John A. Frye Company, Inc.

350 Fifth Avenue, Ninth floor
New York, New York 10118
U.S.A.
Toll Free: (800) 826-3793
Web site: https://www.thefryecompany.com/

Subsidiary
Founded:
1863
NAICS: 316210 Footwear Manufacturing; 448210 Shoe Stores

John A. Frye Company, Inc., claims to be oldest continuously operated shoe company in the United States. Based in New York City, Frye is best known for its boots. Its women's boots are available in ankle, mid, tall, over-the-knee, and wide calf versions. For men, the company offers western, dress, causal, and work boots. Frye also makes leather shoes, including women's flats, heels, sandals, and sneakers; and men's Oxfords, loafers, sandals, and sneakers. Its other products include handbags and totes, backpacks, brief cases, wallets and wristlets, socks and laces, belts, leather care products, and hats, gloves, and scarves. Finally, Frye offers children's boots and shoes. Most of Frye's production is performed in China and Mexico, but the company also offers a “Made in USA” collection and imports leather shoes, boots, and sandals from Italy. Besides retail distribution, Frye sells its merchandise online and maintains Frye-branded retail stores in about 15 locations around the country, including a flagship store in New York's SoHo district. Other major cities include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC. Frye is majority-owned by the New York–based Authentic Brands Group LLC.

CIVIL WAR–ERA ROOTS

The person behind the Frye name was John Addison Frye. Born in 1839, he was the son of a shoe manufacturer in Marlboro, Massachusetts. After learning the trade at the S.H. Howe Shoe Company in Marlboro, Frye struck out on his own in 1863, starting his own shoemaking business in a small Marlboro shop with a partner. Each man contributed $150 and within a year Frye bought out his partner. He started out making modestly priced women's and children's shoes and soon added boy's shoes, followed later by men's nailed and pegged shoes and boots. The business prospered and by 1865 Frye relocated to a larger space that he would expand half a dozen times over the years.

In 1887 Frye's 17-year-old son, Walter Preston Frye, joined the business. The following year the company turned out its first boot. As the 1880s came to a close, Frye reached another milestone. It became the first shoe manufacturer in Marlboro, then the shoe capital of the country, to make the switch from steam power to electricity.

FOUNDER DIES: 1911

COMPANY PERSPECTIVES

The original craftsmen of America footwear. Loved since 1863.

Two years after the third generation of the Frye family assumed control, the company designed what would become its signature product: the harness boot. Inspired by Civil War–era cavalry boots, the calf-high boot was accented by four leather straps and a brass ring. Also in 1938 John Frye had a chance encounter on a train with a U.S. Navy rear admiral, who was having difficulty finding a U.S. manufacturer to produce a suitable boot for the military. Frye agreed to take on the contract, which resulted in the enduring Frye Wellington design and the Jet Boot. The United States soon entered World War II, and Frye supported the effort by producing Jet Boots, Navy and Jodhpur Boots, mountain and ski footwear, and regulation Garrison Oxfords. Servicemen wore Frye boots around the world. They were so popular that after the war Frye modified the design of the military boots to accommodate civilian use. Also during the 1940s Frye introduced the Rancher, the company's first cowboy boot. It would be followed by the Riding and Roper styles, working boots that were widely worn on western ranches.

John Frye retired as president in 1944, and in 1949 the Frye family sold the company to Don Ireland. That same year Frye signed a deal with the screen cowboy Hopalong Cassidy to produce a line of Hopalong Cassidy–branded cowboy boots for children. Commercial television was rapidly growing in popularity by that point and western television shows fueled the popularity of Frye cowboy boots with both children and adults, country or city dwellers.

Frye burnished its brand in 1962 by creating a pair of riding boots for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, an avid horsewoman. The company also crafted custom-designed boots for many other celebrities over the years, including Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis, Ann Margaret, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Candace Bergen, Walt Frazier, Lisa Minnelli, Carole King, and the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Frye would also make a pair of boots for President Richard Nixon.

STRONG SALES

In 1960 the harness boot was relaunched with a stacked heel and wider toe. It would be worn by rock stars and other celebrities, as well as by flower children, revolutionaries, and everyday college students. During the 1970s Frye introduced the Campus Boot, which carried on the brand's ties to the so-called counter culture.

In 1977 Ireland sold Frye to the Alberto-Culver Company, best known for its Alberto VO5 line of hair care products. Through acquisitions Alberto-Culver had expanded into other beauty products, food, and household brands. Under new ownership, Frye added hand-sewn men's shoes and belts and new products for women and children. At the time of the change in ownership, Frye generated about $14 million in annual sales. It was an amount that was about to increase significantly, due in large measure to the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy. For the next year or so, all things country and western were in vogue, including music, apparel, and boots. Frye increased its production, turning out boots from three factories. In 1981 its sales peaked at $56 million, about one-fifth of Alberto-Culver's total revenues, but the Urban Cowboy fad passed just as quickly as it arrived and Frye, like many other boot makers, found itself with inventory it could not sell, a large amount of raw materials it no longer needed, and production capacity for which it had no use. As sales dwindled, Frye closed two of the plants.

REEBOK ACQUIRES FRYE: 1987

In 1985 Alberto-Culver sold Frye to Stanley I. Kravetz, a former executive of the New Hampshire footwear manufacturer Timberland Company. Kravetz narrowed Frye's focus to the women's line on fashion boots and the men's line on boots with classic western styling and hand-sewn loafers. The changes, however, proved inadequate to the challenges, In May 1987 Kravetz sold Frye to Reebok International Ltd.

Primarily a running and aerobic shoe manufacturer, Reebok had recently launched a diversification program that included the 1986 acquisition of the Rockport Company, a manufacturer of casual shoes. Kravetz remained Frye's president. Under Reebok, he attempted to position Frye as a nostalgia brand, hoping to persuade grown-up hipsters to reacquaint themselves with Frye boots. Although lightweight versions of the boots sold well in New England and on the West Coast, and loafer sales were strong, Frye's performance did not measure up to Reebok's expectations.

KEY DATES
1863:
The company is founded by John Addison Frye.
1938:
The harness boot is designed.
1949:
The Frye family sells the company.
2011:
The first retail store opens.
2018:
The first apparel line is introduced.

Once again, Frye was the victim of a false spring, as fashion designers invariably moved on to new trends. In 1993 Kravetz licensed the Frye brand to the Jimlar Corp. of Great Neck, New York, a major footwear company founded in 1957 by brothers Jim and Larry Tarica. Jimlar acquired Frye in 1998.

Under Jimlar's ownership, Frye enjoyed a period of stability as it entered the new century. It was only a matter of time before the classic Frye boot look came back in style. In 2005 Urban Outfitters began carrying Frye products, thus introducing the brand to a new generation of consumers. Frye reissued some discontinued styles and also introduced a line of leather handbags. Sales over the next several years increased significantly. Frye products were carried by Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and other department stores and were sold online at Amazon.com and Zappos.

RETAIL STORE OPENS: 2011

In 2010 Frye announced plans to open its first freestanding store, to be located in New York's SoHo district. It would serve as a showcase for the full-range of Frye products, which included boots and shoes for women and men, children's footwear, handbags, accessories, and other leather goods. While the New York store was being prepared, ownership of Jimlar was changing hands. In August 2010 Jimlar was acquired by the Hong Kong–based Li & Fung Limited, a consumer goods sourcing giant. Frye now became part of Li & Fung's Global Brands Group. The 6,000-square-foot flagship store finally opened in 2011. Besides Frye leather goods, it carried an exclusive gold and silver jewelry line by the Los Angeles–based designer Tara Cullen.

With the New York store proving successful, Frye decided to add a second, larger store on Newbury Street in Boston's Back Bay. The three-story, 11,000-square-foot store opened in 2013. By then, stores in Chicago and Washington, DC, were also in development. Changes in the ownership ranks were also underway. In 2014 Li & Fung spun off the Global Brands Group.

If anything, the spinoff accelerated Frye's expanding retail footprint. In 2015 Frye opened new stores in Long Island, Atlanta, and Dallas. The following year brought new stores in Denver; Nashville; San Francisco; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas. Also in 2015 a new CEO, Adrienne Lazarus, was hired. She brought 25 years of industry experience, including stints as president of Intermix and Ann Taylor.

There was another change in ownership as well. In May 2017 the Authentic Brands Group acquired a 51 percent controlling interest in Frye, with Global Brands retaining a minority share. The new owners continued opening stores in communities that were believed to have an affinity for the brand. Frye boutiques subsequently opened in New York's Flatiron District, Seattle, and Lexington, Kentucky. Authentic Brands also planned to establish shop-in-shop locations and expand into new product categories. In early 2018 Frye announced that in the fall of that year it would introduce the first clothing line in its history. The men's and women's collections would include prairie dresses, work-wear pants and jeans, and rugged outerwear. It was a major departure for the 155-year-old company. Whether it would be a successful one remained to be seen.

Ed Dinger

PRINCIPAL COMPETITORS

Tapestry Inc.; Timberline, LLC; Wolverine World Wide, Inc.

FURTHER READING

Hochswender, Woody. “Whither Frye Boots?” New York Times, September 6, 1988.

Iredale, Jessica. “Frye Expands into Women's and Men's RTW.” WWD, February 6, 2018.

Kristal, Marc. Frye: The Boots That Made History: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Craftsmanship. New York: Rizzoli, 2013.

“Last Marlboro Pioneer Shoe Manufacturer Dead.” Boston Post, August 29, 1911.

Philipkoski, Kristen. “How America's Oldest Footwear Brand Keeps That Independent Spirit.” Forbes, May 19, 2017.

Russell, Michelle. “Authentic Brands Group Takes Controlling Stake in Frye.” just-stye.com , April 27, 2017.

Steigrad, Alexandra. “Frye Expands Brand with First Store.” WWD, August 29, 2011, 10.

Vanderlip, Marcia. “Frye Boots: Harnessing an Idea.” Dallas Morning News, September 4, 1991.