Authenticity is a vital part of the success of any of the so-called heritage brands,” says Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. “They need to have a history and absolute credibility in their field. Men keep coming back to them because they manufacture a specific item or genre of items that is best in class and has been proven over the course of the company’s history.” Over the past two decades Pask has been reacquainting the public with the American heritage brands once synonymous with hard graft and US soldiers during the second world war. Now, with a resurgent following in the States, these brands are rising in popularity in Britain and further afield. As cult appreciation of utilitarian labels like Filson, Red Wing and Pendleton matures and broadens, UK luxury department stores are stocking up, while many brands have opened flagship stores in London.
Seattle-based outdoorwear brand Filson was founded in 1897, making garments to help gold prospectors survive in Canada’s Yukon. Its reputation for durable, high-quality menswear, such as the Mackinaw Cruiser jacket (£385), means it has had a contract to outfit the US government’s Forest Service rangers since the 1940s. Expansion in the 1990s saw the launch of bags (the Field duffel, price on request, and Original briefcase, £275, are particularly striking) and, more recently, online and international stores – including two in London. Substantial wholesale growth between 2014 and 2016 in the UK alone accompanied the decision of Filson’s parent company Bedrock Manufacturing to set up an office in Amsterdam last year to assist with distribution in the UK, Germany, France and Scandinavia. Gains are also being made in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
Filson president Gray Madden says that, paradoxically, expansion comes off the back of the brand’s determination to remain true to its core. “We still make and tweak many of our classic products while maintaining our long-standing relationships with mills and suppliers” – an integral part of the Filson story. Spring reintroduces the long Cruiser jacket (£535), Uplander boot (£465) and weatherproof leather Field satchel (£875).
Presenting the “Filson lifestyle” – men exploring glaciers in Alaska, crab fishermen, cowboys and hunters – has been key to the brand’s appeal. John Argento, managing director Europe at Bedrock Manufacturing, believes people are attracted to Filson’s 120-year history, backed up with a promise of quality – the materials it works with (such as densely woven, lightly waxed waterproof cotton and saddle-grade bridle leather) look good and last.
Filson’s London neighbour a few doors down Newburgh Street is Red Wing Shoes. Established in Minnesota in 1905, the company answered an American demand for more practical and comfortable work boots. It made footwear for American soldiers fighting in both world wars: of note were the Skytrooper boots, designed for paratroopers, without hooks and with high ankles, tapered heels and rounded soles to avoid getting tangled during missions. Red Wing’s high-quality construction – triple-stitched seams, sturdy welts and rich leathers – subsequently made them the standard US work boot. In 2016, the company’s all-American boots were being sold in 110 countries, with reported sales of more than $700m. “Red Wing always has around six styles that are evergreen in each collection,” says creative director Aki Iwasaki, highlighting the Iron Ranger (£249), Classic Moc (£239) and Moc Toe (£269). Newer boots, such as the black otter-tail leather Ice Cutter boots (£289) or ebony harness-leather Merchant boot (£249), are based on the original designs. “I go through the archives and pull from original colours and styles.”
With its repair service increasingly popular, the company stands firmly behind its promise that a pair of Red Wings is for life. Its London shop works with a dedicated cobbler to resole and repair Red Wing boots. “We’ve benefited from a big shift while he’s seen British consumers buying classic brands that are made to last,” says assistant manager Pascal Chea.
“The UK menswear market is a mix of both heritage and contemporary pieces,” adds Valeria Caffagni, marketing director for Woolrich John Rich & Bros (company brand motto: “garments with a purpose”). “Our collections, which we refer to as ‘out-of-the-door’ because they’re a combination of outdoor and urban, synthesise outdoor performance wear with contemporary, clean design, using modern materials like Gore-Tex and Loro Piana Storm System, together with made-in-USA cotton, nylon and Ramar Cloth.”
This truly is a leap from Woolrich’s beginnings. Founders John Rich and Daniel McCormick, English immigrants to the United States, opened their first woollen mill in Pennsylvania back in 1830, selling high-quality wool blankets, coverlets, yarn and socks to local lumberjacks and farmers. In subsequent decades, the company made blankets for soldiers fighting in the American civil war and first and second world wars and for US Antarctic explorers. Its supremely crafted wool products garnered a wide fan base, both in the US and internationally, which allowed the brand to diversify into clothing. Today, Woolrich offerings include the stretch nylon, breathable and waterproof Soft Shell Rudder jacket (£295) and the Gore-Tex Summer Mountain jacket (£495), an interpretation of the classic Mountain jacket, which was very popular in the 1970s. According to Caffagni, sales in Europe and the UK are so brisk that Woolrich Inc and Woolrich Europe merged in 2016 to accelerate the brand’s global growth. The newly formed Woolrich International will be headquartered in London. Last year, Woolrich collaborated with fellow American heritage brand JW Hulme Co on a tote, made with Woolrich’s iconic red and black buffalo-check wool and trimmed with JW Hulme Co leather – just one of the cross-pollinations arising from this resurgence of interest in American heritage brands.
JW Hulme Co of Minnesota, which is more than a century old, originally specialised in quality canvas goods – military-grade tents for the first world war, and after the war, field and sport pieces such as shell bags and shotgun cases. A reputation for sturdy, lifetime-assured field and sports products has successfully translated over the past decade into one for stylish products that tech-toting urbanites want to own. So while the company continues to make canvas bags referencing archive designs – like the Hainey Field briefcase (£340) – its product line has diversified to include leather items, such as the black 1905 leather Rolling duffel bag (£1,840), smaller Continental duffel (£720) and iPad Pro smart cover (£315).
Likewise, Pendleton Woolen Mills – also associated with the rugged outdoors and the sturdy gear needed to survive it – has found a footing in Britain through its range of contemporary accessories such as wallets, bags and laptop covers. These are more often available through independent menswear stores such as Brixton’s Article and Shoreditch’s Present, alongside curations of lesser-known brands from around the world. “The thing we like about these American brands is that they really know what they’re doing,” says Present manager Billy Prendergast. “Their products serve a real purpose and stand the test of time. If you buy a blanket-lined Pendleton jacket, it will last 25 years.”
The Oregon-based company has been weaving fine wool in the Pacific Northwest since 1863. Its blankets and fabrics kept Americans clothed and warm during the second world war, and today the firm sells a wide range of menswear and accessories. Perennials such as the Original Westerley cardigan (£190; aka “The Dude’s cardigan” worn by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski) combine “the hallmark of quality with the eternal cool of the American outdoors,” says Prendergast. In the UK, other popular products include the plaid Lodge and snap-fronted Western Canyon shirts (both £140) and the Chief Joseph Blanket robe (£300) made from the signature Pendleton blanket.
Any look at the international appeal of American heritage outdoor and workwear brands would, of course, be incomplete without mentioning Levi Strauss. Ever adapting its portfolio, the 164-year-old original workwear company’s latest success story in Britain is the made-to-order Lot No 1 jeans, custom-fitted with the client’s choice of fine denim and thread colour, buttons and stitching style. Priced at £500 and produced by Savile Row-trained tailors at the London flagship store on Regent Street, they are the brand’s premium offering and emblematic of how American heritage brands are working themselves, quite literally, into the fabric of British luxury traditions for a new generation.