From Levi's to L.L.Bean, American Heritage Brands Are Enjoying a Renaissance

Be it "normcore" or the creeping upswing of our economy, it's a good time to be a homegrown American clothing company.
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Maura Brannigan
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Be it "normcore" or the creeping upswing of our economy, it's a good time to be a homegrown American clothing company.
Photo: @levis/Instagram

Photo: @levis/Instagram

From June 25 to July 4, we'll be examining — and at times, celebrating — all things American made, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.

If there's one tactic a brand can employ to win over an apathetic customer, it's a compelling backstory. From baby powders to four-door sedans, companies have long harnessed their mom-and-pop histories to sell a product — even if those histories are nowhere near as sexy as commercials may lead us to believe. For a country founded on upward mobility and opportunity, a modest heritage matters.

Perhaps it's the swift rise of "normcore" or even the gentle rebounding of our economy, but 2015 is shaping up to be a good year for born-and-bred American clothing companies. While a significant part of the apparel industry remains focused on buzzy contemporary labels and luxury fashion houses overseas, a number of domestic brands — from Filson to Timberland — are enjoying an almost unasked-for revival outside their core customerbase.

As with many industry trends, there's no sure-fire way to detail why some of these heritage businesses are booming. Last summer's aforementioned normcore movement may have helped matters, with unpretentious, unisex-looking attire cropping up on both the streets and in showrooms. We no longer wear high-waisted and bulky denim in an ironic nature — which, for the record, completely dismantled the punchline of the 2003 Saturday Night Live sketch, "Mom Jeans." And consumers have certainly become more conscious about buying locally — not just their food, but their clothes, too.

In light of our intrigue, we set out to spotlight those heritage brands enjoying their own private renaissance — brands that have touched at least two generations of Americans, play up their roots in their branding and have been seen an unusual rebound in consumer interest lately.

Levi's

Photo: @levis/Instagram

Photo: @levis/Instagram

Founded: 1853

Signature product: 501 Jeans

The heritage story: In the early 1850s, a man named Levi Strauss moved from a small town in Bavaria to San Francisco, Calif., to open a West Coast extension of his brothers' New York-based dry goods business. With a booming demand for durable work clothes from gold miners, Levi Strauss & Co. created its very first pair of denim overalls in the 1870s. Two decades later, and the brand's legendary 501 Jeans were born, since becoming the world’s bestselling item of clothing — ever.

The renaissance: Now widely embraced by the fashion industry, Levi's has become a verifiable "It" denim label in recent years. While Phoebe Philo and the off-duty model set have made the 501's high-waisted, slightly bulky silhouette a "thing" again, Levi's hasn't been earning as much by proxy as you'd expect—not yet, at least. According to its 2014 annual report, Levi's' full-year revenue grew just 2 percent last year, with its net income drifting downward. But in 2013 alone, Levi's added more than $1 billion in shareholder value, giving its stock price 71 percent boost.

Patagonia

Photo: @patagonia/Instagram

Photo: @patagonia/Instagram

Founded: 1973

Signature product: Snap-T Pullover Fleece

The heritage story: This Ventura, Calif.-based clothing company got its start as a small business specializing in tools for climbers. Alpinism, it says, remains at the very heart of its operation — though today, Patagonia also makes apparel, accessories and a children's line for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling, trail running and more.

The renaissance: While Patagonia does not formally release its financial figures, Fast Company published a February 2014 profile that stated the company has "doubled its scale of operations and tripled its profits" since 2008, bringing in about $600 million in revenue in 2013. All this, according to Fast Company, may very well be due to Patagonia's then-new chief executive officer, Rose Marcario. This growth may potentially be attributed to the rise of normcore and the buzzy "athleisure" market, too, as Patagonia now carries stylish everyday pieces amongst its more hardcore inventory. Riffs on its jackets appeared on the fall 2014 runways of Thakoon and Altuzarra.

Timberland

Photo: @timberland/Instagram

Photo: @timberland/Instagram

Founded: 1918

Signature product: Premium Waterproof Boots

The heritage story: Timberland's lineage dates back to the late 1920s when founder Nathan Swartz began his shoe-making career as an apprentice stitcher in Boston, Mass. In 1952, Swartz purchased half of the Abington Shoe Company, which did routine contract work for other manufacturers. Swartz later bought the remaining half and brought his sons into the company, one of whom, Sidney, crafted a waterproof boot called the "Timberland" in 1973. The name stuck.

The renaissance: 2014 was a breakout year for the organization, reaching $1.8 billion in net revenues — growing from $1.6 billion in 2013 and $1.5 billion in 2012, Timberland confirmed to Fashionista in an email. What's more is that the brand aims to hit $3.1 billion by 2019. It certainly doesn't hurt, either, that everyone from Pharrell Williams to Cara Delevingne and Kanye West to Rihanna have made its signature boot a mainstay piece.

L.L.Bean

Photo: @llbeansignature/Instagram

Photo: @llbeansignature/Instagram

Founded: 1912

The signature product: Maine Hunting Shoe (i.e., L.L.Bean Boot)

The heritage story: Founded in 1912 by namesake Leon Leonwood Bean, L.L.Bean began as an outfitter for hunting and fishing supplies. Bean's company started as a one-room operation selling just one item: the Maine Hunting Shoe, otherwise known as the L.L.Bean Boot. By 1912, Bean was selling his Bean Boot via a hefty mail-order business, the headquarters of which were in the basement of his brother's Freeport, Maine, home.

The renaissance: This past December, L.L.Bean nabbed headlines when its hugely popular Duck Boot fell on backorder with a waitlist nearly 100,000 shoppers strong, moving the company to expand its manufacturing facilities in Maine. Annual net sales last year were $1.6 billion, up 3 percent from 2013. Even so, its boots — and extensive clothing offerings — are still manufactured domestically.

Red Wing Heritage

Photo: @redwingheritage/Instagram

Photo: @redwingheritage/Instagram

Founded: 1905

The signature product: No. 875

The heritage story: In 1905, founder Charles H. Beckman set up shop in the river town of Red Wing, Minn., selling his first boot for $1.75. With the later demand of World War I, Beckman increased production to 100 pair a day by 1907 and 200,000, with five zeros, in 1915. By the second World War, the U.S. military enlisted Red Wing Shoes's help once again, this time making 239 different sizes and widths for the Army. From 1959-1969, Norman Rockwell commemorated the brand with a series of drawings along with the tagline, "...for people who work."

The renaissance: While Red Wing doesn't regularly divulge its sales figures, the Minneapolis/Saint Paul Business Journal reported in February that the brand set a company record by selling 5 million pairs of shoes with sales close to $700 million, and is opening a new store every two weeks on average.

Filson

Photo: @filson1897/Instagram

Photo: @filson1897/Instagram

Founded: 1897

The signature product: Cruiser Jacket

The heritage story: Filson's founder Clinton C. Filson, a former homesteader, relocated from Nebraska to Seattle, Wash. in the 1890s to open a small loggers' apparel store. Upon realizing the needs of those passing by due to the Gold Rush, Filson began carrying clothing, blankets, footwear and sleeping bags.

The renaissance: Despite keeping its sales private, Fortune reported in October 2013 that Filson's revenues have increased 25 percent each year since 2010. With stores in seven locations ranging from Portland to Minneapolis, Filson is now as prevalent a staple for outdoorsman clothing as it is for its signature briefcases and luggage.

Homepage photo: @levis/Instagram