By  on July 20, 2005

PARIS — Brands from bygone eras are proving that a period of hibernation can lead to a fruitful awakening.

"Sophisticated customers are looking for unique pieces, and heritage brands cater to that," said Sam Ben-Avraham, owner of the Atrium boutique in New York, which stocks a mix of European and American labels such as Lacoste, Le Tigre, Members Only and Original Penguin. He plans to showcase those brands, as well as Refrigiwear, the 1954 industrial insulated clothing line, at his new location in Manhattan's Meatpacking District later this summer.

Refrigiwear received a shot of adrenaline in 1999 when Alberto Raengo, owner of Cruz, an Italian distributor, resurrected the brand. Raengo, first noticed the brand as workmen in New York loaded refrigerated trucks wearing insulated jackets. Now, it's very fashionable in Europe and "it's amazing to see Refrigiwear jackets alongside Gucci in shop windows," Raengo said. He saw orders increase from 300 garments in 1999 to 250,000 garments for next fall, and said that the women's collection was the "fastest-growing category," representing 45 percent of total sales.

Cruz isn't the only European entrepreneur to buy in to the old-school American dream. Bologna, Italy-based WP Lavori in Corso SRL saw the potential in Woolrich, the Pennsylvania-based label originally created in 1830. Licensee and European distributor WP Lavori spruced up the century-old label by upping its fashion quotient and introducing an elaborate women's collection with more fitted looks. Woolrich's Italian line opened its first store in Paris last December.

"The American dream is an integral part of our subconscious," said Luc Bierme, buyer at Citadium, the Paris-based sports retailer owned by retail and luxury giant PPR. Citadium devotes an entire department to old-school labels in order to meet the demand of French customers looking to buy into a bit of history. Bierme noted that Lacoste, Fred Perry, Le Coq Sportif and Original Penguin have had particularly successful revivals.

"There is a thirst for authentic brands," agreed Chris Kolbe, president of Original Penguin by Munsingwear, who first relaunched the brand in 2003. Original Penguin, worn by the golfing grandfathers of yesteryear, has become an urban staple for their heritage-hunting grandchildren. Kolbe expects 2005 sales for the brand to reach between $25 million and $30 million and estimates women's sales will bring in $5 million. Kolbe expects women's sales to double in 2006. "Penguin blends history with a new voice so that it is relevant to a new generation," said Kolbe. Another familiar animal awaking from its slumber is Seventies polo shirt label Le Tigre. Relaunched in spring 2004, the brand's traditional colorful solid and striped polo shirts can be paired with an entire woman's fashion line, outerwear and accessories.Almost forgotten European labels are also making their way back to the shelves. Consider Fred Perry, launched as a sweatband line by the iconic British tennis legend in 1952.

"There is a tremendous demand for brands that recall authenticity and history," asserted John Flynn, managing director for Fred Perry. Perry's women's collection, launched four years ago, now accounts for 25 percent of sales. According to Flynn, the popularity of vintage clothing and rock 'n' roll has boosted the appeal of heritage brands. More modern silhouettes have helped matters, too. "Cuts that were sexier and more fitted helped trigger the success of the revival brands," noted Vincent Lecrosnier, director of street and sportswear at Promo Styl, the Paris-based trend agency. "The rise in popularity of the polo shirt also fueled the trend."

But it takes a brand with a solid disposition to undergo a revival.

"Old sports brands not only have a history, but the key to their revival is their important archives, a gold mine that they left in the closets to age like a good bottle of wine," said Citadium's Bierme, who noted that brands from many eras are seeking new credibility among today's fashion buffs.

Mont Saint Michel, the French label founded in 1913, rose from the grave when French entrepreneur Alexandre Milan relaunched men's and women's knitwear in 2000. "We wanted to blend our savoir faire and technology with the authenticity of a vintage label," said Milan, who opened his first Mont Saint Michel boutique in Paris last year.

Likewise, German bodywear manufacturer Schiesser, founded in 1875, headed down the comeback trail by signing licensing agreements with Tommy Hilfiger and Levi's.

Resurrections are rampant across all fashion categories, from denim labels such as Lee Cooper and Wrangler, and footwear labels such as Kangaroo and Pony, to accessory labels such as the 1903 Austrian headwear specialist Muhlbauer and Stetson, the cowboy hat brand founded in 1865.

Meanwhile, as the trend for brands of the past intensifies, certain heritage labels are looking to broaden their horizons.

"Surfing on the heritage wave has been very profitable, but it can't last forever," said Christophe Lemaire, creative director for Lacoste. "It's important to show the classic and historical elements of a brand but then to expand into a more modern language." Lacoste, for example, is experimenting with modern piqué techniques and new materials.With the longing for nostalgia a growing trend, certain brands lacking their own heritage are inventing fictional ones. Sportswear brand Franklin & Marshall flirts with the American old-school look from the Fifties but was founded in Verona, Italy, in 1999.

But when it comes to buying into history most customers want the real thing. "It's always nice to see labels you or even your parents wore as children," said Atrium's Ben-Avraham. "Even if, at the time, you may never have wanted to be caught dead in it."

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