Review: Consider Sutro Footwear’s Workboots for an Elevated Alternative to Red Wing and Wolverine.

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In this review, see why Sutro Footwear’s extremely-comfortable boots make a stylish alternative to Red Wing and Wolverine work boots, and find a coupon for a $25 discount off of your next order.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the rain.

Lately, though, I’ve changed my tune. My kids and I have started to take “rain walks,” strolling around our neighborhood with slickers and umbrellas. On these rain walks, I’ve gotten to know and love my new work boots from Sutro Footwear.

Keep reading to learn more about Sutro Footwear, why I like my boots so much, and how to get a discount off your next order. Before jumping in, Sutro provided a pair of Charlton boots at no cost to Modern Fellows.

Sutro Footwear coupon

Take $25 off your next Sutro Footwear order with coupon code modernfellows25.

What is Sutro Footwear?

Sutro Footwear is a San Francisco-based footwear brand, which specializes in handcrafted leather boots and shoes for women and men.

Sutro is known for its precision design and elevated style, making their work boots an attractive alternative to Red Wing and Wolverine.

They’re a great example of the kind of direct-to-consumer e-commerce brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age and a solid choice to complement a new Zoom shirt to complete your work-from-home outfit.

Sutro Footwear’s founders

Nooshin and Mehran Esmaili founded Sutro Footwear in 2010, though their story begins much earlier.

Nooshin and Mehran first met back in 1981 while studying engineering at San Francisco State University.

A brief history of San Francisco’s Shoebiz

Long-prior to founding Sutro, back in the 1980s, Nooshin and Mehran ran local San Francisco store Shoebiz on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

“It was a small 600 square feet store that we decided to take on with no retail experience, no credit, just two full-time engineering students struggling to simply survive,” Mehran recalled of the time.

In the 1990s, the couple helped usher in the original concept of a sneaker store that embodied the ‘sneaker head’ trend.

“Shoebiz became the go-to-spot for the most trendsetting and fashion-forward streetwear private label collections that Nooshin designed and manufactured in Spain and Italy,” said Mehran.

During the Shoebiz era, Mehran and Nooshin were in charge of one of the fastest growing small businesses in San Francisco streetwear. They developed close relationships with Adidas, Nike, Puma, Converse, New balance, Vans, Onitsuka Tiger and Saucony.

Their Dinostore became the global launch of most global initiatives starting in 1996.

He noted that the growth of their business, store layout and attention to customer service, fashion, music, and art, coupled with their laser-like attention to a “scientific and numeric business model” enabled their company to retain exclusivity for the San Francisco market for many of the brands they introduced.

By 2005, they had expanded to five storefronts across San Francisco, including the first and only Adidas Original Concept Shop.

Sutro eventually grew out of this effort.

A request from a distributor in Japan led the couple to design their own collection of men’s and women’s shoes, drawing on Nooshin’s success developing high-end, trend setting collections in Europe in the early 1990s.

While the company halted production of their private-label line in 2000, it set the stage for them to develop Sutro years later.

From Shoebiz and Nice Kicks to Sutro Footwear

In 2015, after almost 35 years of retail, Mehran and Nooshin decided to size down, take a break and hand Shoebiz to a younger group of entrepreneurs.

They merged all of Shoebiz’ stores with the ShoePalace Corporation, which resulted in what we know today as NiceKicks.

In the meantime, the couple took steps to resume a Shoebiz-exclusive brand: Sutro.

“The idea was to create a community where our Shoebiz faithful, who at the time consisted of young trendy, high tech employees of [companies like] Facebook, Zynga and Twitter, participated directly in the design and styling of San Francisco-based footwear,” Mehran told me. “It was then that Sutro was born.”

They thought hard about a name, and thought that “Sutro was the best fitting name for a brand which was born and raised in San Francisco,” said Mehran.

Nooshin and Mehran approached the Sutro family in San Francisco to ask if they would permit their business to name its collection Sutro Footwear.

(Adolph Sutro was the 24th mayor of San Francisco and an immigrant entrepreneur who left a legacy in the city that is still visible today.)

Thus Sutro was born, described by Mehran as “a collection of San Francisco-exclusive shoes and boots designed by a brilliant community who valued quality, comfort, sustainability and fit above all others.”

How much do Sutro Footwear’s boots cost?

Sutro Footwear’s boots and shoes for women and men cost between $154-$275, though sales can take their prices lower.

Sutro’s value proposition: Fit and quality.

The founders told me that they designed Sutro around two principles: fit and quality of components.

Nooshin recalls that she and Mehran developed Sutro’s DNA gradually based on feedback from their customers at Shoebiz.

“The demand was for a pair of boots that makes you look good, is comfortable, and is not so noticeable. A pair of boots that you don’t have to think about – you just grab it and wear it,” she said.

Nooshin added, “Sutro is more like steak and potatoes – comfort food. Good comfort food. Other footwear like Viberg is more like Coq Au Vin, delicious gourmet food, but we don’t eat it all the time.”

Quality ingredients

Good shoes with good ingredients.  Nooshin highlighted that,

We start with Grade A, premium leather, no matter what the cost of the leather is and we do not cover up the leather with spices or dressings. The leather has to speak for itself. The simpler, more organic, the better. Leather, followed by a durable construction, creates our product.

Sutro’s boots are full of premium materials and thoughtful details.

My Charlton boots are made of a 16mm full grain pull up leather upper, which are creamed, burnished and polished by hand.

Sutro’s boots are also constructed with a Goodyear Welt, and are stitch welted throughout. I really like the look of the soles and stitching, which aren’t too chunky (which can be the case with some Goodyear welted shoes and boots).

Many of Sutro’s boots are available with a choice of thick Vibram outsoles. Founded in 1937, Vibram is highly-regarded for making quality soles for boots and shoes.

I decided to go with the Vibram soles, though to be honest I was unsure how much I would like the look of the thick white stripe. It turns out that I really like both the look and, more importantly, the traction that the Vibram soles provide on my Charlton boots.

My boots also feature a “gusseted tongue,” that keeps out dirt and debris from slipping through the little part between the tongue and upper, a designed borrowed from military boots.

Evaluating the fit and feel of Sutro’s boots

Work boots can be heavy and clunky, but Sutro’s wear more like comfortable shoes.

They’ve been extremely comfortable on those long rain walks with my kids. The leather is buttery soft and moves well with my feet.

I also like the feel of the heavy waxed laces, which secure around antique metal eyelets at the top of the boots.

For reasons that Nooshin explains below, Sutro’s boots are purposefully designed to be slightly tapered at the opening, which means you definitely need to loosen up the laces and create some space for your foot to get in and out of the shoe.

They fit true-to-size. I have a slightly-wide foot and some regular-width shoes and boots feel too narrow. Sutro’s width is perfect and are definitely not too narrow.

Evaluating Sutro Footwear’s style: These are no Red Wing copycats.

Sutro’s design helps them stand out from well-known competitors like Red Wing and Wolverine. Their boots are just as durable as work boots, but their elevated design and style don’t look like traditional work boots.

“Our styles all have clean lines, but there’s a lot of precision in each of them,” said Nooshin.

She told me that precision stems from her engineering background. “Every measurement must be precise and must have a reason for it,” she said.

For example, heel heights are 1″ and toe spring is between 5/8-7/8″. Side elastic boots are designed so the elastic is wider at the base, where the critical point is, and narrower at the top so the perimeter is only about 1″ wider than ankle, to give the person enough room to take a step, but not so much as to look too wide or unsightly around the ankle.

“If you want Red Wing, there is no substitute,” said Nooshin. “Sutro is not Red Wing or a Wolverine 1,000 Mile copy.”

These are the shoes that Sutro’s founders say you should try first.

I asked Nooshin and Mehran what shoes a newbie should try.

They told me that, for men, they would definitely recommend picking up Sutro Footwear’s Alder I in Honey.

(Sadly, my Charlton boots, which I love, are on final sale and selection is severely limited.)

For women, they said that’s a little tougher, but pointed to their popular low-heeled Ortega boot or the chunky-heeled Battery bootie and noted that both are extremely comfortable.

Where are Sutro Footwear shoes made?

Sutro Footwear’s shoes are made in Mexico.

“The key to our success running Shoebiz was to set the well being and quality of life of our managers and staff above profitability,” said Mehran, who said the same goes for Sutro.

“The well being of the workers and families of those who work hard in handcrafting a pair of Sutro is what matters the most. It is why each pair of Sutros is handcrafted in small family-owned factories in Mexico where we could support and sustain a permanent quality of life,” he added.

“Our factory workers, our artisans, have to feel Sutro to know how to make them. For that, they need to know us, and feel part of our family,” Nooshin added.

Sutro-footwear-factory-manufacturing
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sutro Footwear.

She also noted that Goodyear Welt construction is very similar to a cowboy boot construction, and that Mexico has a long heritage in this type of construction. “It’s similar to Germans and their beer – they just know how to make it,” she said.

She also pointed to Mexico’s strong history making quality handicrafts, which made it easy to work with their factory on precision creaming and finishing by hand.

Mehran told me that, when the couple first went to develop their private line in the late 1990s, “the development of fashion shoes in Mexico factories with 100 years of cowboy boot manufacturing was a challenge” at first.

Sutro-footwear-boots-review
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sutro Footwear

But, the couple worked with partners in Mexico to make the welt construction more streamlined and less bulky. They ultimately developed a private line of handcrafted, hand stitched, Goodyear welted shoes originally called MURO for Shoebiz.

“In less than a year, Muro grew so rapidly that by 1998 Muro was shown at the largest international shoe shows.”

By 2000, the couple paused the production of shoes in Mexico, before rekindling production in Mexico when the they developed the Sutro brand in the 2010’s.

Sutro’s focus on customer experience includes free shipping and free returns

Mehran told me that, for Sutro, “customer experience is more powerful than any digital marketing effort.”

Sutro offers free ground shipping on all orders, and free returns on products within 14 days of receipt.

Sutro’s shoes were designed organically, and the founders still rely on word-of-mouth and testimonials from “the Sutro faithful.”

Those early testimonials and the unsolicited digital-word-of-mouth that Sutro received through blogs and forums “brought energy and respect to the brand,” he told me.

“For us, our reputation and origin began in an opposite way than most of the direct-to-consumer brands popping up today,” Mehran reflected. He told me that, while many digital-first brands are now just starting to see the value of omni-channel retail and physically getting in front of customers, Sutro and Shoebiz began through brick-and-mortar retail.

“What they are starting to do now in the physical space, we have already done — It was the basis of how we started,” he said. “It’s incredibly important to have both [digital and physical outreach]. It helps to connect with the people buying our shoes and allows us to continue to learn and adapt to what they are looking for.”

Supporting small businesses like Sutro

I had a chance to ask Mehran and Nooshin about the impact of COVID-19 on their small business. Nooshin told me that “we are a small, family run business, so unfortunately the economic impacts of the coronavirus on us are immense.”

If you have the means, now is a good time to support Sutro and other small and independent businesses.


About Jake

Jake is passionate about exploring entrepreneurs' global journeys. He founded Modern Fellows in 2012 to get to know the entrepreneurs behind the innovative brands helping men dress sharp in the digital age.  Jake has written about entrepreneurship, international business and/or fashion for outlets including Business Week, Forbes, Inc., Details Style Syndicate and Primer Magazine, and has provided analysis on international business for BBC Radio, NBC News, CNN and Time Magazine.

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