By Debra Bell
Special to the Weekly
BREWER — Just ask Bangor resident Adam Sutton what his favorite thing about leather is and he’ll tell you it’s the product itself.
“Leather has a special smell and is a fantastic product,” Sutton said. “It also has a special look and feel.”
But Sutton is not just a fan of leather; he’s been around it his whole life, including 30 years professionally.
“My father [Richard Sutton] sold leather as long as I can remember,” he said. “I remember him taking us to the warehouse in Boston and South Boston. It has a smell unique to it. I recently visited a tannery in Hartland and that smell of leather automatically brings back great feelings.”
And it shows in the products produced by Highland Belt Company and its sister company Highland Shoe Company, both based at 48 Atlantic Ave. in Brewer. The companies have been based there for the past six years.
Highland Belt Company, which was resurrected in 2002, employs 15 skilled workers in its custom belt workshop. Highland Shoe Company employs 30 skilled workers who hand sew shoes for a number of national companies including Justin Boots. Sutton is the president of Highland Shoe Company.
That’s part of what makes Highland special, Sutton said.
“Hand-sewing shoes requires talent and takes time to perfect,” Sutton said. “[Hand-sewing] is not even remotely the same as machine stitching and it’s why you can charge so much for the shoe.”
But cost isn’t the only benefit to a product such as Highland creates.
“When you’re not mass produced, it’s about the training and knowing what’s acceptable,” Sutton said. “I inspect everything that leaves here. If it’s not right, it doesn’t leave.”
Shoes, for instance, take one to two weeks to produce. Belts take between two and three days. And it’s not as simple as attaching sole to upper. For instance, there are 99 operations in the stitching room alone to create a boat shoe, he said.
“It takes a lot of skill,” he said.
And that skill is part of what landed Highland its accounts with shoe companies such as Justin Shoe that produces work boots and western boots among other types of shoes.
But it’s not just straight leather products that Highland creates. There’s a lot of customization going on. Most notably, Highland creates belts found in country clubs and resorts across the country, including Pebble Beach Golf Resort in California.
“We produced 15 to 20,000 pairs of shoes this year and 60 to 80,000 belts,” he said. “And there’s a call for lots of collegiate products now. We produce belts for colleges like Harvard, and the southern SEC. They live and breathe college football and want to show their passion in what they wear.”
Children’s belts as well as “ribbon” belts are a big seller right now too, he said.
And then there’s the dog market. Highland also produces leather collars, leashes, and other products customized for the pet set. Dogn’i Apparel, located at 29 Sixth St. in Bangor, carries items manufactured by Highland in its pet and people apparel lines.
When it comes to people fashions, Highland’s belts can be found locally at Valentine Footwear, located at 115 Main St. in Bangor, and at the Belted Cow Co. located at 247 Portland St., Suite 500 in Yarmouth.
“We hope to do more and be able to grow as the people we manufacture for grow,” said Sutton.