By  on January 8, 2009

Woolrich fell so far off fashion’s radar that when the 178-year-old brand found a new life in Europe 10 years ago, many Americans continued to overlook it. But it became impossible to visit Milan, Paris or London without seeing Woolrich or, rather, a European spin-off thereof, which is heading to the U.S. for fall.

The Pennsylvania-based brand’s licensee, WP Lavori in Corso of Bologna, Italy, has employed a multitiered brand strategy to revitalize Woolrich overseas, and is expanding distribution of its contemporary label for men and women, Woolrich John Rich & Bros.

Woolrich, originally known for workwear, utilitarian outerwear and red-and-black buffalo check, is the latest of America’s historic brands to be dusted off amid the vogue for rugged heritage in men’s wear.

“They were consumer goods, yet, at the same time, they were an integral part of American history and tradition, or rather part of American culture itself, as well as part of the dreams and imagery that had been passed on to us ‘old’ Europeans,” said Andrea Canè, creative director of WP Lavori.

The licensee capitalized on the trend in late 2007, when it collaborated with Daiki Suzuki of Engineered Garments to create Woolrich Woolen Mills, a men’s designer collection that launched at Bergdorf Goodman. Its rustic plaids, compact wools and fur-trimmed parkas were a hit with editors, especially after a runway show held at Pitti Uomo a year ago.

The buzz around Woolen Mills stoked interest in the contemporary-priced John Rich & Bros. collection, which has been popular in Europe for several years. It is sold there through more than 1,500 retail accounts and nine Woolrich John Rich & Bros. stores, including one in the Italian ski resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo, where it sponsors a ski competition. Three more boutiques will open in Europe this year. In addition, the label is a partner of Inter Milan, the New York Yankees of Italian soccer.

This month WP Lavori, which also distributes B.D. Baggies globally and Barbour and Blundstone in Europe, returns to Pitti Uomo; and for the first time will offer John Rich & Bros. at U.S. department and specialty stores. Shirts and pants retail from $125, jersey tops from $95 and outerwear from $300 to $795.

The fall collection is inspired by travel and exploration, and incorporates some technical elements. A shawl collar parka is among the key pieces for men. The women’s line includes cashmeres and brushed twills to soften and feminize its rugged quality.

WP Lavori owner Cristina Calori is setting up a New York-based company called 460 West Broadway Inc. to handle U.S. distribution and sales for John Rich & Bros. and the same for Woolen Mills, plus design. Its offices will shortly occupy the upper floors of 460 West Broadway, and in 2011 the firm plans to open the first U.S. Woolrich flagship at the same address.

This month WP Lavori will present the Woolrich collections in Milan. It will also host an exhibition of the Pop Artist Peter Blake in connection with Woolen Mills, and a preview of “Woolrich Roadtrip,” a photography book.

What would John Rich think? He founded Woolrich in 1830 to create woolen goods rooted in the clothing needs of the pioneers, “those lumberjacks and farmers who came face to face with the raw edge of nature, and often in extreme climactic conditions,” said Canè. The company adapted to the conversion of wool for Army purposes, and lastly to the production of outdoor and leisure apparel.

Woolrich Inc. of Woolrich, Pa., is still controlled by Rich’s descendants. The company’s original Woolrich label remains in moderate department stores and outdoor apparel channels, as well as a catalogue and the woolrich.com e-commerce site. Although the moderate business lacks the fashion cachet of the licensed business, WP Lavori knows the value of the brand lies in the continuity of its historic roots.

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