How Many Factories Does it Take to Make a Shoe?

So much goes into launching a shoe brand. It nearly takes a small army to bring a piece of footwear from concept to consumer, and the production part of that process is no exception. “Shoe factory” is a frequently used term, though a somewhat misleading one. This phrasing conjures the mental image of a single factory responsible for creating a shoe from beginning to end. While this is possible, it’s rarely how it happens!

In reality, there’s usually at least a handful of factories coming together to make a shoe, with sometimes as many as twenty factories or more contributing to just one style. Why so many? Consolidation can make our lives easier, but it’s not always the optimal way to get things done. Footwear is such a complex product – requiring a variety of raw materials, soft and hard components, production toolings, equipment and processes – that it makes more sense financially and logistically to work with multiple specialized factories, rather than gathering all of the required skill sets under one roof.

Just as a business needs to hire employees with varied skills and expertise, a shoe manufacturer brings together different factories and vendors best suited to creating individual parts of a shoe or specialized in specific production processes that may not be cost-effective for a shoe factory to maintain in-house.

So while your shoe factory is the primary facility where shoes are assembled, finished, and packed out, your manufacturer will also need to work with supporting factories and vendors that might include the following.

  • Raw materials factories needed for rubbers, cement, cotton, wool, etc.; along with appropriate chemists and labs for formulating materials.

  • Tanneries and leather treatment facilities.

  • Textile mills, weavers, embroidery shops, ribbon and tape makers, dye vendors, various printing facilities, etc.

  • Specialized component manufacturers for everything from fiberglass shanks to shoelace aglets.

  • Material developers and factories for specialty materials and treatments such as thermal plastic and laminates, fabric backings, carbon fiber, bonded materials, nano coatings, flocking, antimicrobial treatments, waterproofing, etc.

  • Tooling makers for creating custom metal compression and injection molds for insole, midsole and outsole components; sheet stock and texture molds; metal cutting dies; hardware molds; custom fixtures for lasting and pressing; etc.

  • Laser etching, laser cutting and branding shops. 

  • Last factories specializing in either wood, plastic, or aluminum lasts and respective components such as hinges, patching materials, and hand tools.

  • Machinery and equipment manufacturers and maintenance companies.

  • Various categories of packaging factories for shoeboxes, tissue, dust bags, polybags, labeling, desiccants, cartons, pallets, etc.

  • Labs and testing facilities to determine the most effective processes to use in production, and to then test in-process production after guidelines have been established.  

And the list goes on! Every year new concepts and processes are invented, so the list of supporting factories, vendors and resources is ever-evolving. 

If this sounds like a lot for a startup to take on, it is.

From the many complicated processes that are unique to the footwear industry, to the difficulties of working through the cultural, logistical, geographic, and potential language barriers of international shoemaking, there is a lot to navigate when launching your own shoe brand. This is why it is imperative to work with a team that is experienced in supply chain management so they can advocate for you to keep your project on track. 

Whether you are working with a factory group or a manufacturing agent, it is important to ask questions and understand exactly what services and resources are being made available to you.