Evan Streusand, the founder of Fortress of Inca shares how he created a ‘responsible’ shoe brand.
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With so much knowledge and awareness in our current climate surrounding ethical brands, one has to wonder how does a brand that cares about the quality of its product, ensure that the method in which it was made was done ethically? Making a beautiful product is one thing. But, making that same product meet ethical standards requires a certain awareness and extra steps that need to be followed. How do these brands ensure that labor laws are upheld in factories and living wages are paid to employees across the supply chain? To learn more about what it takes to be an ethical brand, we asked Evan Streusand, the founder of the ethical shoe brand Fortress of Inca.
As the founder of a Texas-based brand that works with Peruvian artisans, Evan is passionate about upholding responsible production and shared how he founded a company that ensures fairness for all employees at Fortress. “We want to make a good product that we’re proud of… in a way that we feel good about. And that means treating the people that we work with with respect, and paying them what they’re worth.” Evan Streusand, Founder.
The Making Of A Beautiful Product
The Fortress story begins with Evan traveling around the globe when he came across a boot shop in Cusco, Peru that utilized traditional, woven, Peruvian textiles mixed with leather. At the time, Evan had never seen anything like these boots, so he bought a pair for himself as a nice memory from the trip. He kept those shoes for 6 years until the day he had an idea. Why not create a brand that used that same unique quality, but was available to those in the U.S.?
In 2010, he bought a plane ticket back to Peru, the original spot of his inspiration. Within a few months, Evan had picked out the colors and textiles with some help and advice from local women, got 100 pairs of boots made, and started selling them.
At first, the ethical shoe brand was called the Inca Boot Co., but it was then changed to Fortress to be more encompassing – a brand that is open to making more products than boots alone. Evan wanted to keep Inca in the name to signify the people that made the shoe in Peru, while Fortress symbolizes a solidified structure.
Setting Up Responsible Production
“One thing that we’ve always done is really put a spotlight on the incredible craftsmanship and the talents of the people that are making everything that we sell.”
Click on a pair of women’s boots or sandals on the Fortress website, and you’ll likely see a section under the description titled ‘Meet the Shoemaker.’ Click on the tab and you’ll learn more about the husband and wife team whose shoe atelier has been making some of the brand’s most popular styles since 2015.
All shoes are made carefully by hand. The materials for the shoe are all sourced locally – they have natural materials like rubber, leather, and wood with supply chains that are all based in Peru. Yet, the process of creating a quality shoe is a long one – even getting the shoes to the U.S. can be a huge challenge.
When the company first began the process of manufacturing in 2010, there weren’t many factories that could export out of the country – the factories in Peru just weren’t set up for it. But more recently, the infrastructure has improved and been able to make larger quantities of shoes. Fortress now works with an agent based in Peru who meets with the factories – keeping up with shipments and styles, operating as the eyes and ears of the brand in real-time.
Challenges For Small Businesses
COVID-19 has impacted the brand both on the manufacturing and consumer side. On the manufacturing side, producing shoes on time has been difficult. Fortress ships from Peru to Texas – during the pandemic, flights were less frequent and there were more overall restrictions on travel.
On the consumer side, – Fortress has always sold to retailers in the U.S., independent boutiques, and shoe stores – however, the pandemic resulted in a lot of those relationships suffering because consumers were shopping less in-store. Fortunately, Fortress already had a thriving online presence, so it survived through what they’ve built online and has naturally shifted farther away from selling in stores.
Fairness For Fortress Employees
“When I started, [the business], the idea of selling a $200-250 pair of shoes seemed a little crazy to me…but when you learn what goes into creating a business like this – the materials, the quality of the shoe, the people, then you realize it’s definitely worth it.”
Fortress prides itself on being an ethical brand through and through – the shoemakers have many benefits like paid sick leave and paid maternity leave, and have always made ethical wages. The factories associated with Fortress all follow the labor laws set by Peru. And, most notably, shoemakers in Peru are paid three times the living wages for the area.
Evan wanted to create a brand that replicated his minimalist style, and he wanted to do things right the first time. “I’d rather buy a few things that are really well made than a bunch of crap – and we’ve definitely tried to impart that attitude towards our customers. “ With Fortress, Evan got acclimated with the notion that less is more – always buy better quality, and in turn have a better long-term investment. Fortress of Inca is essentially slow fashion – the opposite of fast fashion, it is ethically sourced and made to last long.