Shoemaker Ohannes Topchian pulls red leather onto the shoe sole with precision. Using a small hammer, he taps as he stretches the leather onto the last, a plastic form shaped like a foot.
Lasting shoes by hand is nearly a lost art in the United States--and Cypress Footwear Inc. in Buena Park, a manufacturer and retailer of women's shoes, is carving out a market niche as one of the few companies that still does it the old-fashioned way.
"That's a talent. You have to pull it the right way or it won't fit," said Tony Adams, 35, treasurer and partner in the family-run business.
"This is what makes or breaks your shoes," Adams said recently at Lucky Lady Shoes in San Fernando, one of the company's three shoe manufacturing plants. "It's a dying breed to do it by hand."
Cypress is one Southern California shoemaker that is bucking a trend that has seen most of the nation's footwear industry head overseas, where manufacturing costs are cheaper. Most of the shoes sold in the United States today are imported from China, Taiwan, Italy and South America.
The number of non-rubber shoes produced in the United States has decreased steadily in the last decade, falling from 386 million pairs in 1980 to 172 million in 1991, the latest year for which figures are available, according to Footwear Industries of America, a trade group based in Washington.
In 1980, the United States imported fewer shoes than it made: 366 million pairs. By 1991, however, imports totaled more than 937 million pairs and accounted for nearly 86% of the domestic market in non-rubber shoes.
"The main reason is lower wages overseas," Adams said. In China, "you can pay a worker 14 cents an hour, versus $6.50 an hour here."
Adams noted that domestic manufacturers that choose to stay in California face rising costs for labor, workers' compensation and other insurance, as well as tough environmental regulations.
But for Cypress Footwear, the goal is to produce a high-quality shoe. Every pair is handmade, Adams said, which sets his company's shoes apart from the imports--most of which are made on automated assembly lines. On an assembly line, the only hands that touch them are those that put them into boxes before they are shipped to market.
Cypress Footwear does use machines, he said, but only to cut the leather for insoles and uppers and to glue and stitch some components.
At its three Los Angeles-area factories, Cypress makes about 100,000 pairs of shoes a year, said Tony Adams Sr., 57, who founded the company in 1986 and is president and chief executive.
Cypress manufactures the In Touch and Attitudes brands and has more than 1,000 accounts that include major department store chains, independent retail shoe stores, catalogue companies and the U.S. military.
"One of our biggest accounts is the Navy in Guam," the younger Adams said. "We've shipped $60,000 worth of shoes to one military base. That's an awful lot of footwear."
The Adamses said Cypress Footwear has found a niche by making its shoes with only U.S. leathers and by offering hard-to-find sizes and widths. It makes women's shoes in sizes 2 to 13 and in narrow, medium, wide and double wide.
"We buy our supplies locally, and we are able to make a product that is all-American," the elder Adams said. "It costs more to buy American components, but you can maintain the quality."
His son said there will continue to be a demand for American-made footwear because U.S. manufacturers can make shoes and deliver orders faster than importers can and because customers can reorder in season.
"I stock my No. 1 sellers, and if an account calls up, I can ship it out the day I get the order," he said, noting that the company stocks about 20 styles.
Orange-based Vans, which manufactures 3.75 million pairs of casual shoes annually, can fill orders within 19 working days, said Susan Friedman, national marketing manager. For competitors who import, she said, filling an order can take four to six months.
"Since we're manufacturing locally, we're able to process the orders, handcraft the products and ship out of our local factory--all within a much shorter time frame," she said.
The publicly held company employs about 2,200 workers in Orange County and anticipates continued growth this year.
Turning around a product quickly enables a shoemaker to follow the current fashions as well as to be a trendsetter by introducing new styles, both companies say.
Vans' collection for men, women, children and infants includes 24 styles in 145 colors and prints that range from its classic deck shoes and slip-ons to high tops.
For Cypress Footwear and Vans, company officials say, the future is in keeping the domestic edge.
"You have to make a quality product that can be competitively priced--and we strongly believe that we can do that," said Winston E. Hickman, Vans' vice president.