Asheville native Justin James was just a kid when his mom offered to buy him a special pair of back-to-school shoes. Big into basketball shoes, he fell in love with
Asheville native Justin James was just a kid when his mom offered to buy him a special pair of back-to-school shoes. Big into basketball shoes, he fell in love with Nike’s Air Jordan 3s — the way they looked, how the design pushed people further in the sport. So in love, in fact, that he wouldn’t go to sleep without his brand-new, never-been-worn kicks.
“I used to get a new pair of shoes and sleep with them on my pillow,” Justin says. “That’s a true story — I did that quite a few times. I just appreciated everything that goes into a shoe: the smell, the leather, the colors, the design, knowing that somebody made them. The overwhelming love of shoes has just always been there for me.”
Now, Justin and his, wife, Amanda, make their own stylish leather sneakers from scratch. Named for their kids, Ophelia and Wayland, their company, Opie Way, is, quite literally, a dream come true for the shoe fanatic who once wanted to take his talents to Nike. Today, at their factory in Asheville, the Jameses pride themselves on making the best shoes they can with the best material they can find, and are part of every step of the process, from the first sketch to the final fit.
“We care about everything,” Justin says. “Down to the thread.”
Our State sat down with Justin and Amanda to learn more about their stylish leather sneakers, and how their shoes stand apart.
OS: What inspired you to start Opie Way?
AJ: Justin and I have been together since we were 15, and he’s always just been totally obsessed with shoes.
JJ: I was always the kid that, when I was in middle school, would have told you that I was going to design shoes for Nike one day. I’ve always just had this overwhelming love of sneakers. I followed that passion all the way through my childhood and ended up going to college through an industrial design program. I was hoping that I could make some shoes for a bigger company like Nike, but I had this weird tug of my heart that I didn’t necessarily like how shoes were manufactured on a larger scale. So I started to rethink the way that I wanted to design sneakers and build a career out of that, and after college, I decided actually not to go to a sneaker brand. I kind of took a step back, but I also still had an overwhelming passion for sneakers. I realized that I still wanted to figure out how to make shoes. My thought was, if I’m not going to work for a bigger company, I’m at least going to learn how to build my own. I bought these two vintage sewing machines, and any time that I had, I was trying to build these sneakers. It was really fun — I was learning a lot and I was connecting with a lot of people around the country to try to figure out how to do that. And then I started to get this thought that maybe there’s a company that could start making shoes right here in the U.S. and kind of bring that back.
OS: Where do you source your materials?
AJ: Material has been incredibly important for us since we started. When we started, we were really training ourselves on the different types of leather, and where we could source it, and starting to build relationships. It’s important to us to source in the U.S., if at all possible. We quickly learned about the different tanning processes, and even though we’re not tanning the leather ourselves, it’s something that’s really important to us. Where did it come from? Who’s making it? How is it made? We decided early on that we wanted to focus on vegetable-tanned leather because it’s a more kind process — to the environment and to the people who are tanning and the people who are going to be using the leather and making stuff out of it. We wanted the shoes to be something that you can care for, that you have a lot of respect for because of the way that it’s created. We really just want our shoes to carry a story themselves. For our canvas shoes, we’re using vintage military canvases and fabrics.
JJ: We’re building a shoe on materials that are literally the best materials we can get. It means so much for us and for our brand, and we really want you to get what you paid for. We pour a lot of thought and creativity and time into sourcing materials, and it might be one of the most important bits of the foundation of what we built.
OS: What sets your product apart?
AJ: One of the cool things about our shoes is that it’s not just a shoe that you wear for one season, or one that rips and tears, as most shoes eventually do. Our hope is that if you buy this pair of leather sneakers, you really wear it. That it starts to tell your story and has creases and stains. That once you wear through the sole, we can pop it off and put a new one on, and you can keep on going with that story. It’s not just another thing that you’ll toss — it’s something that you could keep for a really long time.
JJ: We’re trying to do everything as close to home as possible. I really think, you know, the material, making them here, wanting to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. even on a small scale — as far as sneakers go, it’s just kind of unheard of. We really love boot companies that are made in the U.S., and you can find quite a few of those, and they’re made really well. I want to build that for sneakers, too.
OS: What do you love most about what you do?
JJ: I have these days when I’m working in the factory and we’re maybe building a new model that we’re working on — there’s a time when we finally get this shoe together and it’s really, really good. And I take a step back and I can’t believe that we had this idea that was sketched on paper, and now here’s a physical product in front of us. I always bring it home when I’m done, so if you look at our mantle at our house, there’s constantly like two or three shoes sitting there, because it’s that moment for me. Those little wins are maybe the most incredible part of it for me.