In a stately home just off the busy thoroughfare of Woodruff Road, an empire is growing. You would never think, with its brick façade and welcoming wreath, that this would be the hub of a design enterprise, but then again, you might be surprised that the German-born engineer Armin Oehler ended up a designer, at all.
Along the fireplace are samples of his designs; all shoes, in this case — a man’s Oxford, a new denim-accented sneaker, a boot with accents of tweed, a buckled dress shoe called the “Charleston,” and another, saddle-colored shoe aptly named the “Greenville.” These exact designs were recently shown at New York’s Fashion Week: Men, a feat punctuated by the fact that the design brand of Armin Oehler is really only about 18 months old.
Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Oehler grew up in the family business — one of the many tanneries that dotted Germany’s landscape at the time. Founded in 1823, the tannery had already been passed down from his grandfather to his father, who in turn allowed his three children to choose their own paths in life, while at the same time teaching them the ins and outs of the leather business.
Oehler’s path was not to be the tannery, however, and so he took an internship in Milwaukee at a manufacturer that just also happened to build equipment for tanneries. Because leather providers are directly linked into the automotive industry, he remained peripherally involved in the business, while following his own path into automotive engineering and manufacturing. A few years later, he found another internship with an automotive supplier based out of Greenville before finally settling into the area as an engineer.
Still, Oehler notes, he was left restless, without a creative outlet.
“Growing up I was very crafty. I played with leather and scrap just to test things out,” he says. “I loved seeing art in the leather.”
With his family tannery as a much-needed connection, he began to design shoes with the help of his brother, who was still back in Germany. They based their origins in the European market, with a small shop next to the family tannery selling the footwear. By 2016, Oehler had waded even deeper into design, and with his wife’s support, he decided to focus his efforts full time on the U.S. market.
“This is my passion and this is my connection back to my family, being so far away,” Oehler says of his decision to leave automotive and engineering and focus only on design. “It just came to the point where we’re doing more and more and it takes more and more time away from family — you have to let go of something.”
In the U.S., his designs were different; while some of his designs are based on a traditional style, they may get a twist with material or color — a tweed upper or a denim inlay, for example. In other cases, traditional styles are thrown out the window and Oehler designs a style from scratch. On all his shoes, he uses a Goodyear Welt sole, adding quality and longevity to the creativity of his designs.
“We feel like our style is less boxy and a little more fashionable,” Oehler says. Through it, he adds, he is able to add a “love of leather, and love of creativity” to each design.
Almost immediately, Oehler began visiting apparel shows and soliciting requests from boutique shops. While the initial response was hesitant — “a lot of brands in the industry pop up and then they are gone,” Oehler explains — soon retail stores like Smith & James and Rush Wilson began placing orders. Today, around 40 stores across nine states feature Armin Oehler in their offerings.
While Oehler would eventually like to expand the brand’s offerings — they already offer belts manufactured down the street from the family tannery in Germany — the main focus is on their current retail locations.
“At the moment, the main focus is to stay with the boutique retailers and to support them,” Oehler says. “For a boutique retailer in a city like Greenville or like Charlotte or Charleston, they are competing with a lot of online shopping, so they are looking for the brands you’re not going to find in a Nordstrom. This is not a mall shoe.”
Beyond the desire to stay true to his retail family, Oehler has a long-term vision for the Armin Oehler brand and expects to be immersed in the business for the near future.
“There are a lot of options, and there are things in my mind we need to do, but we first have to establish this a bit more, and that takes time,” he says. “We’re on the cusp, especially since things are really starting to run, to being able to run a lot of different angles. So we’re going to be putting a lot more energy into this.”