Post-Heritage – White Oak Economy
White Oak Economy is a monthly column by denim journalist veteran, Amy Leverton where she examines the interplay between the worlds of high end artisanal denim and the mall brands behind them.
Eugh… Heritage. It was a word that I was once so excited by, back when it came to the fore in 2008/2009. Heritage conjured ideals of a new generation of brands and consumers who cared about quality, about built-to-last garments, about honor and decency, slow-made and fairly paid and everything that is good and wholesome in the world. Now, the word makes me roll my eyes and yawn.
It’s a sad reality that’s baked in to pretty much every trend, movement or idea that emerges in our industry; something starts off as fresh as a newly hatched butterfly, only to become replicated, distorted, over-saturated and violated until the original meaning is lost and everyone’s over it.
Simply calling Heritage a trend might be getting some of you riled up already, but it is, unfortunately, naive for us to think that anything is safe from becoming a trend — no matter how well-intentioned and anti-trend it started off as. I should know, I’m a trend specialist.
Recently, however, a new phrase caught my eye that got me excited again, just like Heritage did nearly ten years ago. And this got me really thinking about where we are headed in this niche, purist bubble of ours, which is a big old subject and one that I’m going to try and tackle now. The phrase in question is POST-HERITAGE.
It was coined by the brilliant Matias of Matias Denim. I met him in about 2009 but he’s been on the denim scene since 2004. You guys might have missed him because all this time he’s been singing from his own hymn sheet. He designs alternative 5 pocket looks, re-worked workwear and modernized Jeanswear out of his native LA.
So he’s never been in the ‘Basic five-pocket, made from Cone White Oak denim, based on a ’50s 501 silhouette with a chain stitched hem’ camp. Because of that, he’s probably missed out on a bit of business, but he’s stayed true to his ideals, aesthetic and natural handwriting and is a true artist in pattern-making and construction.
I’ve noticed a buzz in the market lately from brands who share the same ideals: they understand and respect the concept of heritage but they’re taking the product in a new direction. Or they’re purely authentic but realize there’s a larger market outside our little family, so they’re embracing small changes in aesthetic or approach to tap this market. Alongside Matias, I also spoke to Kortney Hastin of Norman Russell, Ian Segal from Nine Lives, and David Himel of Himel Bros. Leather to explore their ideas on the future of Heritage. But before we can look forward, let’s look back to how it all began.
Cast your minds back to the late 90s to mid-2000s… if you’re old enough. What jeans were you wearing? Were they possibly boot-cut? A little too low-rise? Did they bear the name Diesel on a slanted label on the coin pocket? Were there, perhaps, embroideries or embellishments on the back pockets??
It’s ok, you’re allowed to admit it, we can’t all be born into the world in a flat cap and RRL overalls. While we’re at it, it’s also ok if you were an emo kid back in the day with a long black fringe and JNCO jeans. It annoys me when I hear people criticizing others for having a different style ‘back then’. Tastes change and mature and, like I said, heritage is a trend, just like those gorgeous bootcut jeans were ;-).
Because I was super cool, I rocked a pair of Jean Shop jeans bought from Eric in 2003, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, but despite being selvedge, they were still super low-rise and a little bit boot-cut, so I think it’s safe to say we all ‘went there’ in our own way.
Heritage crept into the market at a time when ostentation was in, and names such as True Religion, Antik, Ed Hardy and Affliction ruled the US, as Matias recalls:
“I think many people had a hard time relating to these types of products. But I also think that the industry took denim to a level that became entirely one way (too nutty) – It was ripe for change.”
Kortney, of Norman Russell, also cites 2008 as a game-changer:
“From my perspective, I think the element that truly kicked it off had more to do with the simplicity of the entire heritage movement. I think companies, designers, and even consumers were over that bedazzled/embellished/over the top look. The Heritage movement brought something into the market place on a much smaller scale.
“It was fresh, it was new, it was clean. And it was made in the US by mom and pop-sized companies. These mom and pop companies weren’t trying to take over the world like the bigger brands. They just wanted to make quality product that they could stand behind. In turn, with the bigger brands you saw campaigns using expensive models or big celebrities. With the mom and pop brands, all you saw were the creators behind those brands.”
And of course, as is often the case with movements like this, it also had a lot to do with economy and culture. 2008 wasn’t exactly a great time for money. With the crash of 2008 in the US, as well as the UK’s credit crunch, people were cautious. They spent less on flashy labels and instead were drawn to quality investments, smaller local businesses and quieter design. It was around this time that many of the fore-runners of the heritage movement were founded. I looked into some of the key names and it’s uncanny:
- Rising Sun – 2006
- Raleigh Denim – 2007
- Tellason – 2008
- Naked & Famous – 2008
- Rogue Territory – 2009
- Railcar Fine Goods – 2010
But let’s not forget the movement that inspired the movement. I spoke to David Himel, to tap his knowledge.
He cites the emergence of the authentic vintage business in 80s and 90s Japan as the precursor to Heritage:
“In the 90s, Japanese vintage culture developed out of the post-war fascination with American culture in Japan. My best explanation would be a sort of Stockholm syndrome, where Japan became fixated with its conqueror. The Japanese became very adept at adopting American counter culture into their own version; Rockabillies, American denim and motorcycle jackets.
“The Japanese are obsessed with authenticity, [and] that authenticity, while somewhat a-historical, embraced an almost micro-culture of knowledge regarding what were the most authentic American brands and models, and later, what were the most innovative or aesthetically interesting items of clothing. This knowledge created a marketplace of authenticity, and so it was in Japan that the notion of Heritage developed.”
This movement inspired a swath of repro denim brands to emerge, again, all around the same era (except for Studio D’artisan who were badass and way ahead of the curve).
- Studio D’artisan – 1979
- Denime – 1988
- Evisu – 1991
- Full Count – 1992
- Dry Bones – 1994
- Skull Jeans – 1995
- Warehouse – 1995
- The Flat Head – 1996
- Eternal – 1997
- Pure Blue Japan – 1997
- Samurai Jeans – 1998
- Somét – 1999
- Imperial – 1999
Ian from Nine Lives currently lives in Japan and tells me:
“I always stress to Japanese that they talk about heritage wear as “amekaji”— translating as American casual, whereas in America, one would think it would just be “kaji” by definition. What I mean to get at is that there is a distinction between heritage as costume and heritage as a pillar of American (and perhaps western) style. And the notion of fewer better things certainly informed the post-financial crisis generation of consumers.”
So the Japanese movement in the 90s gradually led to the recent western obsession in the late 2000s. But how did it become as widespread as it is today? Matias recalls a few factors that led to heritage becoming oversaturated:
“In 2008, I think due to the economy taking a turn, fabric mills became a little more accessible. In LA, you could find amazing deadstock or even running selvedge items from Cone especially, as well as some of the top Japanese producers. If you did a little homework you could find amazing fabrics for a very minimal investment.
“I think the availability of these fabrics sparked people to get ‘creative’. Creative meaning, ‘if you can do it, so can I.’ Los Angeles is littered with small sewing shops who, at the time, would take on anything, so getting someone to create a basic five-pocket out of quality fabric was fairly easy. Slap on a back patch, you got yourself a brand!”
And boy were there a lot of brands. If I got a dollar [or won a game of bingo…-Ed] for every time I heard the words ‘Made in America’ ‘White Oak denim’ ‘Each jean made by a single operator’ or ‘Union Special’ then I’d have enough money to start my own damn brand.
Matias thinks “things fell flat the moment so many brands put out literally the same product” and, of course, it’s not just the volume of small brands out there, it’s the bigger brands copying the aesthetic that gave heritage appeal, but without all the values. As David explains:
“Corporate companies began to simulate quality, and simulate heritage design. The market was under pressure from ‘simulated authenticity’ and consumers failed to understand the difference. The simulated pieces often sell at a fraction of the cost, and even worse in some cases, third world produced pieces compete at the same price point as the better made, more ethical small fashion companies. Heritage has been gutted from the outside in”
So if this is the current state of affairs, what’s next? Our quest for heritage has led to an over-use of the word and a mis-use of its principles. But it has also built a larger demand for authenticity, so let’s not forget the positives. Those who were drawn to the principle but are bored of the product are looking for something new, and that’s creating a second market shift.
Kortney’s brand Norman Russell has always been inspired by heritage, but he takes it into a more modern arena. Yet in the last couple of seasons, we’ve chatted more and more about him running with that idea to tap a wider audience.
“The simplicity of the Heritage movement, in my eyes, is what made Heritage occur in the first place. With that said, the simplicity of it might be the reason for its downfall. As I mentioned earlier, consumers were tired of the over-the-top saturation of brands like Ed Hardy. It took the Heritage movement to clean that up. Now, there will be a movement to rectify the simplicity of the Heritage movement. It’s an ongoing cycle of yin and yang. Now I’m not saying Ed Hardy or brands like that are going to make a come-back. I’m simply saying that there is always change upon us”
Kortney is tapping a more contemporary consumer, one that wants quality but maybe a touch of modernity too.
“I’ve always thought of Norman Russell as American Luxury rather than Americana. In the beginning it was purely denim; the whole five pocket thing. These days, I’ve gotten a bit more experimental; new silhouettes for both tops and bottoms, using unique fabrics from the US and Japan, trying new things to truly make it an American Luxury brand. For the guy (and gal) that can afford the Range Rover, but isn’t afraid to get it dirty!”
Having known him and his brand for a number of years, this doesn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me were David’s current thoughts on his brand. I bumped into him at a recent trade show and we talked about the ‘packaging’ and outward appeal of Himel Bros. His leather jackets are timeless, authentic and purist, yet it dawned on him that to survive, he can’t simply cater to one small family of consumers who get it — he needs to educate in order to branch out.
“The notion of a more sophisticated consumer with a higher dollar budget is the only way to survive as a small fashion brand.” He says, “This means a consumer that comprehends your brand or indeed becomes an expert in what you do.” Heritage has brought on a movement that celebrates quality and has led to increased transparency in the market place. As that notion unfolds into the rest of the industry, there’s a window of opportunity.
A few names have emerged in the denim industry to try and tap that window. Matias is a humble man and gives newcomer Re/Done credit for seizing an opportunity. “Re/Done is a huge reaction to basics… literally deconstructing the five-pocket for the contemporary market. That’s what I was doing when I first started. Given that these ideas are being fully explored, I hope to see more people discovering and accepting more crafted, avant-garde inspired clothing.”
But what about his brand? After all, Matias coined the phrase ‘post heritage’ and has had to watch a lot of his contemporaries ride the heritage wave over the last ten years as he diligently stuck to his roots.
“I was jealous when my friends and peers were gaining so much notoriety over simple Heritage branded products. This industry is tough. I thought our product was somehow ‘better,’ but doesn’t everyone making product think theirs is superior? Otherwise we wouldn’t make it! We have never been a heritage brand, so I guess it just wasn’t our time. Patience and persistence is what has kept us alive. We had a little support from some retailers who ‘got it’ and that is what kept us working and exploring.”
So what is his definition of Post-Heritage?
“Post Heritage is something that I came up with as a response to the overuse of Heritage. As in what’s next – POST. AFTER. But it also has some root in, or homage to, the art movement of Post Modernism from the late twentieth century. It’s my reaction to the industry seemingly taking hold of ONLY Heritage for a long-time. ‘Post’ begs the question for what is next, different, after. But I aim to also contradict some of the laws of heritage, which, again, has been so diluted for so long.”
When I first saw the Nine Lives product in person, their philosophy gave me the same impression. The quality and craftsmanship was exemplary, yet it didn’t look like every other classic ‘quality-made’ brand out there. There were twists, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.
Ian talked me through their pant fits that are designed for the heritage consumer, but are certainly not basic five-pocket:
“I find that style-wise, jeans are likely still the most conservative element of the men’s wardrobe. Our approach to that was simple: Make an elegant slim tapered pair in which the tweaks are subtle, but very thought out and very meaningful for folks who wear raws daily. Then make one slim straight/below the knee taper with hidden slash pockets at the back yoke. To us, this is entirely in the tradition of workwear functionality. And then finally, make neo-rockabilly denim slacks and 3D patterned chinos.”
When I approached them for this article, however, Ian clearly stated that the Nine Lives approach to design is not Post-Heritage and that they see themselves as working ‘within the tradition’ of Heritage. But their definition of the term is simply ‘a fair deal’: garments that were made with integrity, built to last, and purchased for a fair price. For them it’s not so much about what it looks like, it’s about the values attached to the product.
I guess it comes down to what we define as Post-Heritage and that’s highly subjective and personal. Is it about design details or durability? Is it function or fashion, trend or tradition? However you interpret the word, Heritage has changed our industry for the better, encouraged transparency and quality to become more widespread and inspired a new generation of brands who at least try to be better, even if they’re simply jumping on the band wagon. What you do with those values, and what you call it, is up to you.
Personally, as a designer and consumer, I want to see less lazy design. I get excited by the trailblazers and the brands using their head rather than following the herd. And if I see another 1947 501 replica, I think I might go a little crazy. My humble opinion? There will always be a market for the original Heritage brands who have a following, a true passion and a great product, but the names who are shaping tomorrow’s denim are not based on replica or heritage any more, they are 100% Post-Heritage.