How Men’s Fashion Mimics the Microbrew Industry

Scott W. Anderson didn’t have to get into the rag trade. Born into a “silver crib” (his words),educated at Choate and Wharton, and taught to sail at the Newport Yacht Club, the 45-year-old descendant of an old-line New England merchant family already enjoyed a successful career as a entertainment-industry producer, and he had the means to live comfortably. But something was missing.

Anderson-Little, the clothing label that Anderson’s grandfather had incorporated in 1933, had been gone since 1998, after the latest buyer closed the brand down. At first, it bothered Anderson that a name his family had created and nurtured had come to such an ignominious end. And then it really bothered him. “I wanted my brand back,” he says. “It’s my family legacy.”

Maybe it was, but that didn’t automatically make resurrecting the brand a good idea. Anderson decided to do some informal marketing research first, just to see if there was any demand left. Did people even remember Anderson-Little? “I asked that question everywhere I went for the next three years,” Anderson says. Then came a surprise.

“I had 100 percent unaided positive recall in New England, males over 30,” Anderson says. “Hundreds of them.”

And so Scott W. Anderson bought the trademark rights back. Last September, with the help of his father, Stuart Anderson, he began selling the original classic navy blazer — gold buttons, wool blend and 100 percent American made — for $139. It was a lot of jacket for the price, but aside from some radio spots in New England, Anderson did no traditional marketing. Instead, he relied only on a blog, on word of mouth-and on the fact that he was selling a classic article of gentleman’s clothing that he was making in America.

Then came another surprise. “My sales went through the roof,” Anderson says (he declines to reveal sales figures). Fashion guru Andy Gilchrist endorsed Anderson-Little on his Web site, AskAndyAboutClothes.com. The brand began showing up on other blogs too, and the orders picked up further. In the 11 months that Anderson-Little’s been back in business, “we’ve sold hundreds and hundreds of blazers,” Anderson says.

Given the dismal facts of the recession, Anderson’s timing was probably not the best. Then again, in some ways, it may have been better than he could have ever hoped for. Right now, in an otherwise suffering apparel industry (dollar volume for the first half of 2009 is down 7 percent compared to last year, per NPD data), brands like Anderson-Little are enjoying an unlikely renaissance. If you want a visual clue, think of what “real men” used to wear — Steve McQueen, Brando, the polished powerbrokers on Mad Men or even just the guy who slogged off to his shift at the steel mill. Today, decades old, high-quality, American heritage brands such as Woolrich jackets, Red Wing boots, Hamilton shirts and even Zippo lighters are prospering — even as their flashy, Euro-sleek competitors are taping sale signs to the front windows.

“We’ve noticed a harkening back to a James Dean era,” says Tom Julian, president of brand consultancy, the Tom Julian Group. “The economy notwithstanding, American does have intrinsic value. Made in America has always stood for something, and those labels represent those ideals.”

A growing body of evidence supports his observation. In June, research firm the Integer Group reported “a rise in those seeking American-made products over cheaper products.” That same month, a poll by BIGresearch found that 57 percent of shoppers say they now make a conscious effort to buy goods made in this country. And last year, 64 percent of American consumers told Yankelovich survey takers that buying American brands is part of “what it means to be a good citizen today.”

OLD IS NEW AGAIN
How times change. Even as a hue and cry arose this past June when it looked like the country might just lose its largest automotive brand, the near disappearance of the American clothing label is something consumers seem to have accepted years ago.

In the 1950s, American men wanted to look like the Man in the Hathaway Shirt. These days, the successful guy is probably wearing Dolce & Gabbana. In 1975, most people could hum the TV jingle that told us to “look for the union label” on our clothes. Today, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union doesn’t even exist anymore. In 1980, 70 percent of apparel that consumers bought was made in the U.S., according to the Department of Labor. By 1995, that figure had slipped below 50 percent, and analysts say it has gone much lower in recent years.

Cheap foreign labor accounts for much of the exodus. But aesthetic and cultural factors have been just as powerful. After all, this is the fashion biz: cool rules. European designers have dominated our tastes for two generations now. And ever since Sasson nudged aside Lee on the jeans rack back in the 1970s, life has been tough for the tried-and-true, all-American brand.

But that view is changing. Probably the biggest reason is the recession, which has inadvertently handed American clothing labels the most potent marketing slogan they could have hoped for: made in America.

“I’ll tell you right now,” Anderson says, “eighty-five percent of the time, made in America is the determining factor in the sale.” Anderson-Little’s factory is in Tamarac, Fla., where Anderson employs 50 garment workers. “It’s really simple,” he says. “If it’s made in America and you buy in America, there’s a job in America. And I’m creating jobs.”

In Minnesota, the factory of the Red Wing Shoe company has been making boots since 1905 — and still uses local labor to handcraft each of them. “We’ve seen an increase in our business and profile,” says global marketing manager Jenny Tauer. “We make very traditional, quality work wear products — all made in the U.S.A.” Right now, she says, consumers “want to be proud of keeping people employed.”

According to fashion publicist Michael Williams, whose blog “A Continuous Lean” (www.acontinuouslean.com) is devoted to the appreciation of American-made fashions, apparel brands that employ Americans on American soil are benefiting from the backlash caused by the well publicized outsourcing of jobs to China. “In the late ’90s, everything went offshore,” Williams says. “So there’s a group [of consumers] saying that the good stuff must still be made here. The clothing must be great if they’re still doing it here.”

The perception of classic American brands being “great” transcends just putting Americans to work; it extends to key perceptions of value and quality, too. In Houston, the family-owned Hamilton brand has been hand sewing shirts since 1883, and still makes and sells each one, made to measure, through its factory. Co-owner David Hamilton says that while a guy can easily find a cheaper shirt than the one he makes (average tag: $245), they won’t find the quality that his threads will give them. No, a $245 shirt isn’t for everyone, but Hamilton explains that his relatively high prices do not necessarily drive the recessionary shopper away. One high-quality shirt is still a better long-term deal than four mediocre ones. “People are looking harder at the things they’re buying,” Hamilton says. “They’re looking for value — and they’re finding it in American goods.”

For years, Hamilton adds, “the customer didn’t want to look under the hood” — meaning, see where the clothing was actually made. “They were more excited about the romance of European products. We used to joke that if our name ended in a vowel, we’d be making a lot more money.” But today? “The consumer is more interested in the substance of what you’re selling than the idea of it.”

WHOSE SIDE ARE YOU ON?
Not that the idea of it has no place, however. As globalization has restructured our supply chain, even “made in America” has become a relative thing. When, for example, an American car like Ford is assembled in a plant in Mexico and a German car like Mercedes rolls off the line in Alabama, which is the American brand?

As Woolrich has discovered, even though the company’s clothing is now assembled in Europe, it still can be American. The fact that the company has kept its headquarters in Woolrich, Pa., since its 1830 founding (and operates a woolen mill there) still makes it plenty American for most shoppers. And the American quality that the brand represents is still the cornerstone of the company’s positioning. Marketing coordinator Shelly Neubauer says that the economic downturn has rewritten Americans’ shopping mind-set to focus on clothing that will last over clothing that’s in fashion this month. “To wear your jacket from three seasons ago is [a matter of] need versus want,” she says. “People are making decisions nowadays based on needs, not want.”

Just because many shoppers are choosing durability over fad, however, doesn’t mean they end up looking hokey in the process. Woolrich’s signature red and black “buffalo-check” pattern has been around so long, it’s become timeless. First in fashion when Andrew Jackson was president, the buffalo check is still found on everything from canteens to camping blankets. And that, in fact, might be the most potent (if least measurable) force behind the resurgence of these old brands. After an overdose of Euro-chic labels like Versace and quirky, cheap Asian imports like Uniqlo, America — its brands and its look — is actually cool again.

Just ask David Warfel. As director of global marketing for lighter company Zippo, you might think he’s presiding over a dated product whose sales are floundering as more and more Americans give up cigarettes. Think again. “How’s business?” he asks. “Remarkably, we’re holding our own — if not actually above forecast.”

The reason is that, amid the America-is-cool trend, the Zippo lighter has become akin to a money clip, a pocket knife or an old fountain pen: It’s just cool to have one, to be seen with one. “It’s looked on more as a lifestyle accessory,” Warfel says. Zippo’s model 200, the big, fat, brushed-chrome lighter that leaves a whiff of butane in the air and closes with a satisfying snap, could easily join the ’57 Chevy and Coca-Cola bottle as quintessentially American articles.

Blogger Michael Williams adds that the reactivated popularity of many of old, often working-class, brands is wholly personality driven — and a backlash against high-fashion brands that many American men never quite felt comfortable with. “Guys have been forced to be super politically correct, and it’s gone so far that there’s a point where some guys just want to go back to being a man,” he says. “They’re saying, ‘I’m not a metrosexual, I’m just a guy.’ That’s the genesis of it.”

ACCEPT NO IMITATIONS
With “just a guy” brands enjoying this unlikely renaissance, however, the question of what kind of marketing to do becomes a tricky one. After all, the inherent branding message that a company like Red Wing or Zippo conveys is the polar opposite of what most apparel and accessories brands normally tell shoppers. As with Pabst Blue Ribbon, a beer brand that Gen Yers warmed to earlier this decade specifically because it doesn’t advertise, the best approach seems to be to keep the marketing messages very much on the down low.
 
Which means, assuming they do any marketing (and most of these brands cannot afford to do much more than print ads), the messaging is more a reminder of a familiar image than anything else. For example, this fall Woolrich will introduce ads showing a signature buffalo-check shirt along with the caption: “There’s only one original.” Woolrich’s current ad campaign — which started in July and will run through the end of this year — is called “Heritage,” and shows a decades-old hunting jacket side by side with its modern update.
 
Red Wing — which does little in the way of marketing — has sponsored the National Truck Driving Championships held in Tampa. Its “Pecos” style of pull-on boots has been a perennial favorite of professional truckers — and, of course, guys who want to look like them. The boot maker has also recently launched its own “Heritage” Web site (www.rwleatherboots.com), replete with old, sepia-toned photos of the factory and a scrollable timeline feature. According to Tauer, a 104-year history dispenses with the need for flashy ads and smart taglines. “We don’t have to make that story up,” she says. “We’re not changing our products, and we’re not chasing trends. Now, some people find us trendy.”

So do some competing brands. If there’s a downside to being an iconic American brand, it’s watching the uber-cool brands that used to laugh at you now trying to look like you. Take Woolrich’s signature Buffalo Check. Coincidentally or not, it’s lately showed up on a line of clothing from Miley Cyrus (though purple has replaced the red, in that case) and on some new offerings from Payless ShoeSource, too. “I’ve noticed a lot of companies imitating us,” Neubauer says. “I see it everywhere.”

Meanwhile, Scott Anderson hopes he’ll be seeing his brand’s blazers everywhere, too, in the years to come. In fact, sales are good enough that Anderson is planning an all-wool blazer line that will be available in the fall. “I’m so excited to be able to expand my business in the middle of a down economy,” he says. The new blazer will retail for about $100 more than the current wool blend. It’ll have the same attention to detail, the same hand-selected buttons and thread.

“It will also,” Anderson hastens to add, “be made in America.”