Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Shoe Truce

American Duchess Renoir and Nankeen Boots
How do I begin?  I haven't exactly been vocal about it in public, but I've mentioned a few times in passing that I'm not exactly the biggest fan of some of the options out there for reproduction footwear.  Recently, however, I received some very sad news and learned that one of the most often-recommended reproduction shoe manufacturers in living history circles will no longer be in business within the next couple of months.  There has been no official announcement that I know of, but I learned from the owner of the business that he is finishing his current commissions and taking steps to shut down his operation after inquiring about custom orders via his website.

Well, with the departure of a major player, that changes the face of the market quite a bit.  It just so happens that I had been hoping to buy a pair of boots in a particular style from that merchant, but had been putting it off since common knowledge was that in order to get any kind of customer service, you had to call.  I don't know if anyone here knows this, but I HATE making phone calls.  I CAN do it, but I don't LIKE to do it.  So, now I'll never have my Dream Boots, because I was too chicken to pick up the phone.  Ah, well.  C'est la vie, I suppose.

As it happens, just before all of this occurred, American Duchess posted on Facebook about their annual spring cleaning sale (which is ending TODAY so get over there if you've been procrastinating!), as well as a pre-order for their newest 18th century style, the Dunmore.  Well, despite my skepticism over the years regarding the brand, I'm not one to say no to a shoe sale.  And to be honest, the Dunmore style looks rather fantastic.  And it comes in wool!  And oh by the way over the past year, there have been some pretty great styles released that look pretty darn good.  So I might have gone a little wild.  I mean, I do already have shoes for Civil War, but they're kind of uncomfortable and rub my ankles raw.  And I can fake it with ballet flats for regency, but I've always wanted boots...it's totally legit; trust me!

Last night, my in-stock order arrived and I was able to try on my newest acquisitions.  On the left of the photo above you'll see the 1860s-1870s boot, the "Renoir," and on the right is the fabric "Nankeen" style regency boot.

And holy, holy shit you guys.  I love them both to pieces.  They're nicely made shoes--certainly nicer than the cheap ballet flats and fashion boots I normally wear!  They are machine made, but the materials are much higher quality than I would buy in "real life" and in comparison to high-end fashion boots these days the cost is comparable.  I got mine on sale, so that helped make it more palatable for my cheap-ass self, but to be completely fair--if I bought these in a nice shoe store at the mall, I would be happy with them.

So, being a child of my generation, I slapped that photo up on Instagram, as you do.  And immediately started getting the side-eye for it, which considering that I've mentioned my skepticism of the American Duchess brand is actually kind of understandable.  But it did get me thinking...which is dangerous.

In the beginning, I was straight up Not A Fan of the AD designs.  I felt that they fell short of the mark on accuracy, all while marketing themselves as super-accurate.  Over the past few years, however, things have come a long way!  I think I finally perked up and noticed the changes when the Stratford style was released, which was developed in conjunction with a shoemaker that specialized in that particular period.  To me, that spoke of a desire to learn and grow, as well as elevating the 'brand status,' so to speak, in terms of accuracy and research.  In the meantime, though, there's a subtle yet definite feeling in certain circles that not all shoes are created equal--there's a right way and a wrong way, and buy buying AD shoes, I've started doing things the wrong way.

...Right.  

So, here's the scoop on the not-quite-drama.  Some of it is the same-old-same-old costumer vs. reenactor bullshit, where the reenactors are all This Is The One True Way blah blah.  And, granted, a reenactor is more likely to see nasty outdoor conditions while wearing historical clothing and shoes than someone who primarily does indoor events and that kind of thing.  Then again, there are some events that are downright cushy--Greenfield Village has paved roads, paved sidewalks, and beautifully maintained lawns.  It's not exactly the great American frontier...with a modicum of care, one can keep one's shoes perfectly nice at an event like that regardless of make and model.

Some people also are really big into the handmade aspect of things--as in, a handmade product is Always Superior to something mass-manufactured.  I kind of agree with that, in terms of finding it very impressive that people dedicate so much time and effort to learning the skills to do things like making reproduction shoes.  You don't see me doing that, even though I think it's valuable to keep those skills and information alive, so of course I'll support those who have dedicated themselves to that if I can.  However, I'm also a shameless consumer and will totally throw money at a problem if that will fix it.  I buy stuff made in China all the time.  It's the world we live in and if I can get what I want that way, I'll do it.  Maybe that makes me a terrible person...but at least I'm a terrible person with nice things, I guess?

Some people just really dislike American Duchess and/or the proprietress herself.  I myself was skeptical of the brand and, if I'm honest, jealous of her seemingly instantaneous popularity.  That last part is not something I'm proud of, and it was definitely caused by my own insecurities.  I've been on a sort of half-hiatus for the past couple of years, haven't made anything new, felt like my 'research muscles' have been atrophying and like I'd forgotten everything I ever knew.  I'm also super bad at promoting myself and am horribly socially awkward even at the best of times.  But you know what?  American Duchess is a small business.  Sure, the shoes are manufactured overseas, but as far as I can tell it's Lauren and like...one? two? other people making this happen.  It's not like she's running some retail cabal Wal-Mart knockoff.  And over the past year or so, I've seen what I would call some major improvements in overall look of the shoes and historical accuracy.  I can appreciate that--we all start somewhere, and she's put in a lot of work to offer something that wasn't available before.  And, in my current job, I get a bit of insight into what it takes to run a business...and you can sign me up for that, um, NEVER.  I'm great at fetching coffee and making copies, but boy-howdy do I respect those who have the drive and know-how on the business-making side of things.  Because I don't.  At all.

Then there's the durability.  Will these hold up to years of abuse out in the field?  I'm guessing not, but then again...do *I* want to be suffering in the same conditions?!  Um, no.  I've come to accept that I am not 'hardcore.'  I was moreso in my early 20s, willing to brave the cold and rain and mud and heat in the name of toughing it out and Reenacting, Dammit.  My very first reenactment was in such bad weather that they actually canceled the event for our safety.  I've walked til my feet bled (thanks to my oh-so-correct handmade shoes) and then kept walking in my socks.  I've been in such bad shape at events that I had blackouts and don't remember a good chunk of the weekend.  And you know, I'm glad I survived.  Do I want to do it again?  Oh HELL no.  I do this shit for fun, not for invisible brownie points.  Not to mention that I'm no longer single and living alone with no responsibilities other than a dead-end job.  I have a husband and pup to keep up with and a job that matters to me.  I need more sleep than I used to and am making conscious choices to take better care of myself--body and mind both.  Sometimes that means getting a hotel room, or skipping an event if the weather forecast is abysmal.  It also means taking care of my feet.  I invested in good shoes for running and walking the dog, to avoid getting blisters and raw spots.  They won't last forever--in fact, you should replace athletic shoes fairly often because the materials that make them healthy to walk and run in and protect your body from damage in high-impact sports don't hold up over time and use.  Those kinds of shoes are also hella expensive, especially when you're used to dropping $10 or less on ballet flats at PayLess.  But they're an investment, because nobody likes bleeding feet or stress fractures.

And you know, it occurs to me...why the hell is this even an argument?  Why am I even writing this?  For crying out loud, at my last 1812 reenactment I wore a pair of London Rebel flats made out of 100% synthetic materials, tied with polyester grosgrain ribbon.  And people congratulated me on them.  When I went to Williamsburg and my feet bled through my socks and I wore a pair of totally modern shoes on my last day there and walked down DoG street in my bloody, dirty stockings, people offered me sympathy and went out to buy me band-aids and Neosporin.  But I buy nice shoes that are real leather, with leather soles, that are dainty and cute and make me happy--they are decently researched and as far as I can tell they are well made...and I'm getting the side-eye about them because they're a certain brand that may or may not last for decades but nobody knows yet because they're new.

What the fuck, people?

These are SHOES!  Who doesn't love shoes?!  People who are WRONG, that's who! ;)

Okay, so here's me, standing on my soap box (stop telling me to stand up; I AM standing!  Shut up, I know I'm short!) and saying:  I am giving American Duches brand shoes a chance.  I'm calling a shoe truce!  I didn't like the early styles.  The new styles look good to me.  I'm tired of my feet hurting at events and so far, these boots seem comfortable and not painful.  Maybe I'll end up hating them and bleeding from my ankles--but I won't know unless I try, and if I do then I'll disinfect them and sell them to someone else to enjoy at a reduced price.  And frankly, I think that's more than fair.

There are a lot more things I could say on this--the value of a convenient web presence, customer service, advertising, just so many facets to the conversation.  But I've been running my mouth quite long enough and I'd very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!

24 comments:

  1. Nothing is worth bleeding trough your socks! I always think that if the historically living people had the chance for well made shoes they would have gone for it. At that time, one took the shoes that were available and certain styles were made because of limited techniques and/or knowledge. If we kno better now, why not use this knowledge?

    I own one pair of AD shoes (yet, but the second pair was ordered during this sale) and they are comfortable and pretty durable. Probably not when worn in mud and rain - although I don't know for sure as I don't wear my historical clothes out in that weather either. I like the style and think they are way better than cheapo plastic shoes. ANd your two pairs look lovely, maybe I should put them on my wishlist!

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    1. Yeah, I've done the bloody feet thing and I'm over it! I don't know if I just have picky feet or what, but I'm ready to invest in taking care of them. I still take prescriptions and OTC pain meds at reenactments, as well as wearing contact lenses and using shoe inserts. We sleep on modern camping pads because of allergies. Why not use available resources to have comfortable shoes that won't cause pain? Seems logical to me! Plus, they're cute!

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  2. I tried to like AD - I really did. I have zero qualms with Lauren as a person but the shoes...I guess everyone else has very different feet from myself and my Mom? The last straw for me was the Startfords, actually. I ordered a pair and was so excited to get them. I put them on my feet and *immediately* had to take them off. I couldn't even stand in them. The problem? The base of where your foot should be in the shoe (top of the heel) to the top of the shoe is a good 1/2" bigger than the back of my heel. It cut into my Achilles heel. Because of the curved back shape, there really isn't a way I could "play" with it and add a ridiculous amount of heel cushions.

    My Mom had the same issue with the Kensingtons. The back of the shoes are just too high.

    It does make my eye twitch when she says they are H/A; they aren't. They are historically inspired which is fine and, if they fit, I would have no issues with wearing them - but they don't fit. For 18th Century, I go with Fugawee. For Civil War, I actually have some leather lace up boots that I got a Lord & Taylor a couple of years ago that work well. For Renaissance - Mary Janes or the shoes I re-created. For Medieval- I bought a fabulous pair of green boots on etsy that are *perfect* for 15th Century.

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    1. I get where "historically inspired" comes from (as I saw Nicholas Sekala point out once, certain models are modern -> historic rather than starting from an historic shoe and altering it bit by bit), but I think it's a misleading and unfair label. "Historically inspired" is something I see used for modern everyday or high-fashion clothes with costumey touches to suggest various historical periods. Some AD shoes could definitely be worn as just nice pumps, but on the whole they're more historical in design than modern. If they fit you (I'm biased 'cause they fit me better than most modern shoes) there's very little compromise there.

      I don't see what's wrong with calling the handmade-with-period-methods shoes "reproductions", and leaving "historically accurate" for shoes that look remarkably like originals but are made in a more modern way. I mean - the carriage boots, the Gettysburgs and Tissots, the Astorias and Savoys and Gibsons ... I've seen so many shoes in collections that are almost exactly the same but made of more delicate materials and narrower. They're not just inspired by.

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    2. To me, historically accurate would mean straight lasts for all the 18th century shoes (which Fugawee does) and handsewing. We do need a new word for something that follows the old SCA "ten foot rule" but isn't *exact* accurate.

      As I said, I have no issues with the shoes themselves other than they simply do not fit - it's the use of terminology that bothers me.

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    3. I'm in the same boat with my Robert Land 1860s walking boots. They're nice and all, and are very sturdy, but I bleed from the Achilles area every time I wear them. My straight-lasted Fugawee Connies were the major culprit in my foot issues at UTR. By the end of the weekend, I literally could not walk in them. I had to cut a slit in the instep of my RL dance slippers because they were too narrow and caused muscle cramps in the sole of my foot. Nicely made shoes and 100% accuracy are great, but if they don't fit, what good do they do?

      I would say the AD styles (more recent ones) are better than "historically inspired" but also not 100% accurate (machine made). Then again, I photographed my RL dance slippers last night and all the visible stitching was machined, and I had to mutilate them to make them fit me. Different things work for different people, I guess! And frankly, if I'm willing to forgive RL for machine stitching AND wear his shoes even if they don't fit, it'd be pretty hypocritical of me to shun AD for machine stitching when her shoes seem to fit me.

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  3. I'm glad you're liking what you're doing, and that you're committed to not having bloody feet (or blackouts! What is that!). That's what's really important.

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    1. The weekend of blackouts was NOT my finest moment by far! I never actually passed out or anything, but there are gaps in my memory that I simply can't recall during which I was apparently walking around and talking and seemingly functional, but those stretches of time just don't exist for me. It's creepy! Stay hydrated and fed at events, kids!

      Since then I've grown a brain and/or sense of self preservation and things have improved, thank goodness!

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  4. My poor sensitive feet really hate straight-lasted shoes so I've opted for several pairs of AD shoes over the past few years for 18thc wear...I'm pretty grateful for them NOT being totally accurate, haha! I've walked miles of a parade route on pavement and tromped ankle-deep at muddy events in them and they've held up beautifully, so at least for me they haven't been completely flimsy. Until I can learn how to make my own, I'll keep going to Lauren when I need a new pair. She's lovely for customer service as well, I've never had anything but quick, helpful responses. And I feel like she is always working to research and continue improving.

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    1. I hear you! I had a pair of straight lasted shoes that I was pretty sure were going to cripple me at one point. Maybe I'm weird, but I just can't handle it. Thank you for the insight on the durability of the AD styles, too--I'm hopeful that these will serve me well for a long while!

      Customer service is SO important these days. I'm WAY more likely to buy from someone who makes it easy to contact them and who practices basic politeness in their communication than from someone who is difficult to contact or who makes me feel like I'm bothering them!

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  5. I don't like the old 18th century models (they just look too rounded and modern to me; I could re-cover a pair of thrift store shoes for a similar look) but I have the Gettysburg 1840s boots and the Victoria carriage boots and I am head-over-heels in love. I like the look of the new 18th century shoes (although they're still missing the particular arched curve that you see in all extant examples and in paintings - like modern shoes, they curve down and then go flat towards the toe, rather than going flat out from the ankle and curving down to the toe point - I have no idea how to explain this, clearly). Can't afford to give them a try right now, but maybe I'll wear some at Williamsburg this summer and get a pair.

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    1. I agree--the earlier models seemed very modern, but I've seen real improvement! And it seems like everyone's various styles have tradeoffs of some sort--many vendors offer nicely-shaped uppers but a heel that is too chunky for my tastes. Or a good shape, but with straight lasts (which my feet can't handle--too painful). So, for my purposes, something with a few nitpicks but overall a good look and comfortable shape is very good indeed!

      I do understand what you mean about the shoe profile, btw. It seems originals have a quite convex curve over the top of the foot, whereas modern shoes are concave--more closely following the natural modern shape of the instep and toe area. The day I find a shoe with the correct arched profile, I'll be all over that!

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    2. I may be able to shed some light on why shoes of certain periods have that profile - there is no arch support. Shoes starting about 1770 all the way through the Civil War were made flat, then the heels applied. That's why you get the flat profile through the arch. The reason for the high instep on heeled shoes comes from the lack of toe boxes. I found this out when we started trying to make shoes without toe boxes and learned that we had to raise the instep and lengthen the toe, which then created a much more historical shape.

      You are completely correct when you say that there are trade-offs when producing historical shoes. We are not willing to make straight lasted shoes because they're insanely uncomfortable and we don't believe in hurting our customers - we want you to be on your feet and happy for the whole day, not limping around cursing your straight-lasted shoes (and my company!). I AM willing to omit toe boxes and raise insteps - you see this on Gettysburg, Bronte, Dunmore, and Renoir. I am NOT willing to remove the arch support and manufacture shoes the correct, historical way, by making them flat and adding heels, because this will cause so much pain and medical problems that once again you'll curse our name and we'd probably be sued.

      There have to be compromises for the sake of you ladies actually wearing and using these shoes. When Mr. Sekela says that AD shoes don't start with an original and move out from there, I'm afraid he's completely wrong - we always, if at all possible, start with an antique shoe sent to our workshop, which we pattern the uppers and lasts from, adjusting for modern width and the full size range up to 11. The heels are removed and used to cast the molds. We add in arch support, reproduce the materials and hardware as closely as we can, and try to produce something that is as close to the original as possible while still being not just wearable, but comfortable for long wear. If I can't lay hands on an original, I study as many extant pieces in collections as I can, read up on how shoes of that period were made, and go from there. Of course they are not 100% historically accurate - but you wouldn't want to wear them if they were.

      I know we can't make everyone happy, but I'm overjoyed that you are giving us a chance. Your post warms my heart, and I realize it must have taken a huge amount of courage to write it.

      Thank you!

      -- Lauren (American Duchess)

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    3. Lauren, hi! Wow, I didn't expect a visit from the Duchess herself. :) I'm so glad that this post was well received, and thank you for the information about insteps and arch support--I had no idea! I for one am very much in favor of making adaptations for comfort and wearability (obviously that's a big thing for me!) and it's really neat to know what needed to be changed in order to achieve those goals.

      I know you've posted a lot about your inspirations and I really enjoy those tidbits about how your shoes are developed. And, as I think I mentioned, how you ask for input from your customers! I look forward to giving the new boots a "field test" in the next few months and also to trying out the Dunmore when it arrives!

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    4. That makes a lot of sense, in terms of arch support. And you're right - although I'd love to buy something 100% historically accurate, if the result is going to be something that kills my feet I'd rather just learn to make it myself so that I can hate my own handiwork instead of spending a bunch of money on it. =) Although, I actually (oddly) prefer shoes without toe boxes...

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  6. You know, as I get older I care less and less about historical accuracy and costumers vs. reenactors type blow ups. We're all just playing dress up really, so let's get along and have fun in costume!

    Personally I greatly appreciate that AD DOESN'T use HA techniques because they would hurt the hell out of my feet. And frankly, I want my costumey time travel fun times to last as long as they can and not end because I can't walk! ;)

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    1. Yes, I hear you on that! I have friends who are solely costumers, friends who are solely reenactors, and friends who are both...not to mention cosplayers, people who make amazing vintage clothing for everyday wear, and a whole group who are amazing knitters...you get the idea. Creative people! And I'm sad that stupid things cause them to not get along.

      I do believe that if you're in a living history type "field," then you do have a responsibility to your host site (museums usually) and the public to be as accurate as you can reasonably be, but it's NOT worth sacrificing your health and well being! I almost feel like investing a little more money in shoes that fit well is a step I'm maturing into--I'm taking my own self-care more seriously than I did when I was younger (um, blackouts at events...wtf, younger Katie?) and having good shoes that don't hurt will really help! And I totally agree that I don't want to ruin or cut short an otherwise great experience because of sore feet!

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    2. Hi Katie,
      Thanks for the post, I really enjoyed it. As a museum person, we actually do compromise on historical accuracy all the time, usually because of cost. If we could afford AD shoes, all our costumed folks would be wearing them, but most often we just go to the local shoe barn, because it is all we can afford.

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  7. This is actually really useful to me! I keep meaning to try my hand at making boots, and wanted to get a straight last, but my feet don't like a lot of shoes so a little more knowledge of what people actually feel like in the historically accurate models is extremely handy.

    I must say that I've liked American Duchess' products. I was trying to remember seeing older stuff, because I don't remember thinking that it wasn't historically accurate, but (surprisingly enough, hah!) there are still holes in my knowledge of historically accurate or not. All I know is I really like your boots! I've been too cheap (also I only ever do day tripping and then only if I like the weather or if it works out that day) to actually buy even semi-historic footwear, The very nice thing about long skirts is that I rarely if ever see my own feet, and I got a pair of leather ankle boots from JCPenney that don't have speed lacing which serve as my go-to boot for most events. I have 'delicate' feet. :D I get blisters if I haven't worn a pair of shoes for a few months, so I constantly have to break things in and probably because of that I have more sympathy for the let's go with comfortable crowd than the bleeding for history crowd, sorry Katy! No offense to your past mistakes! Of course it's not like I've ever made any. Mistakes, that is.

    Right.

    The shoes are really cute!!! They look great, in my opinion, and I hope you enjoy them and are comfortable in them!!! I especially like the button boots. I have a hankering for button boots which I will probably eventually satisfy, but its hard to justify when I basically only dress out two days a year...Even so, I'm going to start a 'buttoned boot' envelope.

    Wear them confidently and fear no one's disapprobation! ;) You always look fantastic to me, for what it's worth.

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    1. Yeah, I can't in good conscience recommend straight-lasted shoes. Maybe some people can make it work, but I'm not one of them!

      I'm less willing to suffer for my art than I was a few years ago...I don't know if I just didn't realize that my feet didn't HAVE to hurt, or if my feet have gotten pickier, but either way I'm done dealing with bleeding feet at events! I will make accommodations to prevent it now. :)

      I LOVE the button boots and can't wait to pair them up with some new frocks for Greenfield Village. Will you be there this year?

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    2. I hope to be! And if I can swing it, dressing out my sister, brother-in-law and two adorable nieces into the bargain. :D

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  8. Katie,

    Thanks for posting this information. I have been eyeing the Renoir for a year in hopes that this may be the shoe that finally is comfortable. My Robert Lands are beautiful, but they kill my older feet. If I have to stand for more than a half hour, especially on hard wood or pavement, in the RLs I am done for! The search eternal is for a period looking shoe that has some arch support and if it is not asking too much, some cushioning under the ball of the foot.... something besides just a piece of leather and the ground. Thanks to your post this morning and to Laurens input regarding the arch support, I have the confidence to give these a try. Oh, how I wish we could find cobblers now days.... I would gladly pay a pretty penny to give a cobbler my favorite pair of Beautifeels and my Robert Lands and ask them to reproduce the RL look using the Beautifeel support/insides.

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    1. For cushioning I highly recommend inserts! I have had good luck with just the plain old Dr. Scholl's ones from my local drugstore, and they really do help. My problem is when the shoe itself is just the wrong shape and rubs my foot raw...no insert can help that, really!

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    2. Oh yes, I have had bleeding feet as well. :-( I received the boots last night and they were so comfortable at first try. Today I will wear them to work to see how they wear all day. It will be interesting to hear the comments of my historic shoes in a modern workplace! Keeping my fingers crossed! Thank you so very much for such a lovely blog and timely topic of shoes. :-)
      Janine

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