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The History of Red Wing Shoes: High-Quality Boots, Military Footwear and More

For more than a century, Red Wing has been an American classic. The brand — which takes its name from its Red Wing, Minnesota, headquarters — has deep roots in the work and outdoor footwear categories, specializing in tough, durable boots for industries such as logging and construction, as well as performance styles for backpacking and hunting.

But Red Wing’s reach now extends far beyond the job site and the hiking trails. Like other heritage footwear companies, the brand has found popularity on the fashion scene, appearing on runways and the feet of high-profile celebrities. Thanks to their timeless aesthetic, some of Red Wing’s classic boot styles have become style icons, including the Iron Ranger and Moc Toe boots.

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Red Wing boots.
Red Wing boots.

Here’s how this historic company evolved from a small, homegrown operation to a global success story.

Minnesota Made

Red Wing traces its history back to 1905 when Charles Beckman and 14 other investors established the Red Wing Shoe Co., specializing in high-quality boots and shoes made with a pegged-and-nailed construction typical of the time. Four years later, the group pivoted to using welting, a stitched-sole technique that created a sturdier, longer-lasting shoe.

The company innovated again in 1910 by constructing its footwear using a last, which more closely mimicked the natural shape of the foot, improving the fit, comfort and feel of its shoes and boots.

GENERAL INFORMATION: Red Wing, Mn., Tues., May 15, 2001--Tour of Red Wing Boot Co. manufacturing plant and of the S B Foot Tanning Co. ehich is owned by Red Wing and supplies its leather.

IN THIS PHOTO: Ken Frazier forms the toes  of boots with a heat press. That's some of his product on the rack.(Photo By DUANE BRALEY/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Red Wing Boot Co. manufacturing plant, 2001. Star Tribune via Getty Images

A Family Business

JR Sweasy, then a company superintendent, took over the ownership and running of Red Wing in 1919, paving the way for four generations of his family to follow. His son, WD “Bill” Sweasy, would later take the leadership reins in 1949, followed by WJ “Bill” Sweasy in 1985. WJ’s daughter, Allison Gettings, then stepped into the top role in 2023, becoming the first female CEO in the company’s nearly 120-year history.

Expansion Mode

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Red Wing was busy broadening its product offering, supplying shoes for the U.S. Army during World War I, boots for oil workers in Texas, all-weather footwear for hunters, and recreational styles for women.

Red Wing also carved out a niche in the safety footwear space, designing and manufacturing heavy-duty work shoes for industries including logging, mining and farming. In 1934, the company introduced its first steel-toe boot.

354894 54: Shoppers pass by Red Wing Shoe Company June, 1999 inside the Mall of America in Minneapolis, MN. Red Wing shoes are a popular brand in Japan and are must-haves for japanese tourists. Mall of America is the largest in the country and attracts over 43 million people per year with its retail and entertainment complex. (Photo by Carolyn Schaefer/Liaison)
Shoppers pass by Red Wing Shoe Company inside the Mall of America in Minneapolis, M.N., in 1999. Getty Images

During World War II, Red Wing once again outfitted the American military with footwear, including its Skytroopers paratroopers boots, introduced in 1942.

In 1950, the first style under the Irish Setter name debuted — a hunting boot in a russet red leather inspired by the canine hunting companion. Today, the brand offers a range of both work and hunting footwear.

On the Map

In the 1950s, Red Wing’s business grew far beyond the Upper Midwest. An office opened in Salt Lake City to manage sales and distribution for the western United States. In 1952, the brand pioneered the idea for a concept store at its new retail outlet in Salt Lake City, exclusively stocking its own products.

As demand for its footwear grew globally, Red Wing launched an international division to break into new markets.

To service its core customer base of blue-collar workers, the brand rolled out a fleet of mobile shoe trucks in the 1960s that brought fitting experts directly to job sites. It also introduced a line of personal protective apparel and equipment.

A second factory opened in Red Wing in 1964, showcasing the latest, cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.

Blazing New Trails

Red Wing began tapping into another new opportunity in 1964 — outdoor footwear. The company unveiled the Vasque brand, offering sturdy, rugged styles for hiking, climbing and backpacking. Twenty years later, Red Wing launched what would become one of its iconic products, the Sundowner hiking boot, designed with minimal seams and stitch lines to reduce friction and blisters.

Red Wing Heritage Boot
Red Wing Heritage BootRed Wing

Humming Along

The 1980s and 1980s saw Red Wing make several key acquisitions. Leather partner SB Foot Tanning Co. became a wholly owned subsidiary in 1986, helping Red Wing streamline its supply chain. In 1994, the company purchased a manufacturing facility in Potosi, Missouri, to help keep pace with demand for its products.

The company also continued to innovate and develop new technologies to improve its work footwear. In 1987, the Double Boot was unveiled, designed with an insulated waterproof bootie wrapped in a waterproof outer boot.

In 1995, Red Wing introduced its ComfortForce system featuring an ergonomically designed removable footbed that delivers all-day support and comfort in demanding work conditions.

For workers looking for a more budget-friendly option, Red Wing developed WORX, a value-priced line for light-duty work environments.

Major Milestone

Red Wing celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005 by reissuing classic styles from its archives such as the 1907 Moc Toe. By this point in its storied history, the brand had found a new audience among fashion-forward customers drawn to Red Wing’s heritage silhouettes, craftsmanship and Americana aesthetic.

In 2007, Red Wing teamed up with another all-American brand, J. Crew, on a capsule of men’s leather boots inspired by its workwear roots. The success of the collaboration inspired the launch of the Red Wing Heritage lifestyle collection, offering casual everyday styles with the brand’s distinctive DNA.

A companion Heritage women’s line, overseen by Gettings, followed in 2016.

Red Wing Heritage, Classic Moc, Dusty Rose, valentine's day
Red Wing Heritage’s Classic Moc in Dusty Rose. Red Wing Heritage

Over the years, celebrity fans have helped put Red Wing on the fashion map, among them Ryan Gosling, David Beckham and Pharrell Williams.

A Greener Future

Red Wing continues to embrace more sustainable business practices. In 2017, the company signed a 25-year contract to run all of its Red Wing, Minnesota, facilities using solar power. Two years later, it introduced an innovative new eco-minded footbed made from algae biomass in its safety footwear.

Who Owns Red Wing?

Red Wing remains privately owned by the Sweasy family and employees more than 2,000 people. The brand’s shoes are sold in more than 110 countries around the world including 4,000 U.S. retail locations.

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