The Ode: Dack's Shoes

For more than 150 years, the Canadian firm thought quality was enough. By the time it considered outsourcing to Mexico, it was too late.

Editor’s note: In February 2012, Dack’s Shoes announced that it was relaunching with an online store. You can read their press release here. The following story was written roughly 10 months before the relaunch.

Dack’s Shoes was born in 1834, when Irish immigrant Matthew Dack opened a shop for the well-heeled at the corner of King and Jordan streets in downtown Toronto, then a settlement of some 10,000 souls. His untimely death from pneumonia that December handed control to his eldest son, Edward, who travelled widely in search of new styles and sources of quality leather. The surname became synonymous with quality men’s footwear among those who could afford made-to-measure shoes and boots.

In its first 80 years, Dack’s Shoes remained small; during the First World War, it consisted of a small King Street store with a factory at the rear. Expansion began shortly after, with new stores opening in Winnipeg, Montreal and elsewhere, not to mention a thriving mail-order business. By the Second World War, it had stores and agents across the country. The last family owner, Stanford Dack, personally inspected finished shoes wearing a white glove, says one longtime employee. “If he saw any black or brown polish on his white glove, there was hell to pay. He’d cut a shoe in half rather than send it out with a missed stitch. That’s the type of guy he was, and that’s how the company was run.”

Dack sold out in 1948 to AH Marston Corp. of Toronto, which in turn sold the company to the prestgious English shoemaker Church & Co. Ltd. in the 1960s. Under Marston, Dack’s bought a plant in Fredericton, N.B., in 1957 and moved production there. It was an age when sons wore the same shoes their fathers did, and customers had leather-soled shoes rebuilt regularly. Even as cheaper, rubber-soled shoes manufactured offshore began appearing on Canadian shelves in subsequent decades, the company believed enough consumers would insist on better-fitting, more durable products. In a 1985 company history, then-president Lorne Grainger declared: “It is easily possible to imagine Dack’s Shoes being made with the same philosophy and even greater success 150 years from now.”

Tastes, though, were changing. Workplace attire became ever more casual, and younger customers turned to mid-market brands like Clark’s and Rockport, which Dack’s was forced to stock. “The market was really flooded with shoes from China and other Asian countries you just couldn’t compete with,” says John McDowell, a director and longtime Dack’s executive. As for Dack’s storied brand, “I hate to say this, but it was becoming an older man’s shoe.”

Decline began in earnest in 1999 when the Fredericton plant, unable to make rubber soles, closed. Henceforth, Dack’s best offerings were made by Church’s in England, though the companyexperimented (unsuccessfully) with Mexican manufacturing. When Prada, the Italian fashion house, bought Church’s a decade ago, things got worse. “We were the little red-headed stepchild that got thrown in with the deal,” recalls one Dack’s employee ruefully. With sales crumbling, the company stopped renewing leases. By the time Prada quietly dumped Dack’s in December 2007 to private equity firm CoBe Capital of New York, just 10 stores remained.

The recession, during which shoe buyers became even more frugal, ended the sad decline. Claiming assets of just $600,000 and liabilities thrice that (mostly to trade creditors), Dack’s filed for bankruptcy in December. “The longevity of the company has not allowed it to escape the financial issues that have plagued this industry for the past decade,” read an official statement. As perhaps a last testament to craftsmanship, liquidator Danbury Sales discounted lesser mass-market shoes by half. Those who wanted the last pairs of Dack’s, some priced as high as $900, could get only 25% off.