When watchdog organizations talk about the need for greater transparency in the fashion industry, they're usually encouraging brands to publish information about their supply chains or overseas factory partners. But for Jordan Adoni, the co-founder and designer behind New York-based shoe brand Modern Vice, the call for transparency is worth taking literally.
"We're sitting in a glass shoebox," he points out as I join him in his showroom in New York's garment district, motioning to the glass walls around us. Though racks of Modern Vice's handcrafted leather shoes line the shelves, it's easy to peer between them to see into the factory where a handful of skilled craftsman are cutting hides and gluing soles together just feet away from us. "How much more transparent can you get?"
While Modern Vice brands itself more as a made-in-America label than an "ethical" one, the fact that its New York factory is open to visitors — customers, as well as press — has made it a rising favorite for consumers who care about how and where their favorite brands are making goods.
Among those customers are celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Beyoncé and Lauryn Hill, stylish TV characters like Mickey from "Love" and a whole host of Insta-famous personalities and models. One such influencer, Danielle Bernstein of We Wore What, became such a fan of the brand that she decided to partner with Adoni and work out of the Modern Vice factory to launch her own range of footwear under the moniker Archive Shoes.
All of this has certainly been helped by the fact that Adoni has shoemaking in his blood.
"My mom owned a shoe store in Long Island and my dad owned a shoe factory," he notes, telling the story of how his father, an immigrant from Israel, went from taking out the garbage at a cousins' shoe factory to learning to work the machines to eventually opening his own manufacturing hub. "I literally grew up around piles of shoes."
After successfully launching shoe labels Pour la Victoire and Kelsi Dagger with family members and seeing them sold in stores like Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom, Adoni decided to co-found Modern Vice with his brother Jenson. While Modern Vice used to sell shoes that had been produced overseas, the brothers "got excited about domestic manufacturing" pretty early on, Adoni explains.
"We were like, holy shit, you can do all this stuff here! And it's amazing, it's still going on," he says. "We just got the itch to do it here."
The fact that manufacturing shoes in the U.S. is still possible doesn't mean it's been an easy road getting Modern Vice to its current, all-American-made status: Adoni has learned the hard way that there's a reason shoes that can make that claim are rare. The higher cost of labor, dearth of skilled domestic shoemakers and access to the right machinery and replacement parts all pose obstacles that Modern Vice has had to overcome. Yelp reviews complaining about slow shipments of custom-made shoes or inadequate customer service chronicle Modern Vice's growing pains, though Adoni is quick to list the ways that the brand is seeking to address those issues.
Despite setbacks, there are clearly rewards baked into the model, too. Turnaround on new shoe styles is quick, quality is easy to ensure and one-off customizations are possible for relatively low prices.
"The craftsmanship and the work that you get out of these guys is hard to beat," Adoni says, motioning over his shoulder to the workers in his factory. "Usually they inherited the skill; it's passed down from one generation to another. Overseas you're often dealing with day workers who come in and do piecework and stuff like that. You get amazing work by doing it here."
You also get a sense of connection and relationship, one that's evident in everything from how Adoni says goodbye to a shoemaker leaving at the end of his shift to the fact that you have to walk through the factory floor to get to the office where Modern Vice's office employees work.
Adoni thinks it may be hard for some customers to fully grasp what they're paying for if they haven't seen the space or met the workers, noting that if "all they want is a silver boot, they can get one at Zara for $49." But he's also had industry insiders — like one unnamed buyer at a major retailer who's "been working with shoes for 50 years" — tell him he should be charging hundreds of dollars more for what he's making. It's a tricky line to walk, but Adoni comforted by the fact that those who do purchase from Modern Vice tend to be repeat customers.
"The customer that does 'get it' owns a lot of our shoes. She might have 10, 15 pairs in her closet," he claims. "She appreciates craftsmanship and beautiful materials."
Increasingly, Modern Vice is drawing interest from customers who consider ethics as well as aesthetics and quality. If the brand's web presence isn't full of smiling factory worker group shots and phrases that contain the word "empowerment," it's because Adoni never set out to be a social entrepreneur. "We're not saving the world here," he says.
But the fact that Modern Vice manufactures in an easy-to-monitor setting and sources raw materials from "reputable tanneries" in the U.S. and Italy, where environmental protections tend to be more strict, holds appeal for conscious consumers. As long as the demand is there, Adoni is happy to keep making shoes that meet those requirements.
"The biggest thrill for me is walking in the subway or going out to dinner and seeing girls wearing our shoes," he says. "It really means a lot that someone would invest their hard-earned money in what we put our heart and soul into all day long."