In his time as the head of Viberg Boot—and dating back to 2007, when he began getting more deeply involved with the family-owned business founded by his grandfather—Brett Viberg has transformed the Victoria, British Columbia bootmaker from a noble, almost 90-year-old outfit making logging and other workboots for very specific buyers, into a full-scale cultural phenomenon that inspires passion, desire, bliss, and commotion.
And questions. Everyone’s got questions for Brett Viberg. I did too, and asked him all of them over the course of an hour-plus conversation—the entirety of which has been published below. Most interviews get trimmed and honed and chopped only down to the good stuff. With Brett, it was all the good stuff.
We started at Viberg’s beginning, ended with its future, and hit on a range of topics in between—including stitchdown vs. Goodyear welting, how his service boot changed the industry and inspired imitators, and why people care about Viberg so damn much.
Stitchdown: I’d love to start off with hearing your version of Viberg’s history.
Brett: My grandfather [Ed Viberg] started the actual company back in 1931 in Saskatchewan, mainly doing just work industrial product for the farming community—boots and stuff. As an immigrant he got given land from the government to move to Canada and they put all these people basically in a place where nobody really wanted to live, but there was a lot of land. And then as the logging boom hit in the 50s, he moved out to the west coast and started to make heavier logging boots. And at that time Vancouver had probably 30 shoe factories and Seattle probably a hundred—they were everywhere.
So he just traveled around for 25 years, maybe 10 years in each city following the work. As businesses who needed to be supplied with footwear moved, he moved with them. Then finally Viberg moved to Victoria in 1970, so we’ve been here for basically 50 years. My dad [Glen, pictured below] has been in the business for over 40, maybe 45 years. He still works in the factory. He’s not full time, but he’s still very hands-on. He’s wanting to slow down so it’s a matter of training new employees and passing off duties. Ultimately, I think he’s going to be in the factory for the rest of his life. It would be very hard for him to not be involved at all.
I got more involved in probably 2007. We had a really strong market in Japan at that point. Everybody did, from about 2007 to 2010. That was the last, most recent boom of Americana and rugged fashion. Before that it was the mid-90s, and then the cycle continues, right? And right now it’s in a lull. So when I got involved, it was kind of at its peak in Japan.
It never really peaked much in North America—at least in my mind it never really did. Europe had it because Red Wing went into Europe and set up a lot of stores, and Germany specifically, they bought into this more rugged ideal. And then Bread&&Butter got into its prime in 2010, 2011. And since then, there’s not been a trade show like that. It was just a monster, the amount of money spent for the show. Mind blowing.
When I got involved it was kind of like what White’s and Wesco Boots do in Japan now. It was a version of a stock industrial product that might have a wedge sole, and it might have different color thread or different color leather. It was very industrial heritage stuff. And then I got involved, and I developed a service boot and developed our 2030 last.
We were kind of ahead of the curve because at the time, none of the other brands that were in Japan decided to try to push out into Europe. And so I started doing stuff that was, in my mind, more commercial of a product than stuff that I would actually wear. Then about 2012 or 2013, I brought Guy [Ferguson, Viberg’s brand director] on, to really help do the North American market.
But before Guy, I had a good relationship, and still do, with Nigel Cabourn. He helped me a lot with getting into stores, partnerships with Barney’s, and all of these types of things pre-2012. Ever since then it’s just been about innovating and building out my factory so I that I have all of the machines to basically be able to do anything that I want.
Ultimately we have a good strong core business with our service boot that allows me to kind of create a test kitchen and try different things and see what works. Because I’m younger and I’m willing to try to do this type of stuff—a lot of older shoe companies, they’re way more traditional and they don’t experiment at all, really. Which kind of gives us an advantage in our market because nobody else is really doing it. Obviously our product is not for everybody, and that’s fine. But for the people that like it and understand it, I’m just always trying to keep it interesting.
Stitchdown: So to get a little more specific, when would you say that movement began towards a more—is it lifestyle, or fashion, or casual? I’m not sure what term you use. When did that begin and when did it begin, with you?
Brett: So, probably 2009 is when I first did the service boot. Ultimately what it comes comes down to, before Instagram, it was really only limited print magazines. You had stuff out of Japan. GQ was very mainstream. And there was nothing really in the way of a rugged ideal. Doing the service boot in 2009 was kind of ahead of it all. And then from that point on it was really about: how do I make it more approachable for people to wear? Because nobody wants to wear something that’s super clunky. And also just in looking at how do I keep raising the bar of my own manufacturing and try and make better-quality stuff.
The shift was then. And it doesn’t matter if we do full-on fashion, high fashion. Our primary business and what we do is still service boots and it’s a very utilitarian product. It’s built like a work boot, and it’s built like a logging boot. The internal DNA of it is the same. The shape of it and the external leathers are probably different. But essentially it’s built the same. And that’s the approach to it.
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Stitchdown: At this point, how much of your output is in true work boots, and how much of it is on the lifestyle/fashion side?
Brett: The work boots is not a growing industry. It’s probably like 15 percent? It’s not something that we are actually trying to grow. If I put you into a construction site, chances are you’re not going to want to wear a heavy boot. You’re going to want something that’s waterproof and light. The idea of the rugged work boot is not real—because it’s a selective market where you can sell it. It’s the pole climbers, the logging guys. And that’s ultimately it.
Stitchdown: How do you grow to meet customer demand when one of the seemingly explicit goals at Viberg is to stay small?
Brett: Well, we’re not trying to stay small. The industrial product is small. We’re scaling out in growing our capacity in the factory all the time. In the world of footwear we’re basically non-existent. We only do like fifty pair a day. There’s a lot of handwork involved. I have a shell cordovan service boot that’s like $1,300 retail, next to a logging boot with spikes in it, next to a Chelsea boot, next to a zipper boot, which can be beside a running shoe. So there’s so many different things that don’t allow it to actually be efficient, just by nature. Obviously if we just made service boots I could triple output, but that’s not really that interesting to me. Just the way that I decide to design or develop stuff automatically throws the factory sideways.
Stitchdown: What does make things interesting for you?
Brett: For the most part, when you look at design in anything— cars, furniture, clothing, footwear —everything is a reinterpretation of something historical. It’s work wear, it’s military. If it’s furniture, then it’s going to reflect mid-century modern. Everything is recycled and re-tweaked. So what’s interesting is not really the design of it. It’s more the execution of it and how complex it is internally. The details of it. If you look at something aesthetically, one thing might be more beautiful than the other, but the lesser could be more complicated internally, which makes it way more attractive.
I’m more of a purist because we have a factory and I grew up in a factory. So my mentality is more that it’s about the manufacturing process. Which is why I want to be able to make a variety of different things in the factory. Because you need to have all of those things in your artillery to succeed.
Stitchdown: Is it a challenge to balance working on things that interest you against your business goals? Or do you feel like they’re aligned?
Brett: No, they’re not aligned. But I have people that I’ve hired, people who were outside the shoe industry who I’ve brought in over the last two years or less basically to keep it in line. I do a lot of development and a lot of stuff that may or may not go anywhere, but in terms of overall goals, I have people that are experts in other areas that I’m not. That’s not my skill set.
I have the goals and we sit down and figure out how to get there. We schedule out all of our sampling, and then in the meantime, I always have other stuff in my back pocket to see if I can find a place to put it. Essentially it’s about having a really strong team. My plant manager here also does all the development with me. And then I have all my people in the office that are on the same team and we’re all headed in the same direction. We’re still quite small in that regard. So, you know, everybody wears a lot of hats.
Stitchdown: I want to make sure that I’ve got this right. Viberg exclusively used to do stitchdown construction and then started to make a lot more Goodyear welted products. But stitchdown’s made a big comeback for you. Is that accurate? Can you take me through all that?
Brett: So when we started making shoes in the 30s it was all nail-down, and then we got into stitchdown in the late 60s, 70s. But at the same time we were doing Goodyear welted product as well. It’s just that the stitchdown product was primarily for industrial, so that was the main forefront of production. Nailed-down product is very stiff. There’s not much flexibility. Even a stitchdown is very stiff. One is made like a hockey skate and the other, because it’s stitched down to the midsole, it has the opportunity to have more flex. The Goodyear welt was basically something that my grandpa brought in to do more western stuff in the late 60s and 70s. He was using the same machines that I had to source, all of the channel machines.
I wouldn’t say it’s primarily stitchdown now. All service boots are made stitchdown. A lot of stuff I make is almost a Goodyear welt because I don’t want it to be stitchdown—that’s not the intention of what I’m trying to do. Ultimately it’s just how we decide to produce it.
What it ultimately comes down to—if you do a 360 stitchdown like a Danner it’s more automated in that when you actually pull the leather tight and stick it to the midsole, there’s less room for error. The way that we do it, only the front is done, and the heel is nailed under. So the moment that you nail in the back, when you pull on it, you’re gonna run into the chance of it ripping. So if you’re using a lighter leather or shell cordovan or something like that which is delicate, it’s very, very difficult to make a stitchdown product, because it’s meant for a heavy oil-tanned leather.
Stitchdown: And you are doing stitchdown on shell now, correct?
Brett: We were always doing it. I was doing it a long time ago. And there was a point that we did maybe more that was Goodyear, but we still did a stitchdown. Now, if it’s a service boot it’s gotta be stitchdown. It doesn’t matter if it’s shell or not, that’s the process of it.
Stitchdown: Why is that?
Brett: It’s the iconic product that is always known as a stitchdown product. The silhouette and the shape and everything is always going to be associated with the double stitching, which would be the stitchdown. We’re probably the only company in the world that does a stitchdown product in shell cordovan on a semi-manufacturing level. On a bespoke level, I’m sure there’s a lot of people that do it. But in terms of doing actual size runs, I don’t think there’s anyone else. And if we get into specifics of Horween shell cordovan, then it’s even less. There’s just no other option.
Stitchdown: What do you see as the benefits of stitchdown, and what are the benefits of Goodyear welting?
Brett: The benefit of a stitchdown is that it wicks away water on the forefront of the shoe. If something hits the side of the shoe, water, whatever, it will fall down and fall off of the shoe because all of the leather has been stitched down. On a welted product, even if it’s a storm welt or a split welt, there’s still a chance that water can get underneath the welt. But the chances of that happening for the average consumer—that’s not going happen. If you’re in in the bush, or you’re walking through mud or a creek, then you’re gonna maybe notice a difference.
Realistically it’s an aesthetic thing, but I’m sure that if I had a Goodyear welted product with a double stitch on it, for the most part, I don’t think people would even know the difference. Because a lot of people associate the idea of the stitchdown but they don’t really understand. Obviously the hardcore guys know the difference, but I’m just talking in terms of the general public—they wouldn’t have any idea.
Stitchdown: People like the look.
Brett: Yeah, they like the look, but there’s the assumption that it’s better made. But one is not better than the other. It’s the exact same material. The Goodyear process is much, much more expensive to produce, it’s a lot more complicated, especially the way that we do it. With the stitchdown it’s more of an operational difficulty. If you’re wiping in the toe and doing all this kind of stuff, you’re much more prone to it ripping.
In terms of actual machinery involved, it’s easier to do a stitchdown than the Goodyear welt, because the machines for Goodyear welt are a sewing machine, like an inseam sewer that sews the welt on, and you’re going to pay like $40,000 for it, if not more. Your investment is huge. If you use Goodyear welt in a mass-production scenario and really jam product out you make tons of them.
But the same could be said for a Clark’s desert boot—they’re making 5,000 pair a day as well. So it’s not any different. It depends on the factory and how they use the machines and what material that goes into it. That’s ultimately what’s dictating cost, because that equals your volume and output.
Stitchdown: What makes your Goodyear welting process more complicated than somebody else’s?
Brett: The welt and the machines that we use to actually last the boot are not much different than what other people use. But the machines that I use to channel the insole are pre-1930s probably, pre-1940s. They’re old. They’re before extreme mass production of Goodyear welt. If you take apart an Alden or a Tricker’s or an Edward Green or John Lobb—it doesn’t matter. If you take it apart, you look at the insole and the bottom of the insole, it has like a rib glued on.
Essentially before that idea, there was the idea of let’s take the insole and cut an inside and outside lip, and then we’ll glue the lip together to make the attachment part for the welt. So what they’ve done is they’ve sped up the production process, by having a rib made and you glue it on and then you start the process instead of actually channeling the leather, and doing it the old way.
For me to say that it’s a lot better is not really a true statement. But it’s a purist’s idea. John Lobb and all these other companies make great shoes and there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s just that if I’m going to do it, I want to do it the most traditional way that I can because that’s how I want to make the shoe. And in doing so, it makes my production a lot slower.
Stitchdown: Got it. Are there any new leathers that you’re going to be working with in the future that you can talk about?
Brett: I have a lot of cordovan stuff in development with Horween, trying to get them to do stuff that they don’t normally do. Also a lot of deer and stuff like that they don’t normally do. And then I’m trying to do a lot more out of Japan, just because they do a lot of beautiful products, a lot of calfskins and different horse-type product.
I have a lot of different things in the works—mainly with Horween because Nick is around the same age as I am, and his dad is about the same age as my dad. So there’s a lot of similarities just in terms of the family business dynamic. And also he’s wanting to make interesting product, and he’s a fan of our products. So he’s more than willing to try stuff out. We’re trying to do more seasonal-based stuff, and trying to have a bit more functionality to manufacturing and making products. A lot of the stuff is all scheduled in and it’s just a matter of having to come out.
Stitchdown: As far as new interesting cordovan with Horween, is that just colors? Or what’s that look like?
Brett: It’s colors, it’s different prints. There’s random stuff that if I see it in the factory, I’ll ask them to try it out. Things that are not even related to a footwear product, but I want them to apply it to it, just because they have it in their factory. We’re releasing this tumbled shell cordovan. So basically it’s new shell that they put into a tumbling machine for me and tumble the shit out of it and made it look fairly used. The thing about shell cordovan is that once it creases that crease stays in the leather, just due to the properties of it.
So there’s a lot of interesting textures within that, which make it quite interesting. And they’ve had a lot of innovation on their end as well. It’ll be interesting to see how it all turns out. One of the issues is that when you try to develop something new, you have the choice between making just a few sides of leather, or just making the entire order. So usually I try to do a larger run of leather, so if it works out, then I can actually make it. Otherwise if you developed a small run of it, make samples, it could be a year and a half of development just because of the timeline.
The tumbled shell cordovan probably took almost a year to get together. So from the time that I approached Nick, we figured out what the limitations are and what they can actually do for me, and then getting the sample, and then them actually being able to run it through their factories—it took a long time. So that’s the problem. Basically the issue is that if I spent a year trying to get it, and it sells out in four minutes, there’s not any sort of a business to be had, right? It’s just basically almost like a one-off.
Stitchdown: Speaking of one-offs, can you clarify what Viberg’s made-to-order approach is currently and what it might be going forward? I know you have the event coming up in New York [ed note: this interview took place before the May New York MTO event and sample sale].
Brett: We used to do made to order online and the amount of work that it takes for somebody to do it by email…it’s just not worth it. If anything, I might open it up to, if somebody’s in Victoria, and wants to do a made-to-order within our visibility, then I would probably leave it open all the time.
But ultimately because it’s such a hands-on process, you really need to do it in person. It hasn’t happened very much, but it does happen—people want something that is just not what you want to make. You don’t want that idea out there because it’s not something that you are envisioning for your brand. It doesn’t matter what somebody is going to pay me to make something. If I don’t agree with it, you can’t buy it. It’s just not for sale. But I have yet to see something like that come through.
The only thing we don’t offer is shell cordovan on our made to order. Mainly because it’s difficult to get the leather, and we already sell out of the stuff we make. And if we make a mistake or have to re-cut something, it’s very expensive.
Stitchdown: Are your sample sales the only opportunity for people to buy Viberg seconds?
Brett: Yeah, pretty much. The thing is if somebody came to not the factory but to our offsite warehouse, where we have inventory of what’s on Viberg.com and all of our seconds, it’s not laid out for somebody to try it on. They’re basically in boxes, all mixed up, different sizes. It’s not until we decide to do a sample sale that we open it all up and try to categorize it.
Stitchdown: It’s probably fair to say that there’s no boot maker that’s more paid attention to and scrutinized than Viberg. How do you contend with that? Do you pay attention?
Brett: I used to, I guess. I don’t use social media anymore. I guess from getting older, any sort of issue, disagreements with people that have happened, whether it be with us or retail stores or whatever—everybody is struggling to make a living, and I think the more that you focus on anything negative, it’s not helpful to just trying to be successful. It’s the wrong way. The wrong approach, you know?
In terms of people disagreeing, everybody has their own idea. The main thing that I focus on is I want to have a factory in which everything that we make is made the same way. Everything is made from the same parts and the same DNA, whether it’s a running shoe, a logging boot, or whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s going to be made probably better than most stuff that you can buy. Whether or not somebody agrees with it, that’s not up to me to decide, so that’s okay.
Our product is not for everybody. I wish we could make dress shoes, like really nice dress shoes, but we can’t. I can try. But if I tried, I’d probably get scrutinized for trying because I should be just making service boots. And the guy that buys my logging boots is like, well, why are you doing that when we should be making logging boots? So it doesn’t matter which type of customer base, they’re always going to have an opinion on something.
Stitchdown: Are there things that you take from online chatter and employ in what you’re designing or how you construct things? Or is that not something that happens?
Brett: No, not really. I don’t read anything. On a design level, no. I just do what I do, and if it sells it sells, and if it doesn’t, then…whatever. Obviously the customer’s opinion is totally valid but one of the main things is that we offer such a variety of product. Even if I don’t have athletic stuff, and you take out this new idea, our product range is still huge. Even just with the other stuff, it still offers enough of a range to have criticism. So in terms of like design stuff, no.
It’s not really about design criticism, but it’s about the understanding our cost of product. If I could make the product cheaper, I would. But I can’t. My cost of labor, and my cost of rent, and my cost of materials—ultimately I can’t have a margin that’s a fashion margin because my shoe would be double the cost. Visvim’s margin is outrageous compared to what we would offer. Fashion brands, non-manufacturing brands, are very inflated.
But in terms of trying to bother to educate somebody on: well, the property tax in Victoria is this, and the rent is this, and our average labor cost is this. There’s a billion reasons that you can’t even bother to have a discussion around, because nobody cares. And that’s totally valid. Why would they care? They just want an affordable product, right?
So that’s something that is kind of there all the time. And I think it’s very hard to—if somebody comes to visit the factory, or any manufacturing, and understands the culture of a car manufacturer or clothing or whatever it is, they begin to see a world outside of themselves. And I think if somebody is able to see that, then they understand more of why things cost what they cost.
At the end of the day, we’re only making like 50 pair a day. And Red Wing and these other guys are doing like 2,000 or 3,000. In a week’s work they’ve done my entire year. So it’s just the comprehension of that, I don’t think it’s really there. It’s like a Lamborghini. They make a few hundred of this car, compared to Ford, which makes thousands. At the end of the day, manufacturing is a volume-based production. If you don’t get volume, you don’t get the cost down.
Stitchdown: Why do you think people care so much about Viberg specifically? It feels different than with other brands.
Brett: I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s very hard to talk about because it’s something that I’m a part of and have tried to create. It’s like at sample sales, you have a lineup. And it’s great for the brand. It’s amazing, because people want your products. But it’s really hard for me to see that, and it’s almost embarrassing. You’re so involved in something, that to understand that people have their own ideas about this thing, that you have no control over, and maybe they have their boots that they want and they get excited. But it’s a very weird thing, for me.
In terms of actually answering your question, I think going back to saying that creating a service boot, creating these things—actually I’m not going to say creating it. I’m going to say the execution of a stitchdown product in a marketplace that never had a stitchdown product that looked like this. That introduction to it, I think because we’re one of the first people to kind of introduce it, is really why. And also just because we’re always trying to do different things, so it kind of sets you apart. So maybe you could be talked about more, or people are just more aware of what you’re doing.
I work very hard to try to do what we do, and make the best product, but really it’s also helpful that we’re an older company where you you gain a lot of respect from industry people and the longevity of it.
Stitchdown: I completely understand if you don’t want to talk about this, and you may consider it ancient history. But I thought this could be a good opportunity to set the record straight around everything that happened with the dust-up a few years back with Truman Boots.
Brett: I mean, nothing really happened. Basically, pre-Truman doing stitchdown, [Vince Romano, founder of Truman Boot Co.] approached me for a lot of advice about manufacturing a stitchdown product, about machines, the stitching—a whole bunch of stuff. So I helped him out, and then essentially he sort of takes a version of what we were doing, and starts to sell it. So that’s basically it. So I just felt like a lot of trust was broken there because I was very helpful with him on machines and…yeah. The thing is, he’s not the only person that—it’s not the only time I’ve been burnt.
I don’t have any issues with him. I think what he’s doing is great. He’s trying to find his own foothold in the boot industry. But it’s not a good industry to get into to begin with. So if you can make it, then you’ve succeeded.
Stitchdown: And to confirm: Vince did not work for Viberg before he started Truman, correct?
Brett: No, no. I met him at a sample sale. He was buying some of our boots, I guess, looking at construction. Then after that conversation, I took the email to talk about the machines we use for our stitchdown product and this and that.
Stitchdown: The rumor is out there that he worked for you.
Brett: No, no. That’s basically it.
Stitchdown: Do you have a relationship with Vince at this point? Do you guys talk?
Brett: No, no. He’s busy doing his thing. This was back before he even went to Colorado. When he started doing stuff he was doing like handsewn welts. Not Goodyear, just welted product. I believe now his main shift is doing more Goodyear at an even lower price point. Taking kind of what he was doing with the stitchdown product but applying it to welt and trying to get costs down to find a foothold in the market that really nobody’s doing. It’s a bit more than Oak Street pricing, but with more creativity like him and myself. Because there’s nothing really like that.
Stitchdown: You mentioned that you’ve been burnt before. Do you feel like Viberg is a target to be knocked off?
Brett: You know, it’s not about knocking it off. The thing is, it’s very hard to go back and say, look, before, before X time, there really wasn’t this type of product until you brought it to market. But to have some sort of claim on that—you can’t. So it’s not about being knocked off. I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that. I don’t think we’re knocked off as a target. I just think the problem is that we’re doing stuff, and we’re trying to do it at such a high level that when somebody wants this type of product, there’s only a few places to look, right?
It kind of goes back to social media. If I use social media and I’m looking at stuff, there’s absolutely nothing on there that interests me. Because nobody’s trying to do anything different. It’s very, very rare to keep something or the process of something or the technique of it, that I’ve not seen, or that I’ve experienced. So basically what you’re looking at is junk. Not in terms of junk as in product, but it all looks the same. Everybody is posting the same idea.
Stitchdown: I’d love to talk about some larger industry stuff. I think one of the bigger problems that you’ve mentioned in the past is there’s a lack of skilled labor to make these products. What do you think can be done about that? Is there anything that can be done?
Brett: In terms of overall consumption and consumerism, the issue is that the world is stuck on the Walmart pricing structure. And so the moment that you want to bring back a North American or American production, you’re having to price out this type of cost that is just unobtainable. You just can’t do it. There’s a lot of shoe companies that are piecing out stuff and then bringing it in, and it’s “made in the USA.”
Stitchdown: Cost of production obviously is important, but back to the labor. Is there a lack of interest in younger people who can kind of continue this? Because this is something that I’m hearing from everybody.
Brett: The problem is that everyone is like, poor me, poor us, poor industry. But it’s really more like: the industrial revolution is over. I’m sorry, but it’s gone and it’s never going to come back, because of technology. Why would somebody bother to take the amount of time to learn a skilled trade when they can learn how to do coding, and probably would make more money and not have to get their hands dirty, right? The question is a lot bigger than that in terms of looking at the entire shift. Because even China’s going to have this happen in the next 15 to 20 years.
So eventually maybe it’ll come back to North America and there will be a full swing of produce less, produce better, localized goods. But I think it’s too easy to sit back and just play the pity card. Most of our people are Canadian, and then I have maybe six people that I brought in from the Dominican. But if you can import skilled labor, you can ultimately train somebody that has interest in the field. But in terms of actually setting up a school, a trade school for sewing or whatever, I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Stitchdown: So how do things get turned around?
Brett: I don’t think it does. We’re not looking at manufacturing. We’re looking at technology. Right? There’s a reason why Apple doesn’t make an iPhone in the USA. Why would they? Of course it can be done, but it’s not going to be done, because it’s too much work. And then ultimately they’re competing on labor costs, which cuts into their profit. You have all these corporate companies that are making so much money, it’s ridiculous. So it’s totally not sustainable if you’re going to have it in North America, or a first-world country for production.
Stitchdown: Do you think that maybe one of the keys is to get more people to care about what you mentioned earlier? That something is made well, and it’s made here?
Brett: I think that it’s just the generation—not the millennials, but the next generation—I think they’re more about global global issues than they are about quality issues. They’re like, I care about how something’s made, but I care more about the world being here in a hundred years. It’s a larger scale thing.
Stitchdown: I think that’s valid.
Brett: So it’s just stuff that I don’t even think about really, because it’s not something that I could ever really control. The only thing that you have control over of is your product. It’s right in front of you.
Stitchdown: Let’s jump back to some of the newer product. I know that you’ve had some sneakers before, but what excites you about that part of the range? The athletic footwear or the sneakers or whatever you’re calling them internally.
Brett: Personally, it’s just an added element to our manufacturing, which we didn’t have. It’s a gateway into doing more tech, hiking and tech, trail running, and all this kind of stuff. It opens a big door rather than just what looks like a fashion door, right? So ultimately that’s where I want to go, more in that direction. And it makes you relevant in the market. Whether or not you sell a ton of them or sell none of them, it’s the fact that you’re aware and honoring this change. John Lobb’s got these sneakers and Grenson’s got a whole range of sneakers. Who else? Church’s.
Stitchdown: J.M. Weston’s doing sneakers.
Brett: Yeah. So everybody’s doing it. Nobody’s actually making them themselves. And that’s kind of the thing. I’m doing this all in my own factory. And people are like why? Why do it in general, and why bother to make it in your factory? But if you’re doing something, you might as well do it yourself. It’s much too easy to ship it off to Italy or Portugal to get somebody to bang it out. But that sort of appreciation is not—it’s not there at all. There’s no award for trying to do it all in-house, but that’s beyond any sort of idea on the consumer level.
Stitchdown: I didn’t realize that the hiking and trail running is something that you’re moving towards, but it makes a lot of sense in terms of some of these new products. Is that short term or long term?
Brett: No, it should for Spring/Summer 2020. So with development right now on that, we’re trying to have it done for the shows in June, July and then probably production and release in early January. And ideally the goal would be to get a Gore license or something like that. But with the size of our company, it’ll take a lot of convincing to get some sort of a licensing agreement with them.
One of the things about doing a casual, athletic running shoe, whatever, is that there is no—what’s missing in our range is the gateway from an industrial product to this idea. Which exactly is trail running, a more tech hiker, so that there’s a crossover in between products that actually allows it to kind of make sense. So that’s kind of what I’m thinking anyways. But if it fails, it fails. And you know, whatever. I don’t really care. I thought I made myself a cool pair of shoes.
Stitchdown: The thing that I’m wondering about too is how you have, you know, Viberg-heads—and I know that you don’t pay attention to this, but when I read, I hear from people who don’t necessarily like things you’re doing. And they’re like: this isn’t the Viberg that I know. And then your average shoe buyer doesn’t know about Viberg at all. I know people who have 10 pairs of Red Wings who have never heard of Viberg, which is crazy to me, but it’s true. And then getting them to invest in a $400, $500 sneaker kind of seems like the trick.
Brett: So the question is about new product?
Stitchdown: I mean, that was just me kind of musing, more than anything.
Brett: The thing is if I made our running shoe without the fat sole on it, then there might be a lot less resistance. The sole is chunky, but it’s actually developed by Hi-Tec, a hiking company, for downhill running-type stuff. So there’s a whole point to it. It’s just that it’s now a fad. And everybody’s got some sort of version of it. But if I would have made it more heritage, and more like a New Balance, it just would’ve been like, why am I spending $450, $500 on a New Balance copy. The made-in-USA New Balances are like $300 anyway. And they’re making thousands of them a day. But the appreciation of a small production is kind of lost. Because of the aesthetic of what you’re looking at, they lose all of the core meaning behind it.
Stitchdown: All that frames it really well for me, and I think I understand a lot more about what these are now, and where things are going.
Brett: It’s about the manufacturing of it. It’s about making things that honor what is going on. And it’s also really trying to look at the company in terms of a brand, and a manufacturer, and not as one single thing. And saying that if I’m investing the time to make this, I guarantee you it will be as good as the other stuff that we make. It’s like, Ford makes a truck, but they make a car, and they make a sports car, but it somehow it’s accepted on an overall level. But when you get into most of the brands that are similar to us, they are very tightly put into a box and they can’t get out.
There’s an argument that it’s because you’re a heritage-type brand, a legacy brand. But it’s ultimately just because people have a grasp on what they think you should be. So it’s slowly just trying to make people understand that it’s more about you’re buying into Viberg, which is the belief of manufacturing physical and classic design. It’s an investment, it’s timeless, all of these types of things. And no matter what leaves the factory, no matter what it looks like, when it leaves the factory it will have this type of DNA inside of it.
I was calling it invisible luxury. You set all these products down on the table and they all look kind of the same, but if you cut them open and you start to look at it, that’s the difference. It’s like a suit. You cut it open and you see all the canvas and all of the layers, and all of a sudden the lightbulb goes off. So it’s the same mentality, but with a wide range of product.
Stitchdown: What and who are your biggest inspirations as a boot maker, product designer, businessman, anything else?
Brett: In terms of product? I don’t know. I’m just more impressed with marketing, with certain brands, how they manage to manipulate and brainwash around the brand, and people eat it up. It’s quite beautiful. And it’s something that I don’t have. Even like a Nike, it’s massive and it’s basically a marketing company. Are they innovative? Yeah, they’re innovative. But they’re more into the marketing—you just look at they way they do the drops and all this kind of stuff. And it’s the same with Kanye West, and Off White with Virgil and his new stuff.
They’ve really figured out how to be relevant and how to go above any sort of—well, obviously there’s criticism, and a lot of people don’t appreciate that they do. But they’ve got the masses, and it’s quite an amazing thing to see. It’s not really about product in general. A lot of this stuff, I don’t like the product, but you can’t not like the brand because if you had 10% of that, I’d be keeping my factory open and working seven days a week.
Stitchdown: Would you say that that’s something that you want more of, that you want to draw on? Or just something that you look at from afar and say, wow.
Brett: Well for the most part it’s all hype, right? It’s not real. You’re hyping up something that’s not—for me to hype something, it would have to be authentic. It has to develop more like a luxury brand hype, where you buy the Hermès bag and you know that it’s made this way. That’s the hype that you want. But you still need the eyes on your brand.
Whereas if you take Nike and you take whoever, it’s just about shock value, and people want the newest thing, and they want it as fast as the Instagram model. That’s how people operate, right? It’s the marriage of that concept mixed in with actual quality manufacturing and technique and heritage. There’s a fine line there that not many people are doing in terms of quality stuff.
Stitchdown: How would you sum up your vision for the future of Viberg? And maybe the best way to think about it is: how are you framing it every day to the people who work in your factory? What are you all seeing?
Brett: In terms of the future, it’s set by example, and it’s set by what I’m trying to develop and allowing the people that are here to be along for the ride, and understand that the goal is to keep setting the bar in the industry and eventually there will be financial reward for it. Hopefully.
And then on a consumer level, it’s making sure that that message is still presented somehow in your journals and your content and whatever you’re doing, and obviously the product will speak for itself. At the end of the day, all you have is product, in what we do. Because we have to manufacture. If we didn’t manufacture, then it’s all about marketing, and it’s all about the brand and storytelling. And then product is secondary.
Stitchdown: Last one, very random question. Did you do some acting when you were younger?
Brett: Yeah, I did some acting.
Stitchdown: I came across your IMDB page when I was just researching this interview, and there was a guy named Brett Viberg who looked an awful lot like you who starred in a few movies filmed in British Columbia.
Brett: Yeah, no late-night Cinemax stuff. I was involved in my family business from 18, 19. I worked in the factory, managed the factory. And then I left wanting to do acting, lived in LA for a bit. As an artist, or creative person, I thought that my only medium was acting.
And it wasn’t until I went to Japan that I understood what I had with my own factory and what could be done, that I understood that this same creative outlet can be in anything. The guy that makes the burrito is an artist if he’s really into it, and that’s great. And I think it’s everywhere. But yeah, at the time, I thought that acting had to be it. And I think that’s what a lot of people get stuck with. I did it for a bit and it’s an interesting industry, that’s for sure.
Stitchdown: Aren’t they all! Brett, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time, and just really being so thoughtful with all this.
Brett: No problem, it was good to have a chat.