They inspired the American penny loafer and were meant to be practical, locally made shoes. Now the small Aurland Shoe Factory that’s still making them in the scenic fjordside Norwegian town by the same name is celebrating its 75th anniversary, in style.
Aurland, located in the mountainous county of Sogn og Fjordane, could once boast fully 19 shoe factories. Today Aurland Skofabrikk is the lone survivor, and enjoying a fashion renaissance of sorts. Its trademark loafers are now being made in a variety of colors, and selling in Oslo stores for nearly NOK 2000 (around USD 300).
They can be bought at the factory for nearly half that price, and local clerks even offer to put an old 10-øre coin (long out of circulation in Norway) into the shoe’s slot where an American might put a penny. The shoes have been hailed as being sturdy, comfortable and rather fun, since they’re now available in colors ranging from shocking pink to more sedate navy blue, with both rubber and leather soles.
The Aurland shoe’s biggest claim to fame came when they were copied by the Bass Company of the US in 1936, and called “weejuns,” as in “Norwegians.” It was Bass who supplied the late pop music star Michael Jackson with his leather moccasins in the 1980s. “So with a certain degree of truth, we can say that Michael Jackson did his “moonwalk” in a copy of Aurland shoes,” Geirfinn Lysne, leader of the small shoe factory far from Hollywood, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) this week as anniversary celebrations got underway.
Lysne concedes that the shoe factory, which now ranks as Norway’s oldest, has had many ups and downs during its long history. “But when you hang in there long enough, sooner or later you’ll be back in style, hopefully several times,” Lysne said on Tuesday.
“What we’ve done is simply play with colors,” he added. “It’s the same old shoe, but it makes a completely different impression depending on which color it has.”
The man behind Norway’s original Aurland shoe was named Nils Tveranger, born in 1874. He traveled to the US in his 20s to learn the shoemaking trade, and came home with his designs that hit the Norwegian market in the early 1900s.
At one point, the Aurland loafer that eventually evolved was called Nasjonalskoen (The National Shoe). The Aurland shoe still being sold today dates from the 1930s, when it was called a mokasin (moccasin).
Tveranger enjoyed great success with his early creations, which also included laced versions, and soon others got into the shoe business in Aurland. The sole surviving Aurland Shoe Factory that is now celebrating its first 75 years rose out of the “shoe milieu” in Aurland, established by Inga and Andreas Wangen in 1939. The Wangen family ran it for three generations until local investors took over in 2008. They’ve struggled with losses in recent years, but seem intent on carrying on local tradition and craftmanship.
Today the factory has six employees and produces around 6,500 pair of shoes a year. It also has a visitor’s center, telling the history of Aurland shoes, and, of course, a factory outlet store. It’s become a tourist attraction in the scenic town that’s surrounded by mountains and the fjord, some spectacular look-out points and a so-called “National Tourist Road” over the mountains to Lærdal. It already attracts thousands of tourists and cruise passengers during the summer.