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Channeling American Style

Red Wing shoe

Red Wing Shoe photo by Michael Hendrickson

In China, Japan and other overseas consumer markets, there’s a booming demand for the authenticity, style and quality produced by tried-and-true American heritage brands.

A sign hanging over a basement-level escalator at Shanghai’s Grand Gateway Mall points visitors upward to “International Brands.” Sure enough, the first floor is occupied by the kinds of flashy luxury brands that one would expect in a high-end mall: Gucci, Armani, Rolex and Tiffany, among others. But ride the escalator to floor two and the atmosphere becomes a bit more low-key—so much so that it would be easy to miss the demure, low-key outlet for Allen Edmonds, the iconic, 91-year-old, made-in-the-U.S.A. men’s shoe brand.

For those concerned about the future of American-made goods and their prospects overseas, that Allen Edmonds store—its first in China, as of November 2012—with its American flag-draped window displays, should not be missed. It is, in one sense, the vanguard of a made-in-the-U.S.A. consumer trend that picked up momentum in the United States around the time of the Great Recession and has since expanded rapidly in international markets. Well-heeled consumers increasingly seek quality, an elusive sense of authenticity and—above all—a sense that their fashion choices differentiate them from their peers. As a result, and perhaps unexpectedly, some of America’s oldest and most revered apparel and footwear brands—from Allen Edmonds to Red Wing Shoes, Pendleton Woolen Mills and Woolrich—are becoming highly sought-after, identity-defining style icons overseas.

The reason for the boom differs by continent, country and culture. In the United States, the interest in vintage, high-quality American brands emerged from a nostalgic desire to reconnect with a disappearing manufacturing base—and the lifestyles it made possible. Needless to say, that’s hardly the reason that heritage brands work in, say, South Korea. Rather, outside of the United States, and especially in the Asia-Pacific, where they thrive best, these brands appeal to well-heeled consumers in search of unique, finely crafted goods that connect to America’s vintage past.

Consider, for example, what happens when a Chinese customer who may never have heard of Allen Edmonds wanders into its Grand Gateway store. His first impression will be of a large screen showing American movie scenes that happen to feature Allen Edmonds shoes. Next, that consumer—most likely “a well-heeled gentleman,” says Sheryl Chen, Allen Edmonds’ public relations and marketing manager in China—might notice photos of recent presidents wearing Allen Edmonds shoes. More likely than not, a store clerk will approach to explain that every president from Reagan to the second Bush was inaugurated in the Allen Edmonds Park Avenue model, and he/she then will carefully guide the potential customer to a display that demonstrates the hundreds of steps involved in producing an American-made, handcrafted Allen Edmonds shoe. This last point is key: “Everyone knows labor is expensive in America, so the quality must be high,” Chen explains in the store’s fitting area. “It is new to wear shoes handmade in America. That makes a gentleman different from his colleagues.”

 

       
Allen Edmonds at Grand Gateway Mall in Shanghai. Photo by Chad Ingraham.        

The desire to differentiate one’s fashion identity via vintage American apparel has existed in the United States for as long as there have been thrift stores and hipsters. Overseas, the trend appears to have emerged most prominently, and first, in Japan. The Japanese appreciation for the vintage American aesthetic is difficult to pin down precisely, but it certainly has some connection to “wabi-sabi,” an all-encompassing Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in imperfection. So, for example, imperfections in nature, such as cracked tree bark, are wabi-sabi; likewise, imperfections in a fine, vintage leather boot, such as cracking and creasing, are also wabi-sabi.

Beginning in the 1970s, this appreciation for beautiful imperfection drew fashion-conscious Japanese to American thrift shops in search of finely crafted, classic apparel. “I was in Japan for a time in the 1990s, and one way to make money was to hit up a Goodwill store in the Midwest and buy all the old pairs of Levi’s 501s on the rack, as well as worn baseball T-shirts and such, and then suitcase them back to Tokyo and sell them for $120 a pair,” says Abe Sauer, the Shanghai-based contributor to Brandchannel, an online branding exchange. As curious as it may sound, wabi-sabi—a concept traceable to Zen Buddhism—might very well explain this thrift shop phenomenon.

In any case, the passion for vintage—both old and “new”—has never let up in Japan, and beginning in the late 2000s, the country’s hipsters became the single biggest market for several of the most famous and important American heritage brands (including Red Wing Shoes, Pendleton Woolen Mills and Woolrich). Robert Christnacht, director of worldwide sales at Pendleton, the 104-year-old Oregon-based fabric and apparel manufacturer, says that when he travels abroad, especially in Japan, what he “really wants to see is vintage stores.” There, he finds Pendleton goods for “astronomical” prices, compared to their original prices. Similarly, David Murphy, president of the 108-year-old Red Wing Shoe Company in Red Wing, Minnesota, says it’s not uncommon to find Japanese stores selling vintage Red Wing boots for upward of $1,000 and that the company is regularly outbid by Japanese collectors in online auctions for antique versions of its boots (the company collects them for its archive).

What, precisely, is the appeal of a $350 pair of new Red Wing boots—or a $1,200 pair of used ones—to someone in Japan? Does it go beyond aesthetics, and wabi-sabi? Murphy, whose “Heritage Collection” caters to men aged 18-35, cites the peculiar, crowded circumstances in which Japanese urbanites live. “The definition of a successful young man isn’t in their home in Japan,” he says. “It’s not an automobile. How can you demonstrate your success? By wearing expensive clothing. Enjoying expensive alcohol. A $300 Mont Blanc pen. That’s how you show success.”

But it’s not enough just to flash wealth; it’s also a matter of flashing personality, and Red Wing’s history gives Murphy (and the company’s customers) the ability to do that. In fact, despite being known in the fashion world for its Heritage Collection, 85 percent of Red Wing’s business continues to be work boots that it sells in more than 110 countries, with the oil and gas industry being its single biggest consumer market. “If you want to personify who we are, it’s Paul Newman and Steve McQueen,” he says, referring to two of the most rugged American film icons of the past 50 years. “We don’t try to be cool. We don’t pay to be in movies. We don’t pay celebrities to be in our boots.”

In other words: Unlike other American fashion brands that have to establish their vintage credibility via marketing campaigns that link them to style icons such as McQueen and Newman, Red Wing—due to its century-old roots in the work world—essentially just needs to be itself. “We call it work-inspired,” Murphy says of the company’s expensive Heritage Collection. “They look like work boots.” Those boots, made in America with a lineage going back to rugged oil field boots, attract customers looking for authenticity—something that most mass-market brands spend millions to generate but never truly achieve.

       
Red Wing Shoes in Taipei, Taiwan. Photo by Craig Ferguson.        

For Red Wing, remarkably, 25 percent of its authenticity-seeking customers are located outside of the United States. It’s a “substantial business,” Murphy says, that’s expanded more than 2,000 percent in the past five years, largely driven by Asia—Japan in particular. And it turns out that Japan’s influence on Red Wing isn’t just confined to buying Red Wing. As it happens, the chief designer for the Heritage Collection is a Japanese national, based in Red Wing, whose work is sold in Japan, Southeast Asia, the United States and Europe. “Imagine that,” Murphy says. “He’s so good at designing for Japan that he has connected to the rest of the world.”

Red Wing isn’t the only American heritage brand to turn to Japanese designers to achieve a credible, vintage American look. In 2006, Woolrich Woolen Mills, the flagship fashion label of Woolrich, the 183-year-old fabric and apparel manufacturer (and owner of the oldest fabric mill in the United States), hired New York-based Daiki Suzuki, the Japanese-born and -bred founder of the Engineered Garments label, to serve as its first designer (he departed in 2011). At the time he was hired, Suzuki was already a well-known proponent of vintage American work fashion, and he quickly tapped into his knowledge and passion for classic outdoor apparel to create a renowned, high-fashion line for Woolrich. Suzuki says he felt a calling to design vintage Americana: “In these times of extreme tech, we do not want to forget the charm and character of low-tech sportswear,” he told Black Book in 2008. Though he was working for Woolrich, he might as well have been speaking for the entire American heritage movement, Japanese-designed or otherwise.

Fifty percent of Woolrich Woolen Mills’ global sales are based in Japan, with the other half split evenly between the United States and Europe, says Josh Rich, executive vice president at Woolrich. “It’s my position that Japan is the leader for fashion and apparel,” says Rich, who is an eighth-generation descendant of the company’s founder, John Rich. “If it’s successful over there, then Korea and China start following.”

Indeed, the success of American heritage brands in Japan has created a growing footprint for those same brands across Asia and in Europe. Pendleton Woolen Mills’ Christnacht says his European distributors “are always asking what’s happening in Japan.” One way the company is taking advantage of these consumer trends is by placing Pendleton retail outlets in international airports and stocking them with products that are popular abroad. The first, at Portland International, has derived a “significant” portion of its business from international travel. Likewise, “there’s a huge market for Pendleton’s wool shirts in Hawaii,” Christnacht says with a chuckle, noting that Hawaiians aren’t exactly the company’s target demographic. “Those are bought by overseas travelers who know our products and want to bring them home.” He expects that eventually he’ll be serving those customers via retail outlets in their home markets: “I want to be in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Perth!”

Woolrich already operates several stores in Europe, and this fall it plans to open two stores in Tokyo and one in South Korea, a market strongly influenced by Japanese fashion brands. Red Wing Shoes has stores in Germany and the Netherlands, but David Murphy takes special pride in the company’s elegant shop in Taipei: “The design is so cool that people use the façade as a backdrop for photo shoots.” Inside it, and all other Red Wing shops, is a manhole cover that was cast in the city of Red Wing. It’s a replica of historic manhole covers found in the city. The cast-iron footprint serves as a 150-pound reminder of the brand’s roots on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Those deep roots in a vintage design aesthetic prevent American heritage brands from becoming victims—or beneficiaries—of fleeting fashion trends. Rather, they face a different kind of challenge as they chart their future: Staying true to their lineage in a retail world where the introduction of next year’s model—whether it’s a phone or a pair of jeans—is the surest path to profitability. Doing what you know best well, and doing it over and over for decades, is an entirely different approach.

Paul Grangaard, president and CEO of Allen Edmonds, makes this point in discussing his company’s first China store. Briefly, he brings up the company’s legendary wingtips. “The classic American wingtip, they [also] do them in Italy,” he conceded. “And we do spaghetti in the U.S., just not like they do in Italy.” Grangaard and his counterparts in the American heritage niche are counting on overseas consumers to know the difference. And so far, they have. //

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Susan R Harris
Appreciate the article ... classic! Generations of my family have believed in Allen Edmonds shoes for their quailty and excellence.
11/8/2013 10:15:10 AM

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