Last Monday, a piece of Portland made a splashy appearance at the pinnacle of high chic, "Paris Fashion Week."
That's when French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier paired rugged-and-ready Jobmaster boots, by local chaussure maker West Coast Shoe Company (Wesco), with his like-minded '03 men's couture line during his spring runway show.
Light-years from the catwalks of gay Paris, Wesco is an 85-year-old family-owned shoe
factory headquartered in Scappoose, 35 minutes northwest of Portland. The tumbledown timber-town setting suits Wesco's low profile just fine. That's because the company makes practically indestructible work boots popular with those who do the roughest labor, like linemen and arborists (boot: the Highliner), or firefighters (the Firestormer). Wesco's 18-eye Jobmaster boot is an incredibly versatile workhorse, loved by construction crews, heavy-equipment operators, iron workers, carpenters and factory guys.
And, now, high-fashion fellas.
You know Gaultier. The Gallic, sailor-looking guy's heyday was during Madonna's "Vogue" incarnation. That's when his cone-tipped bustiers and sexy bondage corsets dominated her Blonde Ambition tour (rent the Truth or Dare documentary for a refresher). Since then, he has continued to produce haute couture with a fantastical, erotic edge. In these bland times, he may be one of the few designers in the Paris vanguard still producing brave and experimental work. His Spring 2003 women's line is studded with whimsical gowns with vivid fabrics and details--snarls of maribou that cling to sheer frocks like sea anemones, screaming orange chiffon. His designs for men, which play with notions of masculinity, sexuality and strength, are particularly mighty--with the boots, now more than ever.
The Gaultier show isn't Wesco's first lick of the fashion limelight. In the last year, Jobmasters have become a ragingly popular item among young Japanese hipsters. But it's one thing to get on the "it" list for Tokyo street style, where incongruity and never-heard-of-it niche designers are the names of the game. It's another kettle of cold cream to attract a heavyweight like Gaultier.
By the same token, the Jobmaster is no humble steel-toe off the sale rack. Each pair is constructed using a 155-step process and costs about $300. Pairs have gone home with U.S. designer Michael Kors, rapper Sean "P. Diddy" Combs (both purchased boots for possible inclusion in their fashion shows) and superstar stylist Victoria Bartlett.
What is it about Wesco's boots that attracts this well-heeled crowd?
"I think it's the high quality," says Wesco president Roberta Shoemaker (yes, her name really is Shoemaker). "Since our boots have a lot of cosmetic similarities with other boots, I doubt they're just going for looks. Haute couture is high fashion, so it makes sense, if you want boots, to have boots that have the same high level of quality."
Gaultier first laid his mesh-gloved mitts on the boots simply by picking up a pair for himself at a dealer in New York. He was so charmed by them that he ordered 20 more pairs for his models (16 black, four brown). And although this shoe company hasn't historically courted a fashion crowd, ˆ la Adidas or Dr. Martens, all this hubbub is having its effect on Wesco's game plan.
"We've noticed big hits to our website from Europeans," says Shoemaker, "particularly in France and Switzerland." In the past year, Wesco has found dealers in Amsterdam, Munich and London.
Could Wesco be hitting the fashion jackpot?
"We're taking the ball and running with it," Shoemaker shrugs with a calm savoir faire.
Clearly, this is one company owner who's used to putting her best foot forward--even if it's as far away as Paris, France.
Where to buy Wesco
Wesco has a factory showroom in Scappoose where you can buy its full line of shoes (52828 NW Shoe Factory Lane,
or visit www.westcoastshoe.com for dealer locations and other information
See Gaultier in his Jobmasters at www.fashiontv.com.