ATELIER HESCHUNG 1934
STEINBOURG, ALSACE, FRANCE
It’s 8 a.m., we’ve arrived at our destination: Steinbourg, in Alsace, a small village fifty kilometres away from Strasbourg, on the edge of the Marne–Rhine Canal. Here we go, the first meeting starts, we’ve made it. With a little moment of emotion, but with no apprehension, this place already seems familiar.
The car park in front of the workshop is full, the streets are quiet. Very quickly, the machinery noise attracts us towards a building at the further end of a backyard, near the family home. The walls are marked by time. This place is charged with the history of this factory founded here in 1934.
When we go inside, we meet Pierre Heschung, the managing director of the company. He’s the great-grandson of the brand’s founder, Eugène Heschung, so it’s a family business. Each generation has been able to bring a new eye and develop the brand, while respecting its history and environment.
Originally, the factory produces hand-made buskins with Norwegian or goodyear welts. These shoes are intended to the Vosges workers nearby. In thick leather, these robust models are resistant to the harsh climate of winter.
Starting in the 1950s, under the leadership of Robert Heschung, the workshop develops ski leather shoes, mainly for the region enthusiasts. Soon recognized for his high-quality products, he becomes the official supplier of the French national team. After nearly twenty years, with the emergence of plastic, the company had to find a new positioning.
In the 1990s, at the instigation of Pierre Heschung, the third generation, the brand adapted the historical technique of the Norwegian welt to men’s chic and urban models. The first women’s collections appeared a few years later. Today, the reputation of the Alsatian fashion House is therefore ensured through these robust, modern and comfortable models, thus perpetuating its history.
We introduce ourselves to the design office team and the site director. They are seven around the table, to listen to us: patternmakers, product manager, technical and production managers… All the necessary skills are gathered in one place.
Next, we discover the workshop. I quickly catch sight of the impressive stock of leather in the back, coming for the most part from French and Italian tanneries, namely Haas and Degermann, two regional luxury tanneries, which are close collaborators.
There is a pronounced, yet so special, leathery smell.
The textures appeal to my fingers: grainy, greasy, glazed materials and velvet leather… I also see canvas from Kvadrat, a famous Danish spinning mill, which is used in particular for the collars of the Ginkgo model, the House’s iconic model.
The leathers used here are full-grain leathers for the most part, which means they are not covered, giving them an “authentic” and “natural” side. For more urban models, and especially for the women’s products, they use glazed, smooth and shiny leathers. There’s also calfskin lining in its natural colour, which remains a trademark of the fashion House.
We go through the different manufacture steps of the next collection’s models, from the thick leather cutting, to the packing. The mechanism is well established; each craftsman masters his technique. Most of them have been here for decades, and are passionate and proud of their profession and expertise.
– STITCHING –
After the cutting, we meet Michèle at the stitching. She assembles the different parts of a Ginkgo’s upper in a precise order: first the collar and the vamp, then the tongue, before sticking the foam and the lining, and finally the seams. Her technique is certain and smooth, she knows her profession and her machine.
– LASTING –
It’s here that the model really comes alive, when the machine pliers press the previously heated upper on the shoe shape. The technique has to be controlled. The leather needs to be sufficiently pulled back, without tearing it, and the model aligned properly… After this process, the craftsman observes each pair to check the symmetry.
During the pattern making, the designer provides an adequate margin at the bottom of each model, so the leather can be folded back under the shape, then attached on what is called the mid-sole. This mid-sole is adapted to every shape and serves as a base to the shoe.
– NORWEGIAN WELT –
The machine which made the reputation of this factory takes centre stage in the middle of the workshop since its inception. It’s this machine, under the expert hands of Jean-Paul, with more than 40 years of experience, that ensures the robustness of the fashion house’s products.
The Norwegian welt is a long-standing technique, which enables the assembly of the upper and the outer sole by a welt in genuine leather. The thread used for this type of welt is a linen thread soaked in pitch, which adds a greasy film, thus guarantees the model’s waterproofing. The first step is to sew the welt at the bottom of the upper, a technique which requires both strength and finesse, as the craftsman has to guide the foot in the machine mechanism. Afterwards, the sole is stuck and pressed. Finally, the welt is sewed through the outer sole. This is called the “small points stitching” stage.
Most of the soles used are in gum, designed by the fashion house and manufactured by a specialist in rubber soling. Every hardness, thickness and finish are studied based on the comfort, wear and style. Many tests are often necessary before finding the right combination, the right design, and before launching the production of moulds for each size.
– FINE SCOURING –
We then go to the fine scouring to meet Abel. A margin is always added around the sole, so a sanding step is necessary after the stitching to remove this surplus. This stage is entirely hand-crafted, with no pattern no model, everything is done by eye, thanks to many years of experience. Again, after each pair, he touches and looks at the two feet to check their symmetry.
– FINISH –
From there, the pair is complete. All that remains is to clean and dress it up, to tint the sole’s side, and to polish the shoes. That’s the so-called finishing step. Several techniques are then applied, based on the type of leather and the final quality they want to obtain…
– TODAY –
The fashion house’s wish is to continue to retain its know-how through its Alsatian workshop. They continue to manufacture all of their products in their own factories.
The Alsatian workshop of the Heschung House holds about thirty craftsmen, who guarantee the average production of a hundred pairs each day.
The EPV label (Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant) obtained by the factory shows the desire of the fashion house to retain and perpetuate their craftsmanship.
The brand owns around ten boutiques in France and in Germany. It’s also present in some department stores (Le Bon Marché, the Galeries Lafayette Haussmann in Paris, Barney’s in New York…).
In the last couple of years, brands such as Bleu de Chauffe, OAMC, Yuketen, JVB Moto, and even Adidas, have collaborated with the fashion house.
Marion & Quentin