Origin myths, legacy stories, reverence for founding dates, forefathers and artifacts. It sounds like a trip to the American Museum of Natural History — or perhaps your local men’s boutique.
Driven by consumers that have developed a taste for iconic, classic apparel, heritage has become hip, turning the fashion truism — that everything old is new again — on its head. These days, everything new looks kind of old.
Experts cite multiple reasons for this current backward glance. Economic insecurity has fueled nostalgia for more stable eras. Marketing-saturated consumers are eager for products that feel authentic and evoke a simpler time. More general consumer trends for transparency favor brands with backstories. But whatever the forces, heritage — which only a few years ago was relegated to dry corporate time lines and dusty archives — is now front and center of many company strategies.
“You need a foundation to build any brand around,” said Frank Muytjens, men’s creative director for J. Crew, which has been featuring third-party heritage brands such as Red Wing boots and Thomas Mason shirts in its assortment. “[Heritage] makes a brand more believable and gives it a heart and soul. Things become better with age, and men respond to that.”
The trend was originally a fascination of designer and progressive lines, such as Woolrich Woolen Mills, which launched in 2006 as a high-end, modern take on Woolrich’s time-lost, woolly aesthetic. It joined brands with an old-world sensibility and names to match, such as Rogues Gallery and Gilded Age. Fashion companies then started to revive defunct labels from the Eighties and earlier, including Penfield, B.D. Baggies and Maui & Sons. At the same time, venerable brands with graying customer bases — such as Gitman Bros., Schott, Baracuta and Stetson — began to get interest from men’s magazines and a younger, hipper customer.
The trend seems to have gone mass this year. Market researcher Kantar Retail named storytelling one of its top 10 retail trends for 2010. “If you’re trying to get consumers to open their wallets for discretionary items, there needs to be a strong message,” said Kelly Tackett, senior analyst for Kantar. “One of the ways to do that is playing toward the brand’s core equities as being authentic or a heritage brand.”
By now, heritage has become a ubiquitous message for any brand with a history. Many companies are using their heritages quite literally by creating capsule collections that make use of archival designs. These new lines, often named for the brands’ founding years, read like answers to a history test: There’s Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing’s capsule collection, Dickies 1922; Rockport’s line of footwear aimed at younger men, Rockport est. 1971, and Hamilton 1883, the custom shirtmakers’ vintage ready-to-wear line. Lands’ End unveiled a range of slimmer-fitting apparel in November called Lands’ End Canvas 1963; Coach has used its founding year of 1941 as a pattern on bags this season, and Victorinox’s runway collection is called 1909.
All this demand for historical parade has forced many companies to get serious about their own lineages. HMX Group undertook a large archiving project when it was purchased out of bankruptcy last summer. Much of the brand’s imagery and samples had been languishing in a company factory. Now, some of that imagery is being repurposed for the company’s rebranding.
Keds, which just launched a Web site dedicated to its heritage, called theoriginalsneaker.com, has stepped up efforts to acquire vintage Keds pieces at auction. “I really think that the archivist is a new job category in the fashion industry,” said Keds president Kristin Kohler Burrows, only half-jokingly. “We almost need a full-time person doing it.”
Other companies are treating retail space like a museum. Levi’s recently revamped London flagship is displaying a pair of 201 jeans dating from the Twenties. That store also offers faithful reproductions of historic Levi’s models for sale.
There’s a reason the companies flexing their heritages tend to skew to younger consumers. According to marketing experts, it’s these shoppers that are particularly drawn to a brand’s legacy. “Consumers 16 to 29 years old are obsessed with being true to themselves, and are attracted by passion, originality, integrity and authenticity. Heritage is a signifier of those things,” said Ian Pierpoint, chief executive officer of Sound Research, a research agency that focuses on youth and young adults and has studied consumers for Pepsi and Axe, as well as apparel companies.
These Millennials, as the demographic is known, are cultural junkies, according to Pierpoint. They use the unprecedented level of vintage footage online to surf through the past, mining the recesses of film, television, music and commercials — which all confirm a general belief that life (and merchandise) in the generations that preceded their own were better. “Why are they obsessed with the past? Because they think now is s–t,” Pierpoint explained. “They want to hearken back to times when things were simpler and America was respected. They are paralyzed by the amount of information in the world and the uncertainty of the future. So they look back instead. Of course, they forget that people used to die of measles.”
This general trend is fanned by a group of consumers for whom the past is an obsession, products with provenance are relished and vintage style lionized. Call them the archivisti. These guys troll flea markets and eBay for vinyl and weathered L.L. Bean duck boots. Their apartments are lined with first-edition style books, Steve McQueen movies, taxidermy and thrift-store denim. They not only know who designs their favorite brands, but where those brands manufacture. They can tie bow ties.
Like any niche market, the archivisti also have their own bullhorns. Culture-style blog AContinuousLean.com is a leading curator of what one might call the heritage aesthetic. Founded in late 2007 by publicist Michael Williams, the site, which draws some 300,000 unique visitors a month, is a record of a masculine style that is deeply rooted in the past. A preview of a photography book on vintage roadside diners and gas stations precedes a slide show of muted estate-sale Kodacromes of men fishing, a eulogy to rust-belt victim Youngstown, Ohio, and a shout-out to old-school Land Cruisers. First looks at apparel brands, like J. Crew’s fall 2010 collection, are mixed in.
“For a long time, we invested in this throwaway culture where everything was fast and new and you bought something for a season. There is push back to that now. People, and brands, too, are realizing there is value in heritage and in this classic stuff,” said Williams, who spoke by phone en route to Brimfield, the well-known New England antique show. “My style is this historical, archival, nostalgic point of view. A lot of people that come to the site share that ideal.”
The Archivisti’s passion for yesteryear also can produce scrutiny, however. On A Continuous Lean, commenters took the new Gant Rugger store in Manhattan — and the particulars of its rough-hewn interiors — to task, complaining the font used on a fitting-room door was not appropriate for the store’s turn-of-the-last-century aesthetic. “[The Arial font] was developed in the Eighties by Microsoft — hardly the bonafides commensurate with Gant’s historical or current projects,” one commenter brayed. The brand’s publicist wrote back explaining the font was just temporary and a more historically accurate typeface would replace it.
While heritage may be an obsession for the archivisti, that does not mean it’s irrelevant for their moms and dads. Moneyed, middle-age consumers also pay attention to the heritage of products they buy. According to a survey by the Luxury Institute from August, 54 percent of respondents said history and heritage were central to the definition of a luxury brand. Only quality, craftsmanship, design and exclusivity ranked higher. And those respondents weren’t the young authenticity hunters Pierpoint describes, but middle-age shoppers with an average age of 51 and a median income of $233,000.
Of course, the number of brands in the apparel industry with storied histories is small. But the relative youthfulness of the current marketplace hasn’t prevented some brands from tapping into consumers’ desire for provenance in spite of lacking it themselves.
J. Crew is only 27 years old, but its brand seems more mature these days, thanks to its well-liked and much-imitated third-party collaborations with venerable brands that also include Timex, Barbour and Sperry Top-Sider. It was an unusual step for the retailer to invite foreign lines into its doors, but the company seemed to recognize that it could benefit more from associating with heritage-rich partners than embroidering its own past. “We look at these brands that have been around, and we know that what they do, they do best,” said J. Crew’s Muytjens. “No one can touch them.”
The initiative puts the retailer in a role that is becoming more common up and down Seventh Avenue: that of curator. Like the museum arbiters, brands such as J. Crew are sorting through the past — either their own or that of others — to pluck artifacts that both say something about history and speak to a modern sensibility. “Ask a guy what his favorite piece of clothing is and he will always pull out some battered, tattered thing,” Muytjens continued. “Guys have a reverence for the classic. These brands represent a rite of passage. We’re just editing them for a modern guy.”
This season, the retailer is doubling down on these partnerships by placing them front and center in its men’s spring ad campaign, which is titled “In Good Company.” The campaign also is featured in catalogues.
Tributes to another brand’s past are not always so amicable. Take Evisu, the Japanese denim collection, which recently revealed plans to launch a line of limited edition jeans based on vintage models of Levi’s. In detailing the concept, Evisu ceo Scott Morrison said garments in the Private Stock line would pay homage to Levi’s 1944 501 jean, its 1890 Nevada jean and the brand’s 1917 Campbell. The imitation’s blatancy surprised many in the trade — including Levi’s, which quickly filed a trademark-infringement lawsuit last month. But the move by the 19-year-old brand underscores a mounting and somewhat heretical dynamic in the fashion business: For once, it’s the old brands, not the new ones, that have the buzz.
That has generated unexpected advantages for some companies such as L.L. Bean, which launched a more youthful collection this spring called Signature under the direction of creative director Alex Carleton. Signature’s debut, which relied on faithful replicas of Bean archival garments, contemporary fits and an ad campaign rife with references to the brand’s Maine heritage, introduced a new customer to the company. “This customer is looking for something that is true. They recognize there’s integrity to the product,” said Chris Vickers, vice president of L.L. Bean Signature. “And the nice thing about Bean is that you don’t have to make it up. It’s not inspired by heritage. It is our heritage. That makes us stand out.”
But marketing heritage can be tricky. It requires a deft balance between brandishing one’s history and boring consumers. “We never use archival products for heritage’s sake,” said Vickers of the merchandising process for Signature. “Our archival pieces have to be relevant for today’s customers. It can’t be some historical exercise.”
Six weeks after launch, Keds said it is retooling its Original Sneaker Web site to focus more on current programs and less on historical facts. “We are going to be evolving a better mix between yesterday and today,” said Kohler Burrows.
Individualized Apparel Group, whose American-made brands such as Gitman and Oxxford ooze heritage, is undergoing a similar debate. The company has eschewed playing up the age of its brands in advertising for fear of appearing dowdy or pedantic. However, it is hoping to expose its pedigree via a new hire, Max Wastler, a vintage men’s wear enthusiast and author of the men’s wear blog AllPlaidOut.com. In addition to acting as salesman for Gitman, Wastler is working on a Web site for Oxxford that will play up the legacy of the company’s Chicago factory and tradition of luxury suit making. “We need to start telling these stories,” Wastler enthused. “We have this provenance that people don’t know about.”
The archivisti also can be fickle friends, as the Gant font squabble shows. “The good thing is that they are our most passionate customers and any brand would be lucky to have them,” said Douglas Geller, Gant’s director of marketing and public relations, who responded to the store’s critics on A Continuous Lean. “But the flip side is that you have to be much more careful with every decision, every p.r. initiative, everything you do with your heritage — it will be judged accordingly.”
But a question that looms large for the heritage trend is how long it can last. Brands may be focused on brandishing their histories at the moment, but the fashion industry has a competing heritage: its long-standing belief in change.
Pierpoint said heritage’s moment could already be waning. “The authenticity trend might be going away,” he wagered. “My suspicion is that we will become bored of the past. As soon as everyone starts doing something, someone else will flip it on its head.”