Monday, September 26, 2016

Heritage a Level Deeper - First Impressions - Yuketen Native Maine Guide Boots


When we evaluate a potential purchase, a little angel on our shoulder usually asks "how versatile is this? Can I wear it with the things I already own and in my usual style? Is this wearable in most seasons?" Those kinds of questions make sense, which is why no one suggests buying a windowpane wool tweed as your first suit purchase. But once in a while, hopefully after you've built up some basics in your closet, you find something that resonates with you and all of that goes out the window.

Such is the case with the Yuketen Native Maine Guide boots.

Also pictured: Shirt - Wings + Horns, Jeans - Naked & Famous, Sweater - Banana Republic

I've made no secret of my admiration for designer Yuki Matsuda's Meg Company in the past, which includes the brands Monitaly, Chamula, Epperson Mountaineering, and Yuketen. Most well-known for its footwear, Yuketen draws inspiration from the archives of American history while simultaneously looking forward in its design, continually pushing the traditionally inflexible boundaries of heritage wear. The lookbook Yuketen releases every season is inevitably always met with the entire spectrum of derision to adoration for the quirky aesthetic, which is not unusual for a designer with no regard for staying inside the confines of established convention.

Over the Labor Day holiday, online shoe outlet 6pm held a clearance sale that sent prices tumbling on a pair of Yuketen boots I had on my radar. Who was I to say no?



 

Design, Materials, and Construction

 


Moccasins may be the first true American footwear. Coming from the Algonquin word "makasin," the leather shoes were worn by Native American tribes across the entire landmass of the Americas far before any European ever set foot on American shores. Different tribes utilized their own designs, which were often decorated with beading, fringes, and painted motifs distinguishing the work (or fashion) of one nation from another. When settlers, hunters, and traders from moved into these areas, they often adopted the footwear and eventually the moccasin spawned several more iterations, including several forms that are still widely available.

Stitching and toe detail

Of the footwear in their lineup, Yuketen are probably best known for the Maine Guide boot. The Native Maine Guide variation is essentially the same boot with some cosmetic differences, made from the same Chromexcel leather and hand built in Maine on the same lasts with a moccasin construction.
Construction breakdown from Yuketen - 2014 Native Maine Guide

Moccasin construction differs from other common methods of construction like Blake and Goodyear in that it uses of a single piece of leather wrapping around and under the foot as a foundation. Yuketen places a vegetable tanned tuck with a steel shank and a full leather insole on the interior, and stacked under the vamp are a leather midsole, rubber midsole, and finally a chunky Vibram 2021 rubber outsole. If that sounds like a lot of material, it is. The multiple layers and formidable sole raise the profile of the boot considerably, and the footbed has much more spring in it than the average welted shoe or boot.

Vibram 2021 sole

Heel construction and stitching detail

The Chromexcel leather is beautiful stuff, as we've come to expect from Horween. It's tank-thick and clicked well, showing no areas of loose grain or flaws and finished with raw edges that display shades of contrasting tan to the deep black. The uppers are hand-punched and the plug (the leather that lies on top of the foot), heel, and overcast are hand-stitched, finished at the corner where the vamp meets the tongue with a criss-cross stitching pattern Yuketen calls their "signature baseball stitch." The stitching is generally very good, with confident unwavering lines in visually interesting patterns. While the brown and Loden green variants feature contrast stitching, the black version is murdered out in tone-on-tone black that is much more subtle.

Hand-sewn "baseball stitch" detail


The gusseted tongue is pornographically soft, especially on the interior suede side, and the rest of the interior is lined in what feels like lambskin. Square raw leather lacing leads to the top of the shaft, which is piped in pinked leather (a zig-zag patterned finishing) - the quality of which is noticeably higher than similar piping on my Red Wing Beckmans, which is thinner and downright paper-like in comparison.




Modern interpretations of the moccasin are typically focused on basic moccasin construction or typical toe architecture alone, but the Native Maine Guide boots delve a level deeper. The plug and shaft are embossed with designs borrowed from Native American jewelry, and the lateral side of the shaft features a Made-in-USA patterned nickel concho and beading of similar inspiration.


On the whole, materials and construction are superlative, and the aesthetic is at once familiar and simultaneously fresh. Make no mistake, though, the design is sure to be polarizing, though I would argue the visual impact is more subtle than its decoration suggests.

Sizing, Fit, and Styling



After some background research, I took my normal size 8, which is generally recommended for Yuketen's moccasin line - for reference I wear an 8D in most Allen Edmonds lasts, a 7.5 in Red Wing Beckmans and Wolverine 1000 Miles. It's important to note Yuketen has several factories they use to make footwear, including Mexico, so there is some size variation depending on the line/model, but the Maine Guides are all actually made in Maine and true to size. They generally fit well for me with medium weight socks, though the inner aspect where the tongue gusset meets the upper has a tendency to rub against my foot uncomfortably if they're laced too tightly - at least in the first few wearings. This is something I've mitigated by adjusting the way the gusset folds down and loosening the laces slightly, but is worth noting. The footbed is more comfortable and cushioned out of the box than you might expect, but a million layers of leather and rubber will do that.



Those layers combined with the substantial sole lift you off the ground considerably, something akin to sitting in the seat of a monster truck when you're probably used to driving a coupe. It may take a moment to acclimate to unless you normally wear lifts or high heels (hey, I don't care what you do on your own time). That being said, the boots cut a surprisingly nice profile - substantial in appearance, but with a silhouette that does not appear marshmallow or block-like.

Also shown: Jeans - Kato' by Hiroshi Kato'


The rugged character of the boots, with their raw edges and rough rawhide laces, begs to be paired with more casual Americana, and taking into account the nature of the design is best complemented with more muted and plainly finished clothing so as not to take a trip across the dreaded peacock threshold - a deeply subjective line that varies by the man, but once traversed becomes more distraction and costume than anything else.


The brown version of the Native Maine Guide is probably the most versatile of the three out there, with the Loden green and multicolored bead version from 2014 being the least so (though that's not to suggest they're worse). This was initially one of my greatest concerns with the black model, given that the palette of so much heritage wear is indigos, blues, and browns, but I've been pleasantly surprised to find it hasn't been a problem, and in some ways has "opened up" a more monochromatic palette I've starting thinking of as "Dark Americana."

Summary and Recommendations



When it comes to evaluating the merits of the Yuketen Native Maine Guide, there can't be much debate that they are made from quality components with a high level of hand finishing and craftsmanship. This is partially reflected in the high cost of Yuketen's footwear, which lists usually in the $500-600's range - a step up or three from entry level quality shoemaking. But Yuki Matsuda's design aesthetic is the other part of the value equation, for which a fitting preface may be to point out there is no other designer making anything of the sort right now. You can get a very good moccasin construction shoe or boot from another quality maker such as Quoddy (who used to partner with Yuketen), but the design is sure to lie closer to the mean.


In that vein, I love these boots, but they certainly aren't for everyone. And like most things that stray away from the norm, the Native Maine Guides have a tendency to be love-it-or-hate-it. Like a Quentin Tarantino flick - one way or another they will draw an opinion out of you. There aren't many ways I can think of to make these boots less versatile, but there's no law of nature that makes a more broadly accessible piece intrinsically worth more - if that were the case people would be super passionate all the time about their khaki chinos (and I guess some people are) and no one would own a tuxedo. Versatility certainly has its place, but it's only one piece of the equation.

Yuketen Double Ring Boots
The heyday of heritage Americana and workwear seems to have run its course for the moment, which is actually good news if you're a value hunter and your style isn't as swayed by the fashion du jour. Though MSRP can be eye-watering, you can find Yuketen at various retailers on heavy discount if you know where to look. I bought my Native Maine Guide boots for $216 shipped from 6pm, of which I've never heard of a lower price on a Maine Guide model (and they're back at $377 at the time of this posting). You can also find Yuketen on deep cuts at the retailers below, including some attractive Maine Guide boots for under $300, and other models that scare me a bit.

I've written about it recently, but one of the major pitfalls of this type of design is the risk of coming down on the wrong side of cultural appropriation, and this is something that should be addressed specifically when we are talking about Native American-inspired designs and conchos. Cultural appropriation is not in-and-of-itself a negative concept. In fact, I'd argue that an innumerable amount of great things we take for granted are a result of that very thing - from food to art to clothing, the free exchange and appropriation of ideas from one culture to another is more often synergistic. But danger can lurk in copying them outright without transforming or attempting to elevate them, exploiting the culture of origin at their expense, and using designs that are considered restricted or sacred.

Zia symbol concho - 2014 version
The embossed patterns on the plug and shaft appear most similar to Southwest Native designs to my eye, perhaps Navajo. Yuketen also uses five different designs for the nickel concho, and I was only able to find a match for one - the Zia symbol, something has become almost ubiquitous and almost synonymous with the state of New Mexico. It is attributed to the Zia pueblo in southwest US, and depicts the sun with four rays emanating out in the four cardinal directions. The symbol carries sacred meaning, though over the years it has been adopted and used in many ways outside the pueblo, including the official flag of New Mexico adopted in 1925, eventually leading to action from the Zia pueblo as it was used without their permission. In Yuketen's case, it's unclear who made their Zia conchos and under what circumstances, but I would hope they had permission to do so.

The conchos used on my pair are different, and I haven't been able to find an exact match for them myself. My guess (and hope) is that they're simply inspired by Native American design and further developed from that point. With that caveat, the design inspiration for the Native Maine Guide moccasins is a surprisingly natural and logical extension for a boot that originated with the Native American people. Yuki Matsuda's work has always displayed a passion for Americana, and the Yuketen Native Maine Guide pays tribute to that heritage in a deeper sense than most.


 

Pros


High level of construction and finishing
Quality components
Interesting moccasin construction
Unique design aesthetic

Cons


Expensive
Not particularly versatile
Polarizing design aesthetic
Could be considered culturally insensitive

Where to Buy on Discount


Yoox
Jackthreads
Urban Outfitters
6pm
Yuketen - Last Pair Sales

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