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(Published: 2010-08-13)

Fashion designers have been scouring the archives of American heritage brands and reinterpreting them in ways that make sense for today’s modern lifestyles. They are finding ways to breath new life into the old classics. Brands like Eddie Bauer, Filson, LL Bean, Woolrich and Pendleton have been enjoying a renaissance, issuing signature lines that are turning up in hipster emporiums like Top Shop, Barney’s, Urban Outfitters, and Opening Ceremony. Turns out, that’s a good formula for profits in the midst of a recession.

The strategy is certainly paying off for J. Crew. The company made $44.7 million in the first quarter of 2010, more than double the same period a year ago. Much of their current success can be attributed to the upscaling and updating of its preppy look.

Long known for their women’s wear, J. Crew’s men’s business has been on fire lately. Bloomberg Businessweek recently profiled Frank Muytjens, head of men’s design for the company, crediting him with creating a unique niche for men’s fashion somewhere between intimidating luxury brands and basic mainstream sportswear.

Part of Muytjen’s success can be attributed to the dozens of innovative partnerships with heritage brands that he spearheaded. The buzz began back in fall of 2007 when Muytjens brought Red Wing boots into the assortments. Red Wing boots have been around since 1905. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long before modern well-dressed celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Dylan McDermott embraced the look. More partnerships with heritage brands followed, including Timex, Ray-Ban, Sperry Top-Sider and Bass.

The result, Bloomberg Businesweek noted, is that “J. Crew has emerged as the merchant of a new style that bridges work and leisure, youth and age, vintage and contemporary, gay and straight.” I love that. Not either/or, but both ends of the spectrum.

Call it Modern Heritage, Neo Retro, or Vintage Modern. I call it brilliant. It’s a successful hybrid….something in the middle, but definitely not middle of the road. It’s a forward look back to the past. Heritage brands come from a real place. Their common value is authenticity. They are the antithesis of throwaway cheap chic, which makes them particularly attractive when dollars are short.

I think that’s a good sign. Perhaps we are relearning the value of the real thing. One blogster, admittedly obsessed with heritage brands, said: “If I’m going to consume, shouldn’t I buy something that’s going to last, both in terms of style and quality?”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Red Wing Iron Ranger Boots

Johnny Depp

Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at All Rights Reserved.

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