When Joshua Bingaman, owner and designer of Helm Boots, set up shop in East Austin, Texas, it wasn't as a cobbler. He ran Progress Coffee, one of the city's first bean-centric cafés. But it didn't take Bingaman long to return to an earlier and enduring love: men's shoes. He and his older brother had previously created the cult San Francisco store Subterranean Shoe Room, stocking it with their vast collection of vintage sneakers, deadstock from the Seventies and Eighties, and test designs from major labels like Nike and Adidas. But Austin wasn't a sneaker town. Austin was a boot city.
These days, the Oklahoma native comes across as a devoted and educated bootmaker. He's worn through hand-me-down hunters and Vasque hunters and likes to talk about it. "The Frye Engineer boot is one of my most influential shoes ever," Bingaman is quick to add. "That's what Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One. And the Frye Campus Banana – that's what Redford wore in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Those boots are still popular today, but Bingaman says he is trying to create something slightly – but not overly – refined. His goal, he says, is to make boots that function with the versatility and consistency of a "peacoat or a denim jacket." And his product reflects his personality.
"I like to make hybrids," he says, "a work boot meets a sneaker meets a hiking boot meets a dress shoe, something that melds different aspects of my favorite boots, that can be worn with a suit or jeans."
Bingaman recently completed a move of his entire production line to the U.S. Helm is now designed in Austin and made in Maine using domestic materials like leathers from S.B. Foot and Horween. Bingaman is trying to grow his company organically and intelligently, while keeping it small enough that he can be involved in all aspects of design and production. He's happy to have his styles sell out each season – core models such as the Sam, a dress boot with a waxed-canvas panel, and the Muller, a simply designed, handsome boot with a cap toe and infused rubber dot tread on the leather sole, are particularly popular – because supply and demand have a more complicated relationship than economists let on.
For the soon-to-launch spring collection, Bingaman is introducing a few models that are "less work boot" and more free-form, such as the Philips Copper, his take on the iconic desert boot, and the very cool-looking Dash, which combines supple leather with a monochromatic suede panel and slim white boat shoe sole. But the Helm mainstays aren't going anywhere. "I want to make classics, boots that transcend trends," he says. "That, to me, is style." [From $349; helmboots.com]