s shoes.
Throughout the 1960s, growth was so significant that in 1969 the company moved to an ultra-modern facility located in the town’s industrial zone. From there, the popularity of Mephisto erupted. In 1991 a supplementary production unit opened in Viana do Castela, Portugal to handle demand.
While Mephisto makes hundreds of styles, two key models and their stylistic siblings seem to have become insiders’ choices over the last few years. The Rainbow — Patta’s silhouette of choice — has maintained a certain cult status across Europe and America with a crowd who love its matter-of-fact appearance, versatility and absurd level of comfort. The design was originally part of the Raglers line, introduced in 1972 as a pioneering hybrid of city and sports shoe. Its latex sole and speed lacing were key innovations, and the heavily patented design was well received in Germany before it boomed in popularity with a French marketplace in the mid 1970s. Part of a collection that included an array of memorable mid and high cut comfort hikers, eventually it was renamed the Rainbow which would incorporate the bonus of 1978’s Soft-Air technology too. It was with the Raglers that Mephisto truly went worldwide.
In successive decades, progressive post-casuals in the north of England harassed walking shoe stores for pairs, while eagle-eyed footwear fans in the States paid attention when Mephisto made a real push into key territories during the early 1990s. Another key model was the Match — a white leather tennis style that was a spinoff of 1980’s Runoff, a leather lined high-performance design with an anatomical interior and lateral stabilisers. In America the shoe’s box price was colossal compared to well-known big-brand offerings, which only increased its appeal in some regions. There are some heavyweight co-signs for that model in particular. Fans of the Match included no less than Luciano Pavarotti and Sean Connery, who was criticised for wearing training shoes to the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and clapped back in defense of Mephisto, declaring them, “…possibly the best shoes that you can buy.” A signed photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the brand’s headquarters thanking Martin Michaeli reiterates the rumour that Arnie is a Match disciple too.