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.”

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