A Skater’s Dream
by Gene Fowler
Figure skating legend Brian Boitano, who won a gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, still has the first pair of skates he got at the age of nine. Why hang on to something you outgrew an eon and a half ago? Simple. Boitano’s childhood winter-sport boots aren’t just any old slapped-together slabs of hide. They’re Harlicks.
Generations of amazing skaters have acquired the leather footwear that anchored their blades to magically glide across the ice from Harlick & Co. Based today in the Silicon Valley community of San Carlos, between San Francisco and San Jose, Harlick’s current top hand, Jason Kuhn, says that the venerable business currently produces almost as many boots for the booming dance sport of roller skating as it does for ice skating.
The Harlick & Co. story starts in 1933, when company founder Louis Harlick began making boots for ice skaters. Most accounts say that Harlick was of Russian heritage, but a 1930 newspaper ad announcing his move from one suite to another at 150 Powell Street in San Francisco describes him as an “English Bootmaker.” His boot shop was above the headquarters for an Ice Capades-style show and at some point, the performers began bringing their skating boots to Harlick for repairs. One thing led to another and, by 1933, Louis—perhaps mesmerized by the grace and beauty of these artists on ice—decided to concentrate his business on making boots for skaters.
On the other hand, Harlick could simply have been influenced by the potential bottom line. Most likely, his motive lay somewhere in between notions of art and commerce. A historical gallery on the company’s new website features photographs of stars on ice from back in the day. Around 1960, Louis Harlick sold the business to Jason Kuhn’s great-grandfather, Bob Henderson, and Bob’s brother, Jack Henderson. Both had operated shoe shops in other California towns, and Jack had experience assisting Harlick in the San Francisco skating boot studio.
In time, Bob Henderson’s granddaughter, Ginger, and her husband, Phil Kuhn (Jason’s parents), took over the business, now located in San Carlos. “My great-grandfather offered my dad a job here,” says Jason, “and he worked here for nine years without a promise of becoming a partner; then after he proved himself, he became integral to the business and became a partner. My mom for many years was the voice of the company on the phone and when clients first came into the shop, but my dad ended up working for Harlick’s for 43 years, longer than anyone. And he was always so positive—I realize now that he’s retired, how blessed I was to get to work alongside him for my first 20 years in the business.”
In a 2014 interview, Ginger Kuhn displayed for a reporter a collection of Olympic skaters’ foot data files. “I think the oldest one we have is for Tim Woods from the 1960 Olympics,” she said before clicking off a list of Olympians who have found their way to Harlick & Co., which includes Peggy Fleming, Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano, Tara Lipinski and many more. Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the first Americans to win the Olympic gold medal for ice dancing, also rely on Harlick & Co. for their custom skating boots. Jason Kuhn first measured Olympian Polina Edmund’s feet for Harlick boots when the skater was four years old.
“We’re still handmade,” Phil Kuhn told the same reporter in 2014. “We make the boots in traditional ways….We’re the last boot company that trims their soles by hand. It’s a really important step in order to give the boot such an elegant look.”
Phil Kuhn retired during the pandemic and now it’s Jason’s turn to bring a “youthful energy” to the historic company. He’s not quite reinventing the wheel, but one change he’s made has an old-school ring. “We used to market our stock boots through shops, but we’ve let go of that. I’ve really embraced the bespoke tradition. No other skating bootmaker is doing that.”
Another big change, of course, is the current focus on roller skating boots. The closure of ice rinks during COVID-19 spurred many skaters to step outside and roll, but the dance sport’s popularity was already on the upswing. “Though it was just about dead 25 or 30 years ago,” says Jason, “today every region and major city has a roller-skating scene. It’s especially strong in urban centers like Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Las Vegas and all of Southern California. And just as each area has its own music and other cultural influences, each place has its own skate styles.”
In a culture where it seems that both the latest trends and established pastimes are ‘freshed-up’ and reinvented every three minutes, Jason keeps the Harlick Instagram page poppin’ with pics of rollers and icers. “Thanks for hangin’ at the factory and making work not feel like work,” he writes on a lively post with female roller-skating stars @neonkeon, @kellllllllllls and @disht6. In another post, @zelinaonwheels “came in to get fit for some custom boots. Her color combo and boot design will have some serious style to say the least….She’ll even be hand painting her own soles and heels that we’ll chem glaze for her.” A peppy-quick video post shows @zelinaonwheels helping make her new boots, adding some custom paint touches to the soles of the lavender boots with turquoise-y laces.
“My custom Harlick boots are my go-to skates for all things skating, from live performances, tv/film projects to teaching skate lessons,” says Candace Heiden, a founding member of My Skate Pro App. “They keep me feeling confident and supported no matter how hard I skate on them or in what conditions. I can feel the quality under my feet.”
That quality, skaters know, primarily comes from fine leathers and the skill and creativity applied to fashion that leather into a supportive, yet flexible boot. “I love leather,” says Jason. “And I feel lucky to get to work with it every day – it can be so soft and supple, yet durable. You can cut, skive, stitch and add layers until you bring out the natural feel of the material. And that’s when your foot feels like it is one with the boot. The boot shades and hugs the foot. It has that handmade look. You can tell somebody made that.”
Harlick & Co. uses a bluish-gray, cuff split leather for its interior reinforcement layers. A variety of leathers are utilized for the outer sections of the boot, including elk and smooth calf, pebble calf and metallic calf. “It’s a 4.5-ounce leather with a polyurethane coating,” adds Jason. Much of the material is sourced from Law Tanning in Milwaukee.
Jason was the first leather artisan I have spoken with in the last several months to comment that the supply chain logjam has created at least a minor leather shortage. “Still,” he says, “it hasn’t really affected us yet. Ryan Law has worked hard to keep the orders filled.”
The fit of the boot, of course, is even more important given that a skater’s boots get such a workout. “I sometimes call myself a boot shaman,” notes Jason, with a slight chuckle. “But it’s true, I really need to read a client’s feet. Ensuring a proper fit requires me to sense any special needs they might have that we’ll address with our various customizations. And we’ll modify the last to address or relieve any issues with bunions, arches, plantar fascia and other aspects of the foot’s anatomy.”
One new twist that Jason introduced during the pandemic is the virtual measurement session in Zoom-like internet conferences. “I try to make it as much like an in-person fitting as possible. I ask the client to wear their normal socks, and I guide them through the process of measuring the circumference and other dimensions of their feet, tracing outlines and so on. It takes about 45 minutes and I’m currently doing about one or two of them a day.”
Before starting a virtual fitting session, Jason makes sure the client is aware of Harlick prices. Custom boots start at $1,495 and can go up to around $2,500. Serious skaters, of course, know that the investment in Harlick boots is a good one. “Without Harlick’s knowledge and expertise,” says the duo of Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko, two-time World Junior Ice Dance Medalists, “we wouldn’t be the athletes we are today. We’ve tried other boots in the past and we can confidently say that Harlick boots are the most reliable, comfortable and supportive boots out there!”
That Harlick knowledge extends not only to the properties of leather as applied to footwear, but also to the equipment that Kuhn and his associates use to craft the boots. “We’ve got 23 older machines,” says Jason, “some of which date back to Mr. Harlick’s era and beyond. Like our 1914 bed laster. I was talking with Pilgrim Shoe Supply about the laster one time and the guys said, ‘Yeah, there’s only one company that still uses that model. They’re in San Francisco.’ It took a second for it to register that he was talking about us.”
The 21st-century Harlick & Co. also uses a McKay sole stitcher—a 19th-century invention that “revolutionized footwear production,” according to the Massachusetts Historical Society—along with a vintage skiver, Singers from the ’50s and ’60s, and clickers from the 1970s. “Sometimes,” adds Jason, “we have to ‘MacGyver’ the machines ourselves,” referring to the TV show where the hero deploys duct-tape-like devices to resolve all manner of life-threatening emergencies.
It’s hard work making these boots the old-school way, but check out the videos on Harlick’s Instagram page and you’ll see Jason is having the time of his life. “It’s all about family; this is a family business,” he concludes. His twin brother, James Kuhn, works with Harlick, as do two of Jason’s sons. “It’s also about a living legacy, utilizing the finest materials, employing the highest level of craftsmanship and working with fantastic clients. It’s art and craft in action.”
In addition to seeing Harlick skaters’ boots on countless Olympians and other professional athletes, if you’ve seen the movies Blades of Glory, Ice Princess or Tooth Fairy, you’ve seen the San Carlos company’s work on the feet of stars like Will Ferrell, Michele Trachtenberg and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
And if you’ve ever watched the chirpy characters on the TV program or feature film called South Park, chances are you’ve heard them inexplicably warble, “What would Brian Boitano do?” Well fellas, for my money, the first thing he’d likely do….is head to Harlick’s for a new pair of boots.