As far as engineers go, Armin Oehler is certainly one of the most charismatic. He is funny, fashionable, eloquent, and creative. And if the old adage that you can tell a man by his shoes is true, then you can certainly tell a lot about Armin Oehler. Like the man himself, Armin’s shoes are a juxtaposition of styles and character—traditional yet modern, conservative yet stylish, chic yet functional. And all are of his own design.
Armin grew up in Marbach, Germany, and spent his formative years helping out at the Oehler family tannery, which supplies leather and suede to some of the world’s most respected luxury brands. The tannery began in 1832, and Armin is part of the sixth generation of Oehlers to drive the company forward. But while Armin’s brother decided to stay in Marbach and take over the family business, Armin followed another path. “My father said I could try something else if I wanted to,” he says. “So I did a banking degree and then I went to engineering school.”
Armin first arrived in Greenville in 1999 to complete an internship for his engineering degree. He had no intention of staying, but now, almost twenty years later, he is still here, married with two young daughters and with years of experience as an automotive industry consultant. But a career working on pricing negations and quality control did not feed Armin’s creative side, so in 2002 he began sketching shoe designs. The idea was to design a few shoes that would be manufactured in Portugal using leather and suede from the Oehler tannery in Germany. “The first round I did five styles,” Armin says. “All very traditional but also a little more fashion forward.” The shoes were sold in a tiny storefront next to the family’s tannery in Marbach. As Armin continued to design new styles, the store continued to expand. For Armin, it was a hobby that was slowly evolving into a potential business.
“It just kept growing,” Armin says. “And in 2015 I realized I really loved doing this, and I started doing more and more designs.” It was around this time that Armin and his wife, Sara, began discussing the possibility of bringing a full line of men’s shoes to the U.S. market. Armin was still working full time as a consultant, but his love for shoe design was becoming hard to suppress. “It was a slow process,” Sara says. “It’s hard when you don’t hate your day job but your passion project begins to take over.”
And take over it did. Today, Armin Oehler shoes are available in more than thirty boutiques throughout the Southeast as well as online at ArminOehler.com. “The full line developed about two years ago and the approach here was completely different than what we were doing in Europe,” Armin says. “I didn’t want to start a retail business, so we developed the brand and then began working with high-end retailers.”
The evolution of each style, from concept to production, is generally the same. Armin sketches a design on his Surface Pro then selects materials for the design’s construction. A couple of design prototypes, always in Armin’s size, are produced in Portugal. Armin then wears the shoes for a period of time to determine if the look and feel meet his incredibly high standards. “Sometimes I tweak the design after I wear the shoes,” he says. “And then decide to put it in production or not. Sometimes I design a shoe, and I’m the only one who loves it.”
Despite the various styles, colors, and materials, the shoes all share one thing in common—they’re luxurious. Coupled with the Goodyear Welt construction, a traditional way of crafting a shoe, the finished product only improves over time. And Armin consistently hears his shoes provide better arch support than those of other luxury brands.
Armin’s designs are mostly conservative, paying homage to classic styles such as the wing tip, monk strap, and cap toe as well as chukkas, button boots, and slip-ons. “We try to stay traditional, but mix it up a little bit,” Armin says.
This past winter Armin Oehler shoe brand became Armin’s full-time job. And now, when he’s not sketching designs, he and Sara are traveling to apparel shows, meeting with retailers, and keeping a watchful eye on the production in Portugal. “We want to grow and have a sustainable business,” Armin says. “And I’m a perfectionist when it comes to this.”