The Old Man and the Sea. Marlon Brando. Neil Young. Lobster fishing. Growing beards, smoking pipes, riding motorcycles, wearing dirty blue jeans.
These all-American, working-man images have inspired HELM Boots founder Joshua Bingaman to pursue the difficult task of producing a boot that is made entirely in the U.S.A. The quality of his work has earned the partnership of a generations-old shoe factory in Maine. More recently, Nordstrom picked up the brand to sell online and in stores nationwide.
HELM products are “made like a workboot, but fashionable like a dress shoe,” says Bingaman. This combination has proved irresistible.
Once an International Boot Made in Istanbul
Bingaman’s passion for a solid boot grew from his family heritage. He owns and wears boots that once belonged to his father and grandfather, saying of them, “My dad hunted in these boots. My grandpa worked on cars in these boots.” With hands-on (or is that feet-on) knowledge about the outlasting quality of a good shoe, Bingaman has always tried to meet and surpass the standards of past generations.
Life has taken Bingaman through the music business in Los Angeles and co-owning a shoe store with his brother in San Francisco. Bingaman even started Progress Coffee on 5th Street here in Austin. He’s still the majority owner and the face of the company.
But none of these successful projects have compared to Bingaman’s love for boots. Six years into Progress Coffee, Bingaman was in Istanbul where his aunt worked and resided. As he worked with her, importing and exporting textiles for companies like Anthropologie, Bingaman came to realize the value of Istanbul’s open ports. He decided to begin designing boots and start a brand. Yes, HELM Boots was born in Istanbul.
From there, Bingaman was able to easily import every specialized element that he needed for his boots, from Australia, Malaysia, Europe and other distant locations. At the time, his handmade boots were for one-time wear, sported by local diplomats and generally important people.
Reimagination in the Face of Burn-Out
When Bingaman returned to Austin, several forces were instrumental in boosting HELM’s local popularity. Stag on S. Congress chose to carry HELM Boots, which really “helped to launch the brand,” states Bingaman.
But pushing boundaries as an entrepreneur almost always comes at a price. “I had mortgaged my house twice, and I had sold my classic trucks. I was sacrificing to the umpteenth degree for the company.” Bingaman told the Austinot that, at this time, he wasn’t enjoying himself:
“I started HELM because I wanted something select and classic. I wanted to make my stuff in the U.S., but I couldn’t. There are only a handful of factories that make handcrafted boots here.”
Rather than accept defeat, Bingaman started cold-calling shoe factories around the country. To his amazement, a generations-old company in Maine took HELM on. Over the past few months, Bingaman has pushed hard to bring every aspect of HELM stateside.
HELM Boots Defined by Work Ethic and Classic Values
“Made in the U.S.A.” is a vital stamp for HELM because Bingaman wants it to be a lifestyle brand that defines the individuals it adorns. Bingaman’s patriotism is drilled down locally as well. Every boot box comes with pieces of Austin. Boots are wrapped in paper printed with old photographs of Austin.
Bingaman is keenly aware of what drives him in life:
“I get up and work hard because it’s in my blood. I want to inspire that attitude. I’m all about community. We are who’s around us: where will I go to breakfast tomorrow? How do I treat my family? I’m not defined by the F1 racers who were filmed in my boots.”
Despite his success across industries and geographies, Bingaman is as down-to-earth as he sounds. He regularly gives out his cell phone number to customers, and he’s been known to stay up at night communicating with them. He’s not afraid to tell you that HELM isn’t a good fit for you: “I don’t think you should quail hunt in these,” he relayed to one potential buyer.
If you’re wondering what’s next for HELM Boots, March 2013 will bring the opening of a retail storefront for HELM, below the condos at 6th and Brushy. The company will retain its office at The Artpost on Red River. HELM boot designs are currently planned out four seasons in advance, so the brand isn’t going anywhere. Learn more at HELMBoots.com.
In your opinion, what other Austin companies really “know who they are”?