By Fok-Yan Leung
June is a perfect time to visit Victoria, B.C. The flowers are in bloom. It’s warm in the afternoons, but comfortably cool in the mornings and evenings. Victoria is best known for the Butchart Gardens and afternoon tea on Royal Doulton china at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, and as a great place for Canadian retirees. It’s not a place where you’d expect to find Viberg, one of the hottest brands in men’s footwear. Every picture of new boots posted to Instagram is discussed in detail in communities like Styleforum and the Goodyear Welt subreddit. Now, Viberg is carried in many of the best fashion and shoe stores in the world.
I was first introduced to Viberg boots by Guy Ferguson, who is now the sales director at Viberg (www.viberg.com), while he was working at Four Horsemen. Four Horseman is a small but excellent men’s streetwear store, and Guy expanded their brand list and elevated the taste levels considerably (a small plug – the house brand, “Four Horsemen Supplies” continues to be excellent). And it was Guy who brought Viberg into the Four Horsemen store, becoming one of the first North American retailers to do so. He recognized that this small, local brand was something special. Oh, he also sold me my first pair of Viberg boots: brown nubuck scout boots on the relatively sleek, and at that time, relatively new, 2030 last – made especially for Four Horsemen. The boots were a half size large, but I was hooked anyway.
When Guy took a permanent position at Viberg a few years ago, and Styleforum started to do special projects with Viberg based on community input, I knew that I had visit the factory.
One exclusive Styleforum makeup, as envisioned by our members: an old-fashioned work oxford, perfect for wearing with heavy shop coats and cuffed denim
In Canada and in the USA, there are a lot of small companies that make high quality, traditional, workboots. Viberg Boot Company, started in 1931 by Ed Viberg, and passed down to his son Glen, was one of those. However, one single factor sets Viberg apart from the plethora of companies that dot the North American landscape. Viberg has Brett Viberg.
If the Viberg factory is a boot nerd’s Wonka Chocolate Factory, Brett Viberg is most definitely Willy. Viberg continues to use the highest quality components for every boot, just as they did in Ed Viberg’s day. Yes, a lot of traditional workboot companies do this - however, I don’t know of another brand with a creative head who is so committed to innovation and to pushing the boundaries of what a workboot company can do. Although the factory is always stocked with a set of standard oil-tanned leathers that are the backbone of workboots, there is an ever-changing roster of leathers from the best tanneries around the world; from those used in the finest equestrian boots, to those typically used by niche designers who specialize in a style that is probably most accurately described as arte povera, but is more popularly known as “goth ninja” by fans and detractors alike.
It’s this commitment to innovation that sets Viberg firmly apart from many other companies with similar origins. The work boot background of Viberg’s shoes are unmistakable. Most of their offerings can be described as “rugged, fashionable boots,” and none of them are going to be mistaken for a pair of elegant and slender Corthays. But by the same token, they don’t look like they belong only on a worksite, or on the feet of fashionable Brooklynites circa 2008. This ability to stay true to one’s origins and at the same time expand without losing one’s soul (that was a boot pun) is highly unusual, and far bigger companies have failed to accomplish this feat.
Racks of boots in the factory
At the Viberg factory, this contrast is almost hilariously apparent. In various stages of production are: leather soled boots made from a vibrant tan horse leather that look like what a nobleman might have used to kicked a peasant in the head, back in the day; boots made from fine Italian leather that would look at home leaning against the famous “Pitti Wall” in Florence’s Fortezza de Basso; and even a pair of all black boots on a thick rubber sole that look like the world’s coolest creepers.
Brushing down a pair of boots
Brett is the mastermind of these products, and he is fiercely committed to the stand-alone quality of Viberg’s creations. If you go Viberg.com, you’ll see boots described as being made from “Italian calf.” This is in stark contrast to many competitor’s wares, who proudly state that they use leather from Horween, or Guidi, or Shinki, or whatever famous tannery gives them a little more cachet. Well, when we started our Viberg GMTO program, Brett told me that he would allow me to use leather from specific tanneries - but that if I advertised the tannery, he would pull the order. Ouch. The guy is really serious about Viberg products being desirable because they are well-designed and quality-built products, not because they use leather from this or that company, and not because they use this or that component.
This pair's on its way
That was the first time that I’d met him. Not a man to mince words. It was Brett who brought Guy Ferguson to Viberg, where Guy now acts as the intermediary between Viberg and all of its stockists, each of whom carry unique, collaboratively-designed products, and all of which reflect Viberg’s sensibilities and the sensibilities of the individual retailer. For example, the boots made for Styleforum often have a rugged, “old school” feel – one of the boots we are expecting is designed to look like a traditional work oxford – or are sleek and city ready.
Brett, acting patriotic - all Viberg boots are proudly made in Canada
Guy at work - I think?
Browse through Rakuten, a sort of Japanese mix between Amazon and Ebay, and you’ll find boots from obscure workwear companies all over North America. When Brett started traveling to Japan, he saw workboots worn as fashion items, and he brought that sensibility back to his family business. His favorite brand is “The Real McCoy’s”, a small Japanese brand dedicated to obsessive recreation of American workwear and militaria, and probably best described as “more authentic than real vintage.” Some of Brett’s most familiar designs are similar. The signature “Boondocker” boot was based on a vintage WWII Era model, but is made in better materials than the original makers could ever have imagined using. Of course, Japanese designers are typically not moored to what was before, and neither was Willy Wonka - and neither is Brett. While I was at the factory, Brett was studying some running-shoe soles. I’m interested to see if he comes up with something really awesome (see Visvim), or something really atrocious (see “Geophysicists”). But I’m optimistic, based on what Brett and his team have come up with before.
And of course, if Brett Viberg hadn’t started traveling to Japan, Viberg probably wouldn't be found in stores like Leffot, in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, sharing room with Edward Green, John Lobb, and Corthay.
The original "Boondocker" - the service boot that inspired Viberg's own model
The small factory retail space
But if Brett is the Wonka of Viberg, his father Glen is Hephaestus, the consummate smith. He is at the factory daily, and every pair of Viberg boots goes through his hands. The factory itself is small. You’d expect it to be bigger, given the online coverage and the first-class stockists. But it’s located in back of a very small retail space that sells only their traditional workboot line, on the outskirts of Victoria. Guy estimated that it’s a few thousand square feet over a single split floor with a small mezzanine, and a slew of hanging flags that overlook everything. Each aisle has a different purpose. All the cutting is down at one station, all the lasting at another, all the sanding at yet another. And on a raised half quarter floor, there are men and women at sewing machines punching through heavy leather all day.
Glenn Viberg at work
I’d originally expected to write a story about Viberg, but also about the places that the Viberg crew liked to eat and drink and hang out – a Viberg lifestyle piece. However, throughout the day, it became apparent that the Viberg Boot Company is laser-focused on creating products, period. Right before lunch, Mrs. Viberg, Glen’s wife and Brett’s mother, told me that “the boys (Brett and Guy) have the places that they like.” I think that we were the only people at the factory to take the time to eat somewhere that would be considered a “spot.” Everyone else took a very quick lunch and got back to work. So I enjoyed my sandwich and my treats in the mild Victoria sun - and then we hustled back to the factory, because Brett and Guy were in a hurry to get back to the business of making stuff.
Currently, Styleforum has several Viberg preorders ongoing, until August 16: http://www.styleforummarket.com/viberg/