The Success Story of Cardinal Shoe
American manufacturer finds its niche in high-tech ballet shoes
By Lynn Ascrizzi
In an on-stage solo, principal ballerina,Michaela DePrince, flies like a bright-feathered, gravity-defying bird, her arms stretched wing-like above her head and her expressive face turned upward, as if searching for a distant star.
What is easily missed in that ecstatic moment, which took DePrince years of professional discipline to master, is a very crucial part of her outfit — the pointe shoes.
They may look like dainty, satin slippers. But pointe shoes are designed to enable dancers to put their whole weight on the tips of their toes. That en pointe position, and all the leaps and pirouettes involved in ballet technique, puts tons of stress on a dancer’s feet and her footwear. A pointe shoe’s support and fit has to be perfect.
What follows is the story of the first footwear innovation in the ballet world in about 150 years — a creative collaboration between the arts and industry — between an amateur dancer with a passion for ballet, seeking to have her pointe shoe designs produced and an experienced, New England shoe manufacturer searching for the right niche products.
After years of hard work and focused attention, the pointe shoes that are sold today under the label, Gaynor Minden, have become a successful, global brand. That these shoes are being made by one of the last remaining shoe manufacturers in America, is a marvel in itself.
THE SHOE ‘CRASH’
At the dawn of the 20th century, hundreds of bustling footwear factories were humming across the nation. By the 1940s, nearly a quarter-million Americans were working for the shoe industry.
But in one decade, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, an estimated 300 U.S. shoe factories closed. Footwear companies from Massachusetts to Maine, a region once deemed the collective shoe center of the world, including tanneries and related industries, were standing idle. The rapid decline continued through the 1990s.
The shoe industry “crash” was caused mainly by cheaper imports from Brazil and Asia flooding the American market. Today, almost all shoes sold in the U.S. are imported.
One New England company, however, that managed to survive and thrive past the debacle, was Cardinal Shoe Corporation of Lawrence, Massachusetts, a private label, women’s dress shoe manufacturer founded by Harry A. Bass in 1962.
In those days, the city was still basking in the U.S. shoe industry heyday, recalled Richard Bass, 75, son of the company founder and its current president. Bass is also owner of the company’s 160,000-square-foot,two-story, red brick factory, a former textile mill built in 1900, situated near the Merrimack River.
After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1966,Bass joined his brother Andrew Bass, now retired,and brother-in-law, the late Alan Ornsteen, to work at the shoe factory under the stewardship of his father. He well remembers the industry’s glory days.
“Cardinal Shoe was one of many U.S. firms that manufactured footwear during that period. We were surrounded by suppliers and competitors in the immediate area. We were firmly ensconced in a robust industrial ecosystem, until cheaper imports flooded the market in the 1980s,” he said.
To keep thriving, the company sought to identify niche products to differentiate itself from foreign and local competitors. “I was very busy making women’s dress shoes. I had 200 employees and 40 customers. We manufactured shoes up to the year 2000, until our lead shoe component supplier went out of business. I stopped making dress shoes,” he recalled.
That year, he was forced to lay off all but a handful of his 200 employees, many of whom were long-time, highly-skilled workers. But luck was winging Cardinal’s way. At that time, another shoe project that had been simmering on the back burner for years, came to the fore.
It all began in 1989, when an enterprising, amateur ballet dancer named Eliza Gaynor Minden of New York City, approached the shoe company. She wanted her innovative designs for a safer and more durable, high-tech ballet shoe to get into production. Cardinal Shoe took up the challenge.
The collaboration took nimble leaps of innovation and effort. A development team comprised of Bass, his superintendent, a pattern maker and Minden, figured out how to take technologies similar to those used in today’s athletic shoes and scale them down to make modernized pointe shoes.
The effort took time. But it resulted in a series of patents for the shoes, Bass said. Today, the footwear sold under the Gaynor Minden brand make up the bulk of Cardinal Shoe’s primary account.
“We wouldn’t be in business today, if we didn’t run into Gaynor Minden,” he said, of the global sales organization founded in 1992 by Eliza Minden and her husband, John Minden. Their pointe shoe was launched in 1993.
“By 2000, when I stopped making dress shoes, we were already making a small production of pointe shoes. By 2002, we were making about 20 percent of the shoes that we make today. We’ve grown almost five times since then, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Gaynor Minden sales force,” Bass said.
In 2003, Cardinal Shoe attracted another customer in Dance Paws®, a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their footwear product, made of spandex and elastic, is designed to help save the soles of dancers from blisters and skin burns. It comprises a much smaller percent of the shoe company’s products than the pointe shoes.
“Gaynor Minden has sales people throughout world and they have a warehouse in the UK. We ship to the UK on a weekly basis, and they in turn, ship to the common market countries in Europe,” he explained.
When the unique virtues of the pointe shoe’s modern construction caught on, success was especially gratifying “when ballet companies reported that their prima ballerinas and soloists had fewer injuries and extended their professional careers,” he said.
The upshot is Cardinal’s exclusive relationship with Gaynor Minden led to the development of the world’s premier — and only — patented, ergonomic and shock-absorbent ballet shoe.
RESILIENCE, INNOVATION AND GREEN ENERGY
“All our pointe shoes are handmade. Every operation has to be introduced by hand, and you have to have skill,” Bass said, of the customized, labor-intensive process. “Strategic inventory management practices had to be implemented and we learned to service and create our own manufacturing equipment, in-house.”
Bass introduced further value to the product with just-in-time manufacturing. Early in the venture, he developed a 2-D CAD system to help speed up the process of duplicating and changing patterns, providing custom pointe shoes in less than a week’s time.
“This is what the world wants — instant gratification, i.e. their shoes right away. This is a big departure from our biggest competitor in England who requires nine months to a year for any custom order. The CAD system allows us to alter patterns on an as-needed basis and to tailor a pointe shoe specific to a dancer’s need. Sometimes, we need to make right shoes different from the left,” he said.
Around 2014, he installed 1,100 solar panels to cover half of the factory roof. “We literally have voided out our electric costs,” he said.
Changing production needs called for consolidation. The factory now uses only 20 percent of the 160,000-square-foot facility for pointe shoe production. Its current 52 employees, including the skilled workforce that builds the pointe shoes, are located on the second floor.
Finished shoes are brought downstairs to Gaynor Minden’s first-floor warehouse, where they get packed and shipped to individuals, retailers and dance companies in 92 countries. “They give us the orders, we build the shoes to meet the orders and they ship and sell.” Bass said. The big factory’s remaining space is rented out to about 23 independent businesses.
Today, Cardinal is the exclusive manufacturer of both Gaynor Minden pointe shoes and Dance Paws®. Currently, the factory has 55 employees and is one of the city’s largest employers. A true survivor, it is the only shoe factory in operation in Lawrence.
The pointe shoes produced today by the Lawrence factory are a major player in the international market, with sales in 92 countries. They are sold to the world’s foremost prima ballerinas at almost every major ballet company in the world including American Ballet Theatre, The Boston Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, The Mariinsky Ballet, The Paris Opera Ballet and The Royal Ballet.
THE POINTE OF THE MATTER
In 2012, Cardinal Shoe became a third-generation company when Bass’s son and daughter joined the team. Jon Bass is manufacturing supervisor and Jill Masterson coordinates production and handles customizing with a computer-operated CAD machine.
“We can get it down to the millimeter. Dancers are very particular,” Masterson said, of the individually-sized ballet shoes demanded by all kinds of dancers with different shaped feet.
“We are definitely growing. Our product is so advanced compared to anything else. We have taken so much time with research and development and have so much pride in the product we make,” she said.
The Gaynor Minden pointe shoe incorporates an ergonomically-curved shank and toe box made of a flexible, engineered polymer that doesn’t weaken or lose shape. Shanks come in five different flexes, to accommodate dancers’ individual needs.
Another modern material used is high-performance Poron® 4000, a foam lining that is built into the shoes.
To make the soles, the company uses split suede. As an option, lightweight garment leather is used on shoe tips; otherwise, tips are made of satin. Leathers are sourced from Law Tanning Co., LLC, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a company that tans cowhide (grain and splits), American bison, pig, deer, elk and kangaroo.
Industrial thread used for stitching the shoes is sourced from A&E Thread Co., of Mt. Holly, North Carolina.
For the shoe’s outer covering, Cardinal Shoe starts with a flat piece of satin. The cloth is produced overseas and purchased from Dela Inc., a laminator in Ward Hill, Massachusetts, the next town over from Lawrence. “They’re an important part of the company. They actually buy the satin and sell it to us laminated to the lining material. No one else gives us the quality and consistency,” Bass said.
The traditional satin color is peach. But the company continues to innovate and fine-tune its product line. About two years ago, Bass came up with the idea of offering a variety of colors for the Gaynor Minden shoes, like brown and tan, to match the skin tone of different ethnicities.
“This is a great benefit to dancers of all nationalities,” he said. “Ballet is an art form that increasingly attracts more and more dancers from diverse racial backgrounds. I am proud to service the needs of this growing sector.”
He pointed out that American dancer, Michaela DePrince, born in war-torn Sierra Leone, and today, a lead dancer for Dutch National Ballet (DNB), wears espresso-colored pointe shoes manufactured by Cardinal Shoe.
How does the shoe company stay competitive in a fierce global market?
“I’ve seen terrific shoes come out of China. Look at the athletic shoes. The reason why our shoes are made in the U.S. is that we’re too small a niche. Entrepreneurs would have to spend a fortune to set up. We were already here,” Bass said.
“Gaynor (Minden) sends us batches of orders. Our shoes last at least 10 times longer than traditional pointe shoes,” Masterson added.
The company operates as a close-knit team. “We only hire from within. About 60 percent of those who work for us have relatives who also work at Cardinal Shoe. Lawrence is a city of about 80,000 people. About 80 percent of the population of Lawrence is Hispanic. Probably 90 percent of our employees speak only Spanish. My son speaks fluent Spanish and went to school in Spain and Puerto Rico,” Bass said.
The business offers paid vacation, health insurance and an IRA retirement plan. And, as an incentive, after three months every employee gets a bonus for production quotas achieved by the production team, based on the quality of the shoes made. “It is measured by the quantity of the quality shoes we make,” he explained.
“I think all people have great work ethics, if you give them the dignity they deserve,” he added. “We treat everybody the same, and people rise to the occasion. They can go as high as they want, as long as they show us they can make the finest ballet shoes in the world.”
AS YOUR FEET HURT, SO DOES YOUR SOUL
First developed in the early 19th century, the ballet pointe shoe enables dancers to put their full weight on the tips of their toes. The maneuver also elevates their height and leg length and creates the illusion of a floating butterfly or weightless bird.
Traditionally, pointe shoes had a paper-and-paste construction that dates to the 19th century. That is, until a bold revolution took place.
A big round of applause for the creation of the first modern pointe shoes must go to the ingenious, dancer-designer Eliza Gaynor Minden of New York City. The special dance shoe, sold under the Gaynor Minden brand, is manufactured by Cardinal Shoe Corporation in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Minden, an ardent and well-trained amateur ballet dancer and the daughter of a ballet school founder, was appalled by “clomping” pointe shoes that hurt the toes, wore out after one performance and could even cause injuries. Outraged, she wondered why ballet dancers, who in her mind are “elite athletes,” had to deal with shoddy, unsafe footwear.
She turned her outrage into grit and determination. Borrowing her brother’s band saw, she cut open a traditional pointe shoe. To her dismay, she found “cardboard, paste, burlap, little nails and even newspaper, inside,” she said, in a write up at the company website, www.gaynorminden.com.
It was time, she thought, to merge the art of dance with modern technology and develop a better pointe shoe. For eight years, she tested countless prototypes, trying out different floor surfaces, climates and dancers of various weights, foot types and ability. She also used a flex-test machine to guarantee the durability of the shank.
The patented result was “the first successful modernization of ballet’s iconic footwear,” Minden said. She called the collaboration with Cardinal Shoe in Lawrence, “a unique manufacturing process that is both state-of-the-art athletic shoe science and traditional, artisanal craftsmanship. Every pair is inspected by hand.”
In 1993, Gaynor Minden, a family-run company, opened its doors. The Gaynor Minden Boutique and its main offices are located in a historic, Victorian brownstone in New York City. The boutique sells pointe shoes that start at $130 and dance accessories. Eliza Minden is head of design, and her husband, John Minden, is CEO. Now a global brand, with offices on three continents, the company ships to hundreds of specialty stores nationwide and to about 85 countries and 200 professional companies.
Independent medical research has confirmed that the Gaynor Minden pointe shoe is “helping to promote safe and correct technique,” she said.
Cardinal Shoe Corporation
468 Canal Street
Lawrence, MA 01840
Richard Bass, president
Gaynor Minden, Inc.
140 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
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Dance Paws LLC