History repeating

Retailers are cashing in on the heritage trend.

While it’s not exactly a revolutionary concept, old is new again. Whether in apparel (heritage-inspired fashion), home furnishings (reclaimed wood flooring) or fine jewelry (Art Deco designs), consumers appear to find comfort in that which is familiar. In menswear, the heritage trend generally refers to looks or brands with a certain degree of (real or perceived) authenticity. Ironically, classic American designs were appreciated by Japanese and Europeans long before they gained popularity here. That said, the trend is now hot and smart retailers are jumping on the bandwagon, determined to evolve it for maximum gains in both image and profit.

While some argue that the movement has hit its peak, century-old brands are not disappearing anytime soon. What’s more, the heritage trend now includes many new brands that lack history but take pride in traditional artisan methods of manufacturing. As Nordstrom VP David Witman puts it, “I define heritage as something guys know well; it’s the heart of Nordstrom’s DNA. We’ve educated our customers to come to us for the products they’ve grown to respect, including well-curated assortments of brands like Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren and Billy Reid. These are products guys understand but with a twist of newness.”

Bringing Production Stateside

While many retailers claim they stocked heritage brands long before it was trendy, manufacturers attribute new interest from consumers to the economic downturn in 2008. “People started to develop this Depression-era mentality,” says Schott’s Jason Schott. “They started to see the value in buying clothing that would last instead of cheap, disposable fashion. A lot of heritage brands manufacture in the U.S. and we’re seeing a great demand for made in America.”

To some, buying quality goods made by American workers is the main point. With U.S. unemployment at 8.3 percent at press time, the jobs created by bringing apparel production back to the States sound appealing. “Certainly because of the state of the economy customers are focused more than ever on made in the U.S.,” echoes Blake Nieman-Davis of Blake in Portland, Ore. “I would like nothing more than for manufacturers to bring production back to the States. Imagine how many jobs it would create if Levi’s alone brought all of its production back to San Francisco.” Although made in America is only a part of the heritage movement, it’s an important one.

Knowledge is Power

Educating the consumer is crucial in selling heritage. These days, guys are most interested in how things are made, the company’s backstory, the production process, etc. Much of that interest has spawned from men’s style blogs, websites and social media.

“People are hungry for information and are searching online for answers. It’s a big part of this movement and really different from fashion in the past,” observes Todd Barket of Unionmade in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Barket says his customer isn’t into booze-fueled product launch parties. “Our guy is more interested in learning about the product than partying. We’ve had more success with trunk shows with Hamilton Shirts from Texas, where customers could pick their own fabric swatches and create custom shirts. Or by hosting an evening with Alden’s sales rep, who explains to customers how the shoes are made and answers their questions.”

“Our business is built on explaining: male consumers are more inclined to ask why something costs what it does,” says Ryan Huber of Context in Madison, Wisc. “They’ll ask why a jacket costs $300, and we explain that it’s hand dyed indigo and shutter loomed in Japan.” Context uses its website to connect with and inform customers about brands and new product. They recently launched an interview series on their site, where they talk to designers about inspiration for the season, the production process, the connection they have with Context—anything customers ask about in the store. “We carry a lot of brands that people may have never heard of and were getting a lot of calls and e-mails about them. We launched this series to give guys a deeper look.”

Need Supply in Virginia hosts an in-store series called ‘Meet the Maker,’ where they invite manufacturers to visit the shop and share what they do. They recently had Billy Moore from Cause and Effect come in to make belts and show customers how to make their own. This interactive aspect is a sure way to spark consumer interest. Blake has a table set up specifically for re-waxing jackets. They carry pocket knives, so there’s a knife sharpener attached to the table, and a sink in the store for rinsing denim. He elaborates: “If people don’t want raw denim but like the style or brand, we will rinse down their jeans and dry them in our greenhouse. Heritage can feel so serious; I try to have a little more fun with it.”

Collaborative Effort

Collaborations have always been a way to reach a new audience. However, partnerships between heritage and non-heritage brands became a huge part of the bigger trend. Brands and retailers without long histories are legitimized by teaming up with heritage lines. One of the most influential collaborations was between Pendleton and Opening Ceremony in 2010, introducing heritage to the high-fashion set. During a trip to Tokyo, Opening Ceremony owners Humberto Leon and Carol Lim saw Pendleton worn by fashionistos on the streets of Japan. They immediately contacted Pendleton and put a line together for the upcoming season. “This brought a lot of positive attention and press to our brand. And its success led us in creating The Portland Collection,” admits Pendleton’s Mort Bishop. The Portland Collection is Pendleton’s contemporary line, now sold at top retailers like Nordstrom, Need Supply, Blake and Stag.

Schott experienced an overwhelming amount of inquiries from stores it had never sold before, as well as brands looking to collaborate. (including Supreme, D.C. Shoes and Restoration Hardware). Jason Schott attributes this new interest to the financial meltdown. They saw an opportunity and went back into their archives to create an authentic, higher-end fashion line; Perfecto Brand, an extension of their signature Perfecto leather jacket, launched in 2010. The collection is made in the U.S. of American raw materials with a contemporary fit.

Getting the Look

Retailers can incorporate other vintage items into the merchandise mix to romanticize the assortment and create a story. J. Crew is an example of a menswear retailer who does this well. J. Crew had the heritage aesthetic without any of the heritage, so they brought in brands like Alden, Mackintosh and Barbour to create a sense of authenticity. For a single-branded retailer to sell another vendor’s brand was almost unheard of, but J. Crew was able to bring in the right brands without taking anything away from their own brand. J. Crew’s Liquor Store takes it one step further. They opened the men’s shop in an old 1920s Tavern in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood; in addition to apparel they sell first-edition books, records and collectibles.

At Blake, product is displayed on vintage furniture (which is all for sale). Denim is merchandised on a table made from old stadium bleachers from his alma mater, The University of Oregon. Context is getting into the furniture business and working with local artisans, antiques dealers and salvage yards on repurposing old furniture and selling it in their store and online.

Evolving the Trend

Heritage is evolving in many ways—one is through the introduction of “new heritage.” Need Supply’s Chris Bossola describes it as newer brands without a lot of history but that create authentic product. He cites Raleigh Denim as an example. “No one is more passionate about making a pair of jeans than the owner, Viktor, but his company is only a few years old. In my mind, they already have more heritage than a lot of other brands.”

Context’s Huber agrees. “It’s younger people who are respectful of the craft. A term that comes up a lot is ‘new traditionalists.'” He uses HW Carter & Sons to illustrate his point. “They make very specific workwear: railroad striped vests, chore coats, buckle-back selvedge denim pants and selvedge duck cloth pants. Another example is Tender Company. It’s a one-man show run by William Kroll. He researches production facilities, so if he wants to make belts he’ll find a facility that’s been open for a long time and is the best at making belts. He’s like an encyclopedia of production knowledge and the kind of guy who makes things because he loves it, not because he thinks he can make a million dollars doing it.”

Stylesight’s Michael Fisher sees heritage taking an interesting turn toward active. He’s catching it on the designer runways and is looking for an active influence to trickle down to mass retailers. Last season, Bloomingdale’s and Saks showed customers how to marry rugged heritage with colorful, technical fashion in their window displays.

Find the right strategy to maximize heritage for spring ’13. Whether it’s bringing in brands with deep roots, working with local artisans or collaborating on a limited-edition project, heritage is still a growing trend. Get your customers’ attention through social media, your own store website or blog.

What’s Hot in Heritage?

* “We really like Heritage Research out of the U.K. The details and historical references in each piece are just crazy. We’re also excited about the Gloverall toggle coats coming for fall.” —Chris Bossola, Need Supply

* “Heritage brands aren’t limited to lines from the U.S. Two of our biggest vendors are Luigi Bianchi Mantova and Eton. LBM has been around for over 100 years and Eton since the late ’20s. The addition of LBM 1911 has been a great. We’ve also done well with the Wolverine 1,000 Mile collection and Gant Rugger.” —Kevin Hansen, Badowers

* “We brought in Mackintosh jackets from Scotland for spring.” —Todd Barket, Unionmade

* “Gitman Vintage, Alden Shoes and Perfecto by Schott.” —Ryan Huber, Context

* “Pendleton Portland Collection is doing really well for us. It’s deeply entrenched in Oregon tradition, which is perfect for our store. Will Leather Goods, based in Eugene, is another brand that we’re having success with.” —Blake Nieman-Davis, Blake

Special Advertorial section: Heritage brand profiles

To open a PDF version of MR‘s special heritage advertorial section from the April 2012 issue, click here.

See below for links to each profile:

Reyn Spooner
Sterlingwear of Boston
London Fog
H. Freeman
Johnstons of Elgin
Chester Barrie
Richard James Mayfair
Smith’s Workwear

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  1. avatarBert Pulitzer says:

    Perfect and I am bringing back Survivalon!

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