Making quality, outdoor footwear, one pair at a time, since 1898
By Lynn Ascrizzi
If you’re deep into exploring mountainous terrain, or you only feel fully alive while trekking over miles of woods and fields or braving wild savannahs — then you definitely have worn out a lot of boots.
And, it’s a sure bet that you’ve learned, after suffering painful blisters, raw skin and bruises, that a pair of well-fitting hunting or hiking boots that can stand up to rocks, mud, water, thick brush, cactus and even snakes, is worth its weight in gold.
A number of great boot companies are out there, but one of the most distinctive is Russell Moccasin Co. of Berlin, Wisconsin; a small company that has been making custom-built boots and shoes, one pair at a time, since 1898. Their footwear’s hallmark is its unique, moccasin construction.
“If you take a piece of leather, lay it on the floor and wrap it around your feet — that’s moccasin construction. It’s like a hammock underneath your foot,” explained Suzanne “Suzie” Fabricius, the company’s part owner and vice president of sales and marketing.
“Other boot construction is worked from the top, down. All we do is moccasin construction. That’s who we are. The whole building of the boot is from the bottom, up. The leather is pulled up and, all hand-cut, hand-lasted and hand-sewn.”
This special construction takes masterful skill on the part of the craftsperson, she added. “We have different kinds of moccasin construction — single, double and triple vamp, and double moccasin bottom. We can’t hire anyone off the street. This is a craft, not a job.”
Russell Moccasin, which has been located in the same, vine-covered, charmingly Hobbit-esque-looking facility for more than 100 years, has 30 employees, about 22 of whom work in the production end of the long factory.
“Our boots are made in Berlin, Wisconsin. We haven’t changed much over the years, except we’ve added leathers and styles. It’s a cash-flow business. We can’t automate. To remain who we are, we have to focus on what we do best — handmade, handcrafted items. We’re not about mass quantity, but quality. We’re kind of alone on our own island. We’re really the last of our kind. No one does it the way we do it.”
The only part of their footwear not built at their Wisconsin facility is the soles, which are manufactured by Vibram, a global corporation. “There are other sole companies, but Vibram has the monopoly,” Fabricius said.
She is one of five co-owners of Russell Moccasin. The others are her father, company President Ralph “Lefty” Fabricius; her brother Bill Fabricius, who handles shipping and oversees repairs; her mother Judy Fabricius and Joe Gonyo, vice president of operations.
“Joe does a lot of the designs. We do everything. We all wear many hats,” Suzie Fabricius said.
Russell footwear is not just for extreme outdoors enthusiasts. They are worn around the home, at the corporate office, in rustic lodges and camps — by anyone who wants superb quality footwear that is deliciously comfy, flexes with your foot and is made of rich, buttery, durable leathers. In short — a modern footwear classic. Moccasin construction not only adds comfort, but also provides quieter treading than conventional hunting boots, she said.
All this high-caliber workmanship comes with a hearty price tag. Russell footwear ranges from $300 to $800, depending upon the style and leather. “If we’re using exotics, that raises the price,” Fabricius said, noting that the current rate for a pair of all-alligator, double-moccasin bottom Zephyrs is $2,500.
Russell’s custom-made products appeal to discerning outdoorspeople — from the middle-class to the very wealthy, those who want the best in mountain, safari, hiking and bird-hunting footwear. Their detailed, artisan-level products and individualized custom service also attract a sizable share of star power. Russell footwear has been purchased by the likes of Tom Selleck, Sigourney Weaver, George H. W. Bush and Harrison Ford.
Fabricius will never forget the jaw-dropping moment when members of the royal family of India and their entourage came into the Russell Moccasin booth during a 2014 hunting convention at Safari Club International, an organization that attracts many “one-percenters.” “They came in with a group of people, measured up and bought our Safari ‘PH’ (Professional Hunting) style boots,” she recalled.
As one reviewer for an upland hunting publication put it, “Is there a cachet to wearing Russells? Better believe there is. And if it smells like old money and oiled leather, well, so be it.”
SIZING UP SALES
Russell Moccasin ships from between 9,000 to 10,000 pairs of footwear per year, to customers in the U.S. and worldwide, including Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France, Germany, England, Australia and South Korea. Their biggest international market is Japan, accounting for 12 to 15 percent of business.
Sales are made from their catalog, online or at trade shows, such as the annual, Dallas Safari Club; the Safari Club International (SCI) Trade Show, held in Reno and/or Las Vegas; Southeastern Wildlife Expo, held in Charleston; and Pheasant Fest, held in a different state each year. “The trade shows are very important to us. Around 25 percent of our business comes from trade shows and trunk shows,” Fabricius said.
“The Japanese have been buying our boots for 20 years. If you Google ‘Russell Moccasin Japan’ and click on ‘Images,’ you will see what our Japanese dealers make. They take our boots and fabricate them into street-oriented, lifestyle-oriented boots that are more fashion forward — something that looks cool to go out in.”
Sales have risen. “From 2008 to 2016, things were chugging along. But in the past two years, we’ve seen an increase,” she said. Customers are asked to plunk down half the footwear price when ordering and half on delivery. “There’s a five-month waiting time. People can pay each month, like a long-term layaway,” she said, which helps to make footwear investments more affordable, for those whose income might be less lavish than others.
One sticking point. It takes 20 weeks for a Russell boot or shoe to move out the factory door. The company, however, stands its ground on the matter. They inform customers that their traditional method of manufacturing has operated virtually unchanged for 120 years; thus, “we have no intention of changing what we do. That’s why it takes 20 weeks for your new Russell to arrive at your doorstep.”
“It’s getting harder and harder,” Fabricius admitted, referring to the struggle to find artisan-level leatherworkers, a complaint often shared by small, custom leather goods manufacturers. “Most of our employees have been with us from 20 to 50 years. These days, people don’t want to work,” she said, meaning they’re not drawn to jobs that demand exacting, creative work with their hands. “They want to work at a factory where wages start from about $17 to $22 per hour,” she said.
Russell Moccasin offers workers benefits, like heath insurance and a 401K, she added. “There are so many things we have to pay for now. Then, there’s the cost of goods and we’re paying American labor prices. We’re running a small American company, competing against all the big companies.”
On the up side, she expressed high praise for the expert craftspeople who work at Russell. “We would not be in business, if they weren’t so highly skilled,” she said.
Also on her kudos list are the patrons. “We have amazing customers. I love our customers. Our customers sell our product for us. Our footwear is completely iconic. They become heirloom hand-me-downs. We can resole them and repair them, as long as the customer takes care of their boots. We have online info that tells you how.”
Altogether, Russell makes about 150 show samples, which equates to 150 different styles of their moccasin construction footwear, Fabricius said. This includes bird, mountain, turkey and safari hunting boots, and hiking and snake boots. They also create lifestyle footwear, such as chukkas, oxfords, loafers, moccasins and slippers.
Russell’s top-five styles are Joe’s Professional Hunter, Signature South 40 Bird Shooter, Double Moccasin Bottom Zephyr, Art Carter Chukka and their 16-inch tall, double-vamp, Snake Boots, made of 10-ounce bull hide.
Customers can choose their leathers. Among their most popular, is the highly waterproof Weather Tuff leather from S.B. Foot Tanning Co. of Redwing, Minnesota. Also greatly desired is French Veal: a super-soft, fine-grained, waterproofed young cowhide from Tanneries Haas, of Eichhoffen, France, and elk hide from Richard Hoffmans of Nettetal, Germany, leather that has some waterproof properties and is super-soft without the price tag of French Veal,” Fabricius said.
Other leathers used in Russell Moccasin footwear include –
- Waterproofed, chrome-tanned cowhide. Remains soft and pliable, even when wet, from Horween Leather Co., Chicago.
- Calfskin — A lightweight, soft and pliable leather from C. Loy’s Leathers of El Paso, Texas.
- Soft cowhide — A full-weight, firm, soft, pliable and tough, fine-grained cowhide. Made primarily for dry conditions, but it does not become hard and stiff after getting wet, from C. Loy’s Leathers, El Paso, Texas.
- Kangaroo — Extremely tough, with a high tensile strength, pliable and lightweight. “Kangaroo is 20 percent lighter than cowhide . . . .when split down to only 20 percent of its original thickness, (the leather) retains nearly 60 percent of its original tensile strength,” according to company info. Their supplier is Packer Leather of Queensland, Australia.
- Chamois — A full vegetable retannage, additional oils give it a warm, oily feel and a beautiful natural look, from Horween Leather.
- Chromexcel® — Developed nearly 100 years ago by Horween, a hot-stuffed leather with a proprietary blend of natural oils and greases.
- Driftwood — A grainy, high-performance leather, hot-stuffed with waterproofing oils, from Horween.
- Exotic leathers, such as alligator and ostrich are also used in custom designs.
Sewing is done using cotton, waxed thread from American Efird (A&E) Handsewn Threads of Mt. Holly, North Carolina.
As for machinery, “Our sewing machines are almost 100 years old — from Puritan (Industries, Inc.),” Fabricius said, of the business founded in 1893 and based in Collinsville, Connecticut. Puritan sells their old-style and also new-style sewing machines.
FOR UPLAND HUNTERS
Russell’s signature line is its legendary bird shooter boots, designed primarily for upland hunting. Its shaft (the part of the boot that rises above the foot and over the calf) can be from 9- to 16-inches high. Styles come with a single, double or triple vamp (the boot area that covers the foot, from the bottom of the shaft to the outsole).
Prices for this line range from $400 for Russell’s Bird Shooter, a single vamp model, to $565 for the Kangaroo South 40 Bird Shooter, made of split kangaroo hide.
Another bird shooter style is the Plantation Series. Using water-repellent, wax army duck for the boot’s quarters creates a textured look. The boot is made of oil tanned, fleshy, steer hide leather from S.B. Foot Tanning Co. And, the Gustin Bird Shooter is a lightweight, all-purpose hunting boot made from Weather Tuff leather and a lightweight, Aspen Gumlite sole by Vibram.
In 2012, Russell Moccasin revived the tall, 16-inch-high, “Gentleman’s Classic Bird Shooter” boot made famous by the company roughly 85 years ago. Built from rich, oil-stuffed, weatherproofed, chocolate brown Timberjack leather, the boot comes with a Vibram 430 sole with a distinct heel. “We still make the Gentleman’s Classic. We have a handful of requests for this boot,” Fabricius said.
THE RIGHT FIT
Russell footwear is so feet-friendly, company literature states, that virtually no breaking-in time is needed. Achieving the right fit is paramount, so great care is taken to ensure accurate measurements of customers’ feet.
“There are several ways to get a fitting done. “You can come to our booth at a trade show exhibit, go online for measuring instructions or come to our factory in Berlin, Wisconsin. Most people will call ahead, but there is no appointment book. We get walk-ins all the time. People fly in from all over, even from England,” Fabricius said.
For online measuring info, click on an image of a shoe or boot style at the company’s website (www.russellmoccasin.com). The style information that pops up will include the icon: “Custom Made Only: Click Here for Measuring Instructions.” Click on the icon, and you’ll find a measuring instruction video, more fitting tips and a measuring instruction form PDF file. All manner of foot issues are accommodated — big feet, wide feet, narrow feet, bunions, hammertoes and high insteps.
Also offered is a unique, custom-fitting service, “Have Boots Will Travel,” devised about two years ago by Suzie Fabicius. She or another rep will travel to meet U.S. customers at their hunting lodges, organizations or homes. Samples of boots and/or shoes are brought to the customers, measurements are taken and orders written up. A minimum of a 20-pair order is required, depending upon the location.
This innovative service is seeing a positive response. “For example, we’ve been to corporations. We did 35 pairs in Memphis, and did measurements for members of a hunting lodge in Louisiana,” she said.
Russell Moccasin catalogs are available by calling, emailing or going to their website. “Our catalog print run is 5,000. It’s better to call, because catalogs are mailed out that same day,” Fabricius said.
FOR MORE INFO
Russell Moccasin Co.
285 S. W. Franklin Street
P.O. Box 309
Berlin, WI 54923-0309
Ralph Fabricius, president
Suzanne Fabricius, vice president sales, marketing
Joe Gonyo, vice president, operations
AN UPTICK IN WOMEN HUNTERS AND WILDLIFE WATCHING
“Most of our customers are male,” said Suzanne Fabricius, part owner of Russell Moccasin Co. of Berlin, Wisconsin, and vice president of sales and marketing. “Women make up 5 to 10 percent of our business. We’re seeing this (market segment) grow. Women do hunt. They’re looking for boots that perform.”
Her insight into this demographic has got it right. From 2001 to 2014, female participation in hunting has grown from 10.2 to 18.4 percent, according to a 2015 participation study issued by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. This means that some 3.3 million U.S. hunters in 2014 were female, which represents an 83.4 percent growth in female participation, the study stated.
The number of women bow hunters has also surged in recent years. “In 2001, there were 395,000 female bow hunters, making up 8.4% of all bow hunters in the U.S. By 2014, that number grew 167% to 1,056,000. So, of the estimated 5.5 million bow hunters, females now make up 18% of the population,” according to the study.
“It’s huge,” Fabricius said of the general, outdoor hunting market, “especially in the Western, Midwestern and Southern states.” According to a 2016 national survey from U.S. Fish and Wildlife, 11.5 million people in the U.S. participated in hunting; however, that number represents a moderate decrease from the 13.7 million hunters tallied in 2011.
Nonetheless, wildlife-observation activities like bird watching, hiking and photography showed substantial increases in 2016, rising from 71.8 million in 2011 to 86 million participants in 2016. This uptick may reflect a shift in American attitudes toward engaging with the outdoors.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
- William “Will” C. Russell founded Russell Moccasin Co. of Berlin, Wisconsin, in 1898. It all started when he began to handcraft boots for the era’s booming logging business in Wisconsin.
- William “Bill” Gustin joined the company as a traveling salesman in 1922 and spread the word about Russell’s comfortable, handmade moccasin boots.
- W.C. Russell died in 1924. In 1926, the company was sold to Bass Brothers of Fort Worth, Texas.
- Bill Gustin managed Russell Moccasin for Bass Brothers and then bought the company in 1928.
- Gustin, a competitive trap and skeet shooter, hunter and fisherman, introduced the now-famous Russell Bird Shooter boot, plus a line of oxfords, loafers and casual shoes.
- Gustin ran Russell Moccasin for 55 years. His son-in-law, Ralph Fabricius, joined him in the business in 1956. Gustin passed away in 1994, at age 95. Today, Ralph Fabricius is company president.
- Ralph Fabricius, along with avid outdoorsman, Richard Sanders, updated and expanded the Russell line to include new design applications for boots and shoes, new, waterproofed leathers and special soles for the serious sportsperson.