David Wong/Daily Journal
Jorge Posada uses a bed laster to pull the upper and lower halves of the boot closer and straighten the parts together.
In a sport lauded for its artistry and technical quality, many figure skaters wear high-end equipment made by distinguished craftspeople such as Jason Kuhn at Harlick Skating Boots in San Carlos.
“When they get to that elite level, they need the very best equipment and so that’s why they come to [Harlick Skating Boots]. It’s the way we can lock their heel in place, or give them that custom fit and they’ve spent so many hours in their boots that it has to be comfortable,” Kuhn said.
For a skater such as Polina Edmunds, a Bay Area resident and 2014 Olympian, their requirements are often discussed between parties and feedback is provided by the skater, or those who work with her.
“Polina’s great, all the good ones are the best customers, they’re not trying to blame the boot, but they just go out there and do their thing. Polina has actually a soft boot that has a lot of flexibility, as she has the balance and muscle strength to not only depend on the boot [for support],” Kuhn said.
Much of Kuhn’s time is spent on making modifications to lasts, foot molds that are used to help shape the dimensions of a boot, after making line drawings of a skater’s feet to take into account any orthotics that need to be added into the boot during the manufacturing process.
“We talk a lot about pronation, that’s when the arch flattens out and if their arch collapses inward then they’ll press in on the boot and their foot will subconsciously contract itself and all these muscles will cramp up after 15 to 20 minutes, so they require the orthotics or those wedges, just so, they not only get better balance, biomechanics and alignment, they can be pain-free. ... It’s important to get the best fit early on [in a skater’s career] so they don’t develop [foot] problems down the road.”
Other modifications come from customers who want additions or personal touches to their boots before they’re finished.
“A lot of it does come down to skater preference, whether it’s a higher heel or their balance issues, that’s why when I sit here it’s almost like I have to read their feet and get a really good feel, preferably it’s best to have them here ... because I’m not a mind reader.”
Kuhn, along with his twin brother James and parents Ginger and Phil, are involved in the current incarnation of an enterprise that’s gone on for the better part of a century.
“The company was established in 1933 by a guy by name of Louis Harlick, he was an old Russian shoemaker, he made equestrian boots and ballet slippers,” Kuhn said.
Harlick began making skating boots after he received orders from the Ice Follies, a touring skating show comparable in popularity with the Ice Capades, both based in the same building in San Francisco.
Kuhn’s family began their involvement with Harlick when Kuhn’s great-grandfather Bob Henderson and his brothers bought the business and moved it San Carlos.
The factory’s customer base has grown substantially from then and they now commonly ship boots to Japan, South Korea, Europe, Australia, South America, Mexico and Canada.
“I think what built up [our customer base] was our attention to detail, our customer service, the quality of materials and manufacture, the craftsmanship, the comfort that comes with our custom fit and the noticed difference between stock boots and what we offer,” Kuhn said.
He calls the lead up to the Winter Olympics season, “the quiet before the storm” because of so many people are caught up in the sport that they decide to phone in orders to Harlick, a “post-Olympic shot in the arm,” which is substantial as the average pair of custom boots cost approximately $800 and take 10-12 weeks to manufacture and ship.
Industry ebbs and flows
Along with the success in equipping Olympic skaters, the company has also produced skating boots for actors in films such as Jon Heder and Will Ferrell in “Blades of Glory,” Michelle Trachtenberg in “Ice Princess” and Dwayne Johnson in “Tooth Fairy.”
“Skating has seen its ebb and flows, just like the industry itself, it seems like every time there’s a tragedy in skating ... any time there’s added media attention, it brings attention to the sport,” he said.
Phil Kuhn, president of Harlick Skating Boots, has been a mainstay of the company for more than 36 years and has extensive experience with its decorated customer base and the industry over the years after traveling to national competitions in cities such as Boston, Detroit and New York City.
“It’s been fun to work with people such as Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano, Polina Edmunds. ... I mean seeing these kids, first working with them as children ... to see them develop and become Olympic gold medalists, Polina’s not there yet, but she’s close ... [has been enjoyable],” he said.
Phil Kuhn has been running the factory since 2000, when his partners Sam Swartz, Dan Doud and Glenn Henderson retired — a long way from his beginnings working in the mail and inspecting boots.
“I enjoy the face-to-face [meetings], that’s what makes Harlick’s so great, is we can evolve, we can change with the situation, not one kind of boot is going to work for everybody, and so we learn a lot talking to coaches and skaters, getting their input, what they think would be good. ... What their ideas are, and see if I can make that idea come into reality,” he said.
Harlick Skating Boots is located at 893 American St. in San Carlos.