Are Brands Overusing the Word Heritage?

Leah's at the Pitti Uomo tradeshow in Florence this week, and undoubtedly she's come across several "heritage" brands at the hundreds of booths shilling their earnestly designed shoes, jackets and jeans to the world's top menswear buyers and editors. The term "heritage" is commonplace in menswear—and beyond—thanks to the fashionable revival of traditional English brands (Barbour, Belstaff) and Made-in-America labels (Alden, Carhartt). But with the introduction of Portland, Oregon-based Pendleton Woolen Mills' new "heritage collection" last week, we wondered: has the use of the word "heritage" reached a saturation point?
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Leah's at the Pitti Uomo tradeshow in Florence this week, and undoubtedly she's come across several "heritage" brands at the hundreds of booths shilling their earnestly designed shoes, jackets and jeans to the world's top menswear buyers and editors. The term "heritage" is commonplace in menswear—and beyond—thanks to the fashionable revival of traditional English brands (Barbour, Belstaff) and Made-in-America labels (Alden, Carhartt). But with the introduction of Portland, Oregon-based Pendleton Woolen Mills' new "heritage collection" last week, we wondered: has the use of the word "heritage" reached a saturation point?
Pendleton's new heritage collection. Photo: WWD

Pendleton's new heritage collection. Photo: WWD

Leah's at the Pitti Uomo tradeshow in Florence this week, and undoubtedly she's come across several "heritage" brands at the hundreds of booths shilling their earnestly designed shoes, jackets and jeans to the world's top menswear buyers and editors.

The term "heritage" is commonplace in menswear—and beyond—thanks to the fashionable revival of traditional English brands (Barbour, Belstaff) and Made-in-America labels (Alden, Carhartt).

But with the introduction of Portland, Oregon-based Pendleton Woolen Mills' new "heritage collection" last week, we wondered: has the use of the word "heritage" reached a saturation point?

After all, isn't everything Pendleton does heritage?

"It is a little meta," says Michael Williams, who runs the wildly popular menswear-focused site A Continuous Lean, as well as public relations and marketing firm Paul + Williams.

Others are harsher about the use of the word in marketing. "Y’all keep throwing around the word 'heritage,' which doesn’t really make sense when you’re talking about clothes because I don’t think clothes have any traditions or family so the term makes zero sense, but whatever," says writer Mitchell Goldstein on the menswear site Four Pins.

I can't say I totally agree with Goldstein (nor that I can totally comprehend what he's trying to say, because it's in that #menswear speak and I only know how to read Latin and English), but I do think use of the word in marketing products is a little out of control. It's becoming a bit disingenuous. Before, "heritage" meant brands with a past. Now, it feels like it's slapped on every menswear product with a old time-y feel.

Chris Black, a marketing consultant and strategist (who also does a really good job aggregating content on Twitter—you should follow him), sums up my feelings pretty succinctly. "'Heritage' is used like 'organic,' just slapped on something to attract a certain kind of customer," he says.

Sometimes, using the word works. Minnesota-based work shoe company Red Wing, one of Williams' longtime clients, successfully launched a "heritage" collection in 2008, featuring more casual styles than its classic work-site boots. So far, there's no backlash to speak of. In fact, 2012 was the line's biggest year yet.

"If you look back in 20 years at the product, it'll still make sense," says Williams of why it works. "The core business is to sell shoes for manual labor. Yes, they sell to a lot of 'cool guy retailers,' but they're not walking away from their meat-and-potatoes."

Pendleton's feelings on its new collection are similar. "Everything we do stems from our heritage, but this collection honors it," said the brand's PR rep.

While Williams admits that the word heritage is "abused," he also believes "it's not going away any time soon."

What really gives Williams confidence is the growing interest in these brands outside of fashion capital cities like New York and L.A. Stores such as Baldwin in Kansas City—which sells its own line, along with Billy Reid, Gant and other labels—are introducing more and more people to the movement. And of course there's J.Crew, whose menswear business—which includes plenty of collaborations with many of the aforementioned heritage brands—continues to grow.

The real proof is in the statistics: The US men's clothing market experienced 5.3% year-over-year growth in 2011, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. The women's clothing market grew just 1.4%. (As we said before, most heritage brands have bigger men's businesses.)

"All the guys in the middle of the country are starting to really get this Americana-heritage thing," says Williams. "For someone who's been talking about this for years, it's interesting to see it still growing."

One final note: I wrote about this almost exact topic three years ago for Fashionista. I interviewed Michael back then, and we both basically said the same thing we're saying today. So I think it's safe to 'heritage' isn't a passing fancy. Brands are just going to have to be smarter and smarter about the marketing. If you call it "heritage," it's going to have to mean something.

Follow me on Twitter: @lapresmidi