Shortly after the success of their first-ever sample sale with Styleforum, the guys are Viberg were busy with a pop up shop in New York City’s Lower East Side. I managed to catch up both Brett, a third-generation owner and employee, and Guy, a new member of the team but with 4 years of experience with the product, while they were still stateside to chat about taking a new direction with an old company.
Kyle: I'm here covering this for Styleforum, and I know you just got done with that huge sample sale. You have a large fan base on there, and I'm not sure what you're interested in talking about, but one thing I at least wanted to cover was how there were a lot of one-offs on that sale. Who is the guy that is working on these new designs, new leathers, new treatments - those kinds of changes?
Guy: That's Brett (the owner).
Brett: Yeah, this is my families company. I mean I do everything, but all new development - sourcing leather, trims, new lasts, molds, sales, tradeshows, is me, along with Guy who I recently hired to help me.
Kyle: And you met him through a collaboration with Four Horsemen?
Guy: Yeah we did these boots (points down) four years ago. They were great for the shop, and we ended up selling a bunch of them and got the name out there.
Brett: It's different when you have a factory. I mean there is design, but then you can just go and do it. Normally you just do it on a computer and that's it, but in terms of testing things out we have the factory right there. Right now I have a bunch of things that I'm working on, but it doesn't always work out right - it's easy to waste a lot of money.
Guy: We can experiment. It's different. If you have a brand you have a pattern maker, and a factory here and there, and a buyer here or there. With a factory we can walk in, make something that day, soak it in water, and just do whatever with it.
Brett: I'm not a designer, I don't know anything about it, I just do stuff and that's one of the great things about having the factory. I just make sure that it's authentic to what we do, and not make a fashion product. Otherwise it becomes cheap, and it's not good anymore. Just becoming friends with Nigel - his logic - I mean his is a fashion product but it's heavy; it's authentic stuff. I need to keep what we do in anything I want to do with it; otherwise I'm going too far from our actual roots. It might not be Americana/heritage stuff, but the inside of the boot will be the same.
Kyle: You mentioned your father still works the floor, what does he think of the direction you're taking with the different collaborations and stuff? Does he think it's cool?
Guy: I know Brett's father in a very different capacity, but I've been trying to involve him more and have been showing him some of the things we're doing. With me, the response is totally positive. He thinks it's really cool that we're doing it. It's outside of what he knows; he grew up in the factory because it's his father’s business. It's been about creating the longest-wearing boot and the toughest possible boot, but now there is this switch to no longer just how tough it is, but rather how clean is it? How refined is it? What is the material? What are the characteristics? It's a paradigm shift for him, but in my dealings with him it's totally being embraced, although it's a transition.
Brett: It's a slow, slow, slow, slow transition.
Guy: With the materials we work with, I don't think people realize it but we can't make a cordovan boot next to a work boot because the machines don't work like that. They all have to be recalibrated - even thread weights are different. It's not easy to have a run of logging boots go through and then slip in a cordovan boot. It just wouldn't work.
Brett: That's why if you look at Alden or Trickers - you look at their boots and they're still very feminine and very dress-like. It would take them a very long time to make it heavy and chunky and long-lasting because that's not in the genetic makeup of the factory. So when I try to slide in all this stuff, it's just stupid because I have like kangaroo leathers and really expensive stuff, but it just gets shredded to shit. The leather is great but it will get torn apart and is worthless. The people that make it, their hands aren't used to that texture and they overpower it.
I think what my dad is having trouble with is just how it's becoming more of a brand than just a shoe company about making tough stuff. The hard transition for him is understanding that the value is in the name. That's going to happen with anything. If you make a good car, eventually whatever brand that is will have a particular appeal to the market and that brand name will become more important than just the quality of it.
Guy: A logger buying a pair of logging boots will come back because they were the best logging boots he's ever had. A guy in this market might come back because nobody else had them. There are different reasons, and there are other factors besides just outperforming in that particular market. It's gone from a foreman's product in the workplace, to something that is a casual shoe now. We have guys that own maybe a dozen pairs. You could really have a pair of these for your life. I only have two pairs that I wear, but there are customers that are a dozen pairs deep. I don't know how you could wear them; you couldn't even break them in.
Brett: It's like having 12 pairs of raw denim.
Guy: Which people do.
Kyle: You get caught up in the product but you need to wear this this stuff.
Guy: Yeah, what about enjoying it and getting it out there and getting some life into it. Getting it beat up.
Brett: We've bought new equipment - Goodyear Welt equipment, so I'm trying to incorporate all of this other stuff into our factory, which is very involved. I used to be in the factory; I used to run the factory, but then I got out of that. I did that late teens into my 20's then stepped away, but now I do all of that, and - well there's no job title - but I'll sit with the sewing machine operator on a Saturday and figure out how to make it look better. All of the trial and error. Adjusting tensions and stuff. And Guy is doing the same thing. I brought him on to help me do the sales and stuff, but now we're doing the website, and he is “Everyman.”
Guy: In a small company you don't really have one role. We're all doing everything.
Kyle: So the bulk of the sales of the styles that you guys work on - is that typically done by a shop like Four Horsemen?
Guy: Yeah, up until recently it's all been wholesale to stockists and custom one-off made-to-order stuff. That made-to-order process is something a lot of our customers associate with the brand, but it's really difficult for us. It's a ton of hours. We have a couple of stock leathers that we use in our work boots, and a couple of things for our fashion stuff that we have on hand most of the time. But really, we're doing small batches of leathers, testing things out. We're moving at a pretty quick pace right now and it's difficult to have a stock form covering "this is what you can customize" so we go back and forth, sometimes for a month, two months, and by the end of it we've probably lost money on a pair of boots for somebody, whereas the customer thinks that is actually our bread and butter. They think that's our business, but it's actually something that is very difficult for us to offer. We're trying to streamline it. Morgan is handling that, and he is in the factory five days a week whereas Brett and I are all over the place. He has a really good sense of what's there.
Kyle: So that's something that you want to keep?
Guy: For now, but I don't know if we can.
Brett: What happens with the custom stuff is that either because you can't physically see it and piece together what it's going to look like (especially when you add in multi-color threads and stuff) it really can end up hideous.
Guy: It's like Nike ID or something - you give them options and they go wild with it but some are disappointed with the final product. It's the issue of presenting too much choice - it's our job as a brand to be presenting it the way we want, and that it adheres to this vision that we have. When you hand that power to the customer it's great - I mean it's a really nice thing to offer -
Brett: It's overwhelming. You have the lasts, you have the shape, you have the leathers which are like 15 or 16, thread colors, different sizes and different colors of eyelets, and then it goes from there.
Guy: We try to narrow it down to about 10 things that you're changing, but there are 200 steps in the boot. You can customize a lot of them.
Brett: I think it's better to do it for single pair orders. When you do it for a store and it's 20 pairs, if it's something that looks bad it makes us look bad, because it's our brand. I think now we really have to tighten down what we will allow someone to sell. We need to look good for our sake as well.
Kyle: If that's a person's first introduction to your brand, they might never look again.
Guy: Guys who saw the brand maybe 5 years ago on Rakuten [Japan] or something, upon seeing something now might not even think it's the same product. That's something we need to change, and spread that awareness. Styleforum is helping a ton with that. Outside of selling direct to our customers, that site helps hugely with showcasing our vision of the brand.
Guy: Fok and I have been talking, and there will be some collaborative stuff. He's doing his pair of boots right now and he wants to document the making of them, which I'm going to try and do in the factory. Then we'll do a little feature on him and them when he gets them. The concept of doing group buys specifically for the forum is something we're looking into as well.
Brett: Bringing on Guy, it'd be really nice to, well not make a typical video like everyone has else, but figure out a new way to show what we do. To show that it is that limited and create that intimate experience in some sort of media.
Guy: When people come see the factory it's immediately like "wow" at the scale of it and the look of what's actually going on, and the work that's actually being done. I remember the first time I walked in there, not really knowing, it totally shocked me what scale it was operating on.
Brett: The video could be a way to reintroduce us, in some new way. Maybe what I’d like to do is use a GoPro on someone's head, so it's like you’re there. It's at least a different viewpoint of what is actually going on. So if the guy hits his finger, you see him hit his finger (laughs) but it's more interesting that way.
Brett: Inventory did a video with us I guess around 4 years ago, right when they got started, and it was great. I don't want to say we really started this trend or whatever, but that happened, and everybody else does it (and obviously people did it before us) but it's just the way that it's shot is how everybody else has done it. We've already had that presentation.
Brett: To go back to a bit earlier, for a while I didn't know Styleforum was as big as it is.
Kyle: I think it's a lot bigger than it looks at first glance too. There are a lot of people who aren't necessarily active but they're the one that will be reaching out to you guys for orders. Just because they're not posting doesn't mean they're not interested.
Guy: I can tell you right now that the most active customers - and it's funny if you read the sample sale thread - it's like five guys being like "I can't get a pair of boots! I emailed two minutes after and I didn't get anything!" What they don't realize is there are 300 other guys who aren't vocal who are emailing the same moment. So the most vocal guys aren't necessarily the customers.
I think we got off track - but as far as the sales breaking down, it was all wholesale. That's misleading too. If you look at our stockists, there are 30 or 40 on there now, but some of them might have only ever ordered eight pairs of boots.
Brett: There are about four shops in the whole world that have a variety of stuff, and they're all in Europe: three or four in Germany and one in Switzerland.
Guy: Do you know VMC in Zurich? See no one knows it - they have no webshop, they have zero presence, but they have the most amazing shop. They have two floors but they sell more than anyone else I have ever heard of.
Brett: We do a ridiculous amount of business with them, and then they reorder.
Guy: You spend time on Styleforum and blogs and things, and you think that you know all of the big players in this retail world. I didn't know about them until a trade show and doing an order with them, but they're just a real old-school shop.
Brett: The amount of what they buy is just shocking, and then they reorder out of nowhere because they sell out. It seems like most stores are very seasonal, but some of the good shops in Europe keep stock year-round. It's like the 501 jean that's always there. Then every season they'll bring in something special. And then in New York, I think we have 5 different places that carry our stuff, which is more than the rest of North America combined. I have no one in LA. It's a very odd market. I need a celebrity or something to help me out (laughs).
Kyle: Did you notice things gaining traction over here when people started paying more attention to the different products you were selling in Japan?
Brett: The thing about Japan is that they really know how to create the lifestyle of a brand. Like Ralph Lauren has done (obviously on a corporate scale) but a niche product in Japan - they really buy into the lifestyle of it. It's very obsessive and the culture is very good around it. That idea is what's attractive about the boots.
What we've been doing in Japan is basically a glorified work boot. That's the market; think Red Wing and all of those other brands. What I've been trying to do is bring on more European, classic-styled stuff. What I'm trying to do right now is get all of the basic styles down with different leathers and different lasts - completely change what we do. We'll still always do work boots and stuff, but in terms of just growing and where I think the market is going, there are certain things that people aren't doing and we want to take the market and be the first person to do it. I went to Italy for the first time for a leather show (I go there for work but not leather shows), so just Italian leathers, washed leathers, all of this stuff that you don't really see on a traditional silhouette. I'm doing all this kind of stuff.
Kyle: Will we be seeing some Guidi leather service boots or something in the future?
Brett: Yeah, I have Guidi coming in.
Guy: We're hoping it would be here.
Brett: I was at the Guidi place. I went to Bologna and rented a car. They're in Pescia, which is a tiny town, to see the leather and the factory. It's pretty cool - the leathers are interesting.
Going back to Japan, the problem I have is that what we do is a misrepresentation of what I want to do. If you Google our name it comes up with some ugly shit. And it's great because that's kind of what got us going, but I'm trying to take it at the back and turn it into something else.
Most of the stuff that I do for Europe and make for Berlin would never go to Japan. My involvement in Japan is nothing. We have agents and they control it, but starting in January I'm going to revamp the whole system and do my own exhibition twice a year. It's a really slow growth over there - it's not that great of a market. We get a lot of appreciation on the product, but it's not the appreciation that I want it to be. They like it because it's heritage, and they relate it to work boots. I'm just trying to evolve the company from that.
Nigel Cabourn really helped me out, because he's a good friend, and then he allowed me to tag along with him to go to Berlin and check out Bread&Butter. I showed on his stand for two seasons and then I did my own thing. That really helped establish what we have now. A lot of it was him allowing me to tap into his market. His brand is probably one of the best brands that you could want in the world.
Guy: The perception is interesting. We're at this tradeshow picking up new accounts and someone is like "Well I picked up Nigel Cabourn so I need your boots to go with it." There is a strong brand affiliation in Europe between the two, and it's really interesting to see. We're seeing a lot of the industry guys there with their Cabourn jacket and Viberg boots. It's cool.
We've done 4 tiny collaborations with him. Small runs. There's actually some going to Barneys right now, and we've had 3 there so far.
Brett: The thing is that we do only 25 pairs of boots a day. It's nothing. A collaboration may only be 20 pairs so you're never gonna see it. It could sit there but more than likely somebody that wants it will buy it but then it's gone. It doesn't get much press because there isn't much production.
Guy: I've touched on this with a few people on the forum and answering things about the company, but our production is so, so small scale compared to the brands that are in the conversation with us. On the factory floor it's like 15 people.
Brett: It's not really a factory, it's more like a workshop.
Guy: Brett's dad is still personally finishing every pair of boots that get made. Work boots, the fashion stuff, whatever. It's passing through his hands and is inspected by him. A lot of the guys on the line have 10 years’ experience doing that one thing.
Brett: In our market we have a good following, luckily, but I think people think we make more than we do, just because the brand looks that good. It's actually really, really limited. To bring up Cabourn again, if you buy a jacket he's only made like 80 of them. People don't always realize that because he doesn't sell it as that. You buy it as the brand and because it's cool, and it's well made.
Guy: So far the brand up until this point has been fueled by these few customers essentially. The Iron Heart forum has a crazy following on there. They get so into it, but they're so head-to-toe a specific look. It's cool though because the brand can go in so many different directions. We touched on doing something a bit more contemporary, we're doing some welted stuff, we can distress things in-house, we can do lighter-weight leathers now - we have Guidi on order. That product can sit in a completely different store than say this, which can sit in a completely different store than that, etc. We've done some Shell Cordovan stuff with Leffot here, and they’re selling Edward Green next to our boots and it's amazing that we can even sit anywhere in that market. I mean we're still casual by those standards, but the fact that we can make something like that and we can make a hiking boot, or so many other different things is tremendous.