Austinite steps into shoe industry


Longtime footwear lover realizes goal of opening trendy artisan boot line

The afternoon sun hammers onto the tannish storage unit that’s sits next to Helm’s business office as owner Joshua Bingaman carries meter high stacks of cardboard shoeboxes from it and loads them onto the bed of a vintage, light blue GMC truck. The boxes hold Bingaman’s prized handmade men leather boots and shoes and were on their way to Stag, a local, men’s apparel and lifestyle brand and store.

Just a month ago at Stag, Helm celebrated its one-year anniversary. Though Helm has just dipped its toes into the shoe industry, already this local product has soared into stardom, literally. Celebrity Helm owners includes Nick Cave, Terrel Owen, Ray Lamontagne, and Robert Downey Jr. and on the waiting list are Ben Harper and his band, as well as the musicians Robert Plant and Patti Griffin.

Everything surrounding Bingaman’s life has an intricate story from the name Helm after his son Samuel Helm, to how each boot is named — the Dapper Dane, similar to a hiking boot in a off-white colored calf skin for instance, is inspired by the vast snow scenes on “Star Wars.” The amount of details in stories only reiterates that Bingaman studied poetry, literature and writing in the various community colleges he attended.

Since childhood, Bingaman had a thing for shoes, beginning with collecting older versions of Pumas, Nikes and Adidas. Around 14 to 16 though, Bingaman started to wear different hiking boots. He found his dad’s hunting boots and wolverine boots and soon after, his brother and him got into Red Wings working boots. That’s when his boots became an overloading obsession.

Now, Bingaman said his collection has dwindled to a few dozen of work boots and a pair of fine leather dress shoe here and there. Though Bingaman recently spring cleaned his collection to a few every day favorites, he has a storage unit that holds the rest of his shoes, still not comparable to his brother’s collection.

“I don’t hold a dime against my brothers though,” he said. “He has hundreds and hundreds.”

It was inevitable that the brothers’ passion and love for shoes and boots would lead them to make a career of it. After graduating high school from his hometown of Norman, Olka., moving to Hollywood to pursue a music career, moving back to home and back again to California, Bingaman and his brother opened the Subterranean shoe room in San Francisco.

“That was my business crash course 101,” he said.

The shoe room was extremely successful, Bingaman said. Having to learn how to do books, inventory and management on the whim and the stress of running a business, though, soon caught up with him and no later, he was burnt out, so he and his wife make the move to Texas, where his wife grew up.

Initially, Bingaman didn’t have a game plan for what he wanted to do next. While in San Francisco, he wanted to open a coffee shop and given the time and opportunity in Texas, Bingaman opened the multifaceted Progress Café in East Austin and soon after ventured into a coffee roasting business, Owl Tree.

As if running businesses and a family of four was not enough for Bingaman, he said he always had in mind opening a shoe store in Austin like the one in San Fransisco once Progress was established.

Bingaman got that final push about a year and a half ago when his aunt, who lives in Istanbul, Turkey and is in the textile business there, said she knows of a couple of noteworthy handmade shoemakers.

Bingaman flew to Istanbul and his aunt introduced him to Ibrahim, a shoemaker whose family have been in the business for generations and who, Bingaman said, has handcrafted shoes for princes, head of states and even, Donald Trump.

What sealed the deal for Bingaman, though, was Ibrahim had access to imports like leathers from Spain, Italy, and Australia.

“That was gold mine for me,” he said.

Without Ibrahim, there was no way he could create such caliber of work without a price tag of a $1000 plus if the production was in fashion capitals like Spain and Italy. Instead, the average price for Helm boots are $350 to $400.
Under the hands of skilled artisan workers, all production of Helm boots is in Istanbul. Bingaman draws the design in Austin, edits it with other designers, and sends it to the factory. From there, the print of Helm boots is hand drawn onto fine leather, hand cut and hand-stitched. The process of hand making one Helm boot can take up to 5 days or a full week, which are then worn as a test drive.

“They travel the hell out of them and wear the hell out of them and make sure it’s functional,” he said. “We have had defects that we’ve had to work with.”

Despite not having a background in design or drawing, Bingaman is driven and stands strong in his vision. One of his most recent designs for next season’s boot collection was inspired from an old shoe he saw in a vintage advertising book he picked up from a bookstore. “The Rally” will have a high shaft that can be folded down and clasped to the bottom of the bottom. The inside of it will have different color leather than from the outer and will give a nice contrast, he said. In the works is also a women’s line of leather boots and shoes, which Bingaman says will be released around February.

“I‘ll have multiple artists who work with me where I say okay there’s these six boots, I want this heel with this toe cap with this midsole with this shaft and we draw it,” he said. “I’ll draw it and it’ll look like a kindergarten drawing.”