Helm Boots makes high-quality men’s boots on Austin’s East Side

2014-01-23_Helm_Boots_Ethan

Ethan Oblak

Sales associate Hunter Lawrence displays a boot at the Helm Boots retail store on Austin's East Side. Helm's boots are designed in Austin and produced in Maine, with 90 percent of the boot material originating in the United States.

Kris Seavers

Although there are many to choose from, local business owner Joshua Bingaman’s favorite pair of shoes is a pair of Italian Vasque hiking boots from the late ’70s or early ’80s. The boots, suede with blue lace and a black Vibram sole, belonged to his dad and are as old as Bingaman himself. Bingaman’s love affair with shoes has been long-term, but, only recently, has his multi-faceted career as an entrepreneur landed him in the boot-making business.

Bingaman began designing men’s shoes and boots in 2009, when he started a business called Helm Boots — a men’s boot retailer. Bingaman said he felt there was a niche missing in shoe design that he had an urge to fill.

“There was a middle ground; I wasn’t able to find where a boot would cross with a sneaker,” Bingaman said. 

Originally operated as a design company with materials sourced from Istanbul, Helm Boots opened its own store on Austin’s East Side in 2013 and moved production to Maine. The store was built mostly from recycled building products and is currently one of three physical locations where customers can purchase the high-end boots.

Hillary Bilheimer, a brand and social media editor, said there is something about being able to manufacture the footwear stateside. With the transition, the Helm team can now travel more easily to the factory and oversee quality control more effectively. Additionally, 90 percent of the boot materials now come from the United States.

“It’s changed everything,” Bilheimer said. “We’re very proud.”

Before the boots touch the production line, they endure an 18-month design process. The design team, made up of Bilheimer, Bingaman and studio manager Ethan Brown, comes to the design table with an array of ideas based on their own personal experiences. Each member of the design team brings a different outlook to the table.

Bilheimer said she designs from a vintage standpoint and looks at things such as classic lines that endure over time. Brown, on the other hand, is more forward-thinking, anticipating designs he thinks will be interesting. 

From there, the team collaborates to create a boot design that evolves the brand.

“We all tend to be really excited and you have to kind of scale it back,” Brown said. “There are design constraints and time constraints. It’s not like the sky’s the limit. But we’ve gotten really good at challenging that.”

Each pair of finished boots costs around $400. It is a product that is supposed to last for years. Helm’s typical customers are men between the ages of 25 and 55, although the company explores making the boots in smaller sizes to accommodate some women. 

“Ideally, we’re making a product that can be passed on from generation to generation,” Bilheimer said. “You can buy four pairs of $60 shoes or one pair for $400.”

Hunter Lawrence, sales associate and product photographer, spends long hours in his Helm boots, wearing them all day for wedding photo shoots and other work. 

“They’re super comfortable,” Lawrence said. “I went fly fishing and got them wet. They’re super durable. I wear them for 12 hours a day. You can tell they’re quality made.” 

In addition to their stylish take on a work boot, Bingaman said what makes Helm Boots special is its dedication to staying local and staying small.

“We’re sourcing as much as we can here,” Bingaman said. “There’s a lot of heart behind [Helm]. We keep it personal, keep it like a mom-and-pop shop.”