Like many artisans looking for inspiration, the cobbler Joshua Bingaman mined the well of memory to come up with the latest design for his Austin, Texas, shoe company, Helm Boots. Though the Hunter is named for a friend, not the pursuit of game, it is modeled on a pair of old Irish Setter lace-ups Bingaman found in his father’s garage that reminded him of dove hunting as a boy. With eight-inch-high ankles, the leather boots feature triple-stitched toe caps and grippy soles. “They have a touch of sneaker, and some dress shoe,” says the Oklahoma native. “You could wear them anywhere and look good.”
That’s something you could say about most Helm models. Since opening his storefront in East Austin in 2013, Bingaman has been gaining a loyal following by pulling style elements from a variety of boots—military models, classic day hikers—while retaining functional touches that would please anybody who has walked a mile in a pair of Australian Blundstones or American Red Wings. Current Helm designs include a calfskin-lined derby called the Pete and the Euro-styled Dash sneaker-boot with a steel shank and a sewn-on boat sole. And although Helm has produced mostly men’s styles thus far, Bingaman is aiming for more parity with his fall collection. One of his newest women’s offerings is a moccasin-meets-boot called the Donahue Blue.
Before moving to Texas, Bingaman and his brother, Brock, opened San Francisco’s Subterranean Shoe Room, a now-defunct mecca for collectors of classic kicks. Bingaman estimates he still owns about a hundred pairs of vintage boots. But eventually, his shoe obsession shifted to crafting his own footwear the old-fashioned way. Each pair is made from mostly American materials (some soles are imported) and stitched exclusively in U.S. factories—originally in Maine, and now in Arkansas, too.
So far, so good. Helm boots have become popular with a number of Texas musicians. Rocker Eric Pulido of the Denton outfit Midlake wears them on tour. So does Johnny Radelat, a drummer who plays with the blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. “We get so many e-mails where somebody saw somebody who was wearing Helm,” Bingaman says. “It’s like a secret society.” Fortunately, not too secret. Helm recently fielded an order from Ben Affleck.
But most important to Bingaman, who has three small children, is keeping American manufacturing and factories alive for future generations. “I don’t like to call what we do a revival,” he says. “It’s really about survival. We may not make a steel-toed work boot, but I do try to acknowledge that tradition. American craftsmanship is an art that I don’t want lost.”