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How Men's Fashion Mimics the Microbrew Industry

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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."

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