Factory Check: Sneakers Made In Germany
Did you know that KangaROOS, SONRA and VOR manufacture sneakers Made in Germany? In fact, they even share the same factory. With shoes from all three brands in production at the same time, we decided to meet up with their founders right on the factory floor where the sneakers are made.
This is the story of Hummel & Hummel, a factory in southern Germany that manufactures classic shoes and premium sneakers. It’s located in Pirmasens, the former capital of shoemaking in Germany, where even Adi Dassler learned how to cobble in 1932. In the golden times, the city breathed this trade like no other. In 1969, 32,000 workers produced 62 million pairs in one year. But when brands began searching for low-cost production outside of Germany, the industry saw an unprecedented decline. Within two decades, almost all of the factories in Pirmasens were wiped out.
But even large trends are typically followed by a countermovement. The increasingly complex world economy is resulting in a growing uncertainty over global trade and its implications. Consumers want to know where their products are made – and under what conditions. There is a new appreciation of local production, and interestingly, the “Made in Germany” label seems to be leading the pack. After polling opinions from 43,000 people, a global survey has put Germany on top of a “made in” list of 52 countries. The Hummel & Hummel factory is a testament to this development: a passion project dedicated to this growing niche of sustainable and local production.
Hummel & Hummel was founded by Bernd Hummel in 2011, when he acquired the building and all its equipment as part of a company liquidation. He also continued to employ selected workers of the factory. Bernd Hummel is no stranger to the shoemaking tradition, which he dived into when he took over the shoe factory from his father-in-law at the age of 23. Since the early 80s, he’s been running the KangaROOS brand under a licensing agreement in 27 countries worldwide. And it’s KangaROOS’ limited edition category that was first produced on the factory floor of Hummel & Hummel.
Building a sustainable business in the niche inevitably led to opening up the factory to brands from outside. Fortunately, KangaROOS was joined by two of the finest upcoming sneaker brands in Germany – SONRA and VOR. Because we believe in the quality of sneakers made in Germany and this incredible lineup of brands, we decided to meet with the founders right on the factory floor. Come along for an up-close look at the Hummel & Hummel factory. Did you know that KangaROOS, SONRA and VOR manufacture shoes in Germany? In fact, they even share the same factory. With shoes from all three brands in production at the same time, we decided to meet up with their founders right on the factory floor where the sneakers are made.
Hikmet, how did you start producing shoes at Hummel & Hummel?
It’s a rather short story. As I was looking for a manufacturer in Germany, I got to know Bernd Hummel and we exchanged our thoughts. He liked the idea; I looked at the factory, knowing that KangaROOS produced there. One thing led to another, and the first SONRA shoes were made here.
Why was producing in Germany important to you?
Of course I could have produced anywhere in the world. I could have found a factory in Italy or Portugal, and of course with my roots Turkey would have been quite natural. But I thought it was important to create something that was more than just a shoe brand – something sustainable that I can back 100%. I want to know how things are made and who makes them. SONRA is my brand and worn by people, some of them I know well. So I want to make sure there are no problems involved in the production process. Besides the quality, that’s why I began producing in Germany.
With this article you’re completely opening up about where and how your shoes are made. How does that feel?
I don’t have a problem with that. Also because the other brands involved, KangaROOS and VOR, are all doing a great job – which I hope I’m doing as well.
How important is sustainable production for you, and how does it affect your life?
It’s really important to me, to be honest. I live outside of Berlin and I also like to do most of my shopping in this area. I support the local businesses and think that it’s important to make conscious consumption decisions and buy things that were made under fair conditions. Buying products made here means that we create jobs, and it’s important to think long-term. If you do that, you can make a change. You can help your grocery next door to continue its business and prevent it from being swallowed by a corporation. You can help the butcher that’s been there for his clients for 100 years to continue as a family business – maybe for another 100 years. Don’t save on the wrong end.
Hikmet, thank you for this interview.
Bernd, your career in the shoe world started very early. At age 23 you owned your first factory. How was the state of the industry in Pirmasens at that time?
The factory I owned had 70 employees. This was in the 70s, and the city was largely shaped by the shoe industry and all the necessary suppliers. I would guess that there were about 400 factories in the area. But at the same time, there already were the first bankruptcies. Today, “Made in Germany” has become a niche.
Yet you gave it a try and reinvigorated an old factory, the result of which we can see here. Is this a pure passion project, or do you believe in the business?
It started as a passion project, but when I immersed myself in the rational side of it, I realized that the niche provides an opportunity. That’s when Hummel & Hummel became a reality. I believe that there’s a certain clientele that questions where and how their products are made. They want to know the people behind it and how sustainable that business is. And I believe that we have great opportunities there, especially as a manufacturer run as a family business. Our sneakers are made in Germany – not prefabricated somewhere else but 100% produced right here.
It goes without saying that you know the production side of the shoe business better than most others. How do you rate the quality produced here in Münchweiler?
I don’t need a lot of words for this: We only produce premium quality in this factory, and we’re extremely proud of it.
Now we’re looking at the finished shoes by the three brands. What does it feel like to see these great shoes in your own factory?
I’m really happy to see these shoes and I’m proud of the production. I came across a Highsnobiety article lately; it covered the five best sneakers from Germany. Three of them were made right here in our factory. What more can I say?
What’s your vision for the future of the factory?
We want to keep growing it step by step until we can produce at a more profitable level. But it’s not about profits, it’s about securing the best quality in limited quantities. There’s a market for our shoes, and we see opportunities in sustainable production.
The name VOR is German and you’re obviously seen as something very German, referencing a specific and very minimalist design tradition. Would you agree, and was the production in Germany the icing on the cake?
Yes, agreed, we really love all sorts of Bauhaus, Dieter Rams; simply “Die gute Form” in all its simplicity, yet being refined and sophisticated. Since we started VOR, we’ve wanted to create a brand that has its roots close to its founders and the location where it is operated from, offering some clear brand values for customers in a very over-saturated and sometimes very confusing market. Of course, being internationally known and represented in international markets and regions was something that we wanted from day one, and that is important for almost every brand (at least in the fashion market). We clearly defined some key points concerning design, aesthetics, logos, etc., and meanwhile we are known, for example, for our own colorway creations that are always named in German. Being able to produce our shoes here in Germany obviously made the complete package perfect. Not just as a very strong USP and for our brand image itself, it also has so many advantages for the kind of products we want to create, and therefore for our customers who are looking for specific products like this.
What does the label “Sneakers Made in Germany” represent to you today, and what are other important reasons besides communication to have your production here? Why Germany, and why Hummel & Hummel?
Besides the above mentioned, “Made in Germany” for us calls for the personal requirement to make sustainable decisions in any field of life as a grown-up in modern society. Alongside the effortless beauty of our products, another point of vital importance is quality. After our decision to leave Vietnam, where we started, we were looking into European manufacturers, especially in Italy, Portugal and Spain, where the quality level is supposed to be the highest. After visiting plenty of factories, we still felt not 100% satisfied. We then fortunately got in contact with Hummel & Hummel, and we learned that H&H is not a factory in a traditional sense but a manufactory, which is totally rare in the shoe world. The people there focus on quality and not on speed/mass-production. To achieve this quality and to really live “Made in Germany”, our target was and still is to make sure that the entire value chain is “German”. We’ve managed to buy 99% of our components, like leather, laces, eyelets, etc., in Germany. So the manufactory and a lot of suppliers are just a car ride away for us to see them whenever we want and whenever it’s needed. On top of that we speak the same language. It certainly helps in daily communication, and we can also rely on creative thinking and problem solving. The constant effort to improve the product, being proactive, finding the right solutions for the best possible result, can be taken for granted for us. We love the so-called “German engineering”.
How do you judge the quality of the sneakers made in Germany that are produced here in Münchweiler, and what are the specific strengths?
In our opinion the quality is top notch; that´s why we are here and not somewhere else. Each and every one in the team is identifying themselves with the product they are creating. There is no piecework, as in most shoe factories, but rather a product-dedicated process chain under German working conditions and legal requirements, which we feel good about. The shoes that roll off the line there definitely match our high demands.
Note: This post is a shortened version.
The full story on sneakers made in Germany appears in SNEAKERS MAG #37 – Released in Janury 2018