Search for Authenticity Leads Consumers, Designers and Retailers to Outdoor Brands

Nov 3, 2010

Topic: Business

Eager for something familiar, authentic, and functional, consumers, designers and retailers from Europe to Japan are turning to classic American outdoor brands.

The trend, which surfaced a year ago, is still going strong, if fashion blogs and outdoor executives are to be believed. That means you’ll be seeing a lot more buffalo checks, wool and other natural materials in everything from skirts and Converse’s Chuck Taylor sneakers to Timberland boots. In times of economic stress, the thinking goes, consumers return to traditional values, including quality workmanship, natural materials and authentic brands.

It’s a pattern that’s been repeated for decades says Brian Moore, global VP of footwear and outdoor performance for Timberland, which collaborated with Woolrich to introduce three, six-inch leather boots for Fall/Holiday 2010 that incorporate plaid into collars, linings and sidewalls. Red Wing, meanwhile, has introduced its own line of Lumber Jack boots with Woolrich plaid as part of a collaboration that combines the authenticity of two of America’s oldest footwear and apparel brands.

Fashion designers and upscale retailers are partnering with Woolrich and Timberland to get some of that authenticity for themselves. The British lifestyle brand rag & bone, for instance, is distributing a limited collection of boots from Timberland Boot Company this fall aimed at consumers who are willing to pay $300 or more for weathered leather boots that marry “English tailoring with American-informed work wear.” Even New Age, the maker of baseball caps and other hats favored by the hip-hop crowd, has collaborated with Woolrich to introduce a plaid baseball hat.

“People are using Woolrich to bring authenticity to their brand,” notes Michael Collin of Pale Morning Media, which recently worked with a Wall Street Journal reporter on a story about the topic. “There are a lot of people who want this look and feel.”

Outdoor brand executives say they are not chasing the trend. Instead, designers and retailers are coming to them. It does not hurt that so many outdoor brands, like Timberland’s Earthkeeper shoes, are closely associated with sustainable business practices favored by today’s young, urban consumers, said Moore.

Full-line sporting goods retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, which already have large walls dedicated to outdoor footwear, are particularly well positioned to benefit from the trend, said Moore. But several independent outdoor specialty dealers have also positioned themselves to attract customers who might not otherwise venture into their store. Among them is Mast General Store, which operates seven stores in the Carolinas and Tennessee and traces its roots back to a farm supply and general store opened in the 1880s.

“We feel that as the economy has slowed, value and tradition has reemerged,” said Fred Martin, vice president and owner at Mast General Store. “We took a position to sell quality as value instead of just offering lower priced goods – that buying a more traditional garment that is of better quality is value in the long run. Brands like Woolrich were founded on this principal and therefore had built in opportunity as the trend came back. These brands have always been a part of our foundation and we are seeing meaningful growth in them.”

At the same time, Woolrich — like many outdoor apparel brands — is not resting on its laurels. The company, which is focusing on rebuilding its business in the outdoor specialty channel, is trying to introduce a little more style into its apparel offerings. It will offer its largest selection of merino wool apparel in Fall 2011 along with clothing made from a cotton/nylon blend with a DWR finish that it hopes will set it apart in the sea of synthetic apparel that now fills many outdoor specialty shops.

Timberland’s Moore notes that natural fabrics and materials like leather, cotton, wool and canvas will resonate most with customers seeking authenticity. He sees the resurgent appetite for classic American outdoor apparel and footwear as a return to normal, rather than a short-lived fashion trend.

“I see it having legs for a long time,” he said. “This is classic business that never goes away. Usually the things that go away are the things that are really hot when the economy is really hot. That’s when things are all shiny and sequined. When the economy tanks, this is what things revert back to.”