Last week I published a preview of what Canadian boot maestro Viberg has planned for 2020—full of plenty information on release schedules, new models, and fun new leathers.
I also recently spoke at length with Viberg’s brand director Guy Ferguson. And while some of what we covered made its way into the preview story, in our chat we dug significantly deeper into those areas, and covered plenty of other ground as well, and I feel it presents a great idea of where Viberg’s planning on moving things through the end of 2019 and into next year.
Stitchdown: For everything throughout the course of 2020, or maybe for each individual drop, is there an overarching theme?
Guy: Moving into fall you’re going to see more of what I’d call a deeper concept behind the collection, maybe touching on some things that are a little more abstract reference points. I don’t particularly feel that exists with this spring/summer collection, but I do think it’s very cohesive.
In this one, you’ll see a narrative thread across materials, color, and then specifically some of the details that we’re incorporating quite heavily for the first time. One of the things that stands out is a sand-colored Dainite sole, which we’ve never done before. The idea with that is we were presenting a lot of light color tones, light suedes, and wanted to move away from the heavy heavy contrast of the black sole, so we brought in the custom sand-colored sole to use across a few of those styles.
You’ll see a lot of 360-degree storm welts, which is a relatively new things for us. Traditionally our Goodyear welted product has been essentially 270 degree. We’ve moved into being able to do the 360 stuff in a way that we feel good about. We initially avoided doing it because it’s really hard to use a leather heel counter and also do a 360 welt, but we’ve managed to figure out a way to preserve the heel counter material that we want, which is heavy leather, and still do the 360. I think that’s a look that people associate with brands like Tricker’s, and—I think Alden does more split welt—but it’s a look that people associate with other footwear manufacturers, but we’ve never touched on. And you’ll see quite a bit in this collection.
Another detail you’ll see throughout a lot of it is the smaller eyelet and speed hook combo. So, something that was not necessarily a signature Viberg look—going back a few years ago this would’ve been a big, big departure. And you’ll see it across maybe six or seven of the styles, which get the smaller eyelet and four speed hook combo, which is something we definitely wanted to focus on in combination with some of these materials and that 360 welt.
Stitchdown: Any reason for that?
Guy: Just aesthetics. Just for us, moving towards something that looks maybe a bit more refined. If you look at our core product, stuff that we make all year round. That’s a lot of unlined service boots, large eyelets, stitchdown construction. It’s stuff that a lot of our customers associate more as a signature product of ours. But it definitely sits more firmly on the casual side of things. It’s a little bit more rugged. I think with the seasonal collection it’s an opportunity for us to play with different concepts and step into different realms.
Stitchdown: Are there new realms, or maybe, new customers in mind with all this? Is there a specific goal? Or are you guys just making stuff you that like?
Guy: Sometimes it’s as simple as you think something’s going to look cool, and you want to try and do it. Or we’ve seen something and say, can we do a better version of this? Or hey, we like that, what’s the Viberg version of it? So in some ways it’s simply the goal of trying to execute something at a high level, and something that’s outside of our comfort zone. That’s one of the hallmarks of the brand is pushing outside the comfort zone constantly, and trying to make something that’s unexpected, or something that someone would look at and say, “I didn’t know Viberg could that” or “I don’t think of Viberg that way.” I think that’s very important to us.
Probably the style that hits on that the most would be the mule. I think it’s going to catch people off guard, but we’re all super excited about it.
Stitchdown: It’s cool.
Guy: It’s super cool. And I think it’s got a lot of versatility. People may look at it and say, this is weird. Or think it comes across as feminine, or too fashion, or they have some sort of negative connotation about it. But I think it’s one of these things that we put out and the way that it gets presented and styled, and people look at it and say, wow, that’s actually a really interesting shoe that I now want. But some of our customer base will need some context to understand that better.
I don’t like to think of it as a totally new customer. I like to think that our customer is on this progression with us. That’s the ideal. We’re not going to make something that goes, ok, we’re going to turn our back or alienate our customer base and reach someone completely new. Ideally we do see new people with these new styles, but we’re also hoping that there’s a trajectory that our core customer is following with us.
We’re not making these decisions to be controversial or make people feel like the brand is moving beyond them. We believe in these styles and these choices, and we’re hoping that there are some customers out there who bought an unlined Chromexcel service boot from us six years ago, and are now going, yeah, I want a suede mule.
Stitchdown: Makes sense. And it seems like with the Spring/Summer collection, there’s a lot of really wearable stuff. Outside maybe the storm suede and the veg tanned cowhide, there’s nothing really wild our out there with the leathers, especially.
Guy: Personally I don’t think there’s anything in this collection that kind of went too crazy. This idea of a seasonal collection is relatively new to us. We’ve been doing trade shows for almost 10 years, and traditionally in the past we’ve sort of presented a collection of recent ideas. It’s been less thematic, there’s been less of a thread through it. It was more just, here’s some new materials we got, here’s something we’ve been tinkering with.
And because almost all of our wholesale business was custom, that was serving as more of a reference point for our wholesale customer. It was never meant to be something you were really buying off the shelf. Some of the feedback we’ve heard from retailers we’ve been working with for a long time that this presentation felt almost conservative, because there really weren’t those wild one-off things that we kind of know are never going into production. This year, it was meant to be something that a shop could walk into and say, I see six styles on the shelf that I want in my store.
I don’t like to use the word conservative, but I would say it’s accessible. I don’t think there’s anything in here that is a huge reach for our customer to wear.
Stitchdown: As far as Fall/Winter 2020 goes, how much do you have mapped out at this point? Is there anything you can give a little preview on? And how it might be different?
Guy: It’s hard to say anything too concrete. We have samples in production. But what we do is, we produce a bunch of stuff, we see what we like, we tweak things. We have to have all that prepared within the next three months, working back from the next market season, and go ok, this all has to be complete, and photographed, and do all the work before that.
Without getting too-too specific, and committing to things that might not end up getting produced, you’re going to see a different approach in terms of material, and the weight of the product. If you look at Spring/Summer, you’re seeing a lot suedes, a lot of light tones, the light colored sole, the natural welt, and then you’ve got these colors like camel and bamboo and storm. They’re telling a different story. And you’re going to see things shift towards heavier profiles, heavier silhouettes, different color pallets, and then hopefully there are a couple surprises in there too, some things that we’re working on that will be able to debut around them as well.
Stitchdown: And there’s a lot of stuff in the spring collection that’s lined. Any reason?
Guy: I would say every single thing, except for three of the styles in that Japanese cowhide and the Scout boots, basically everything else is a lined pattern. Certain patterns have to be lined, the way that the heel counter is held in place. It’s simply a manufacturing thing. Lined patterns need the lining, and can often only be produced with the lining, and that often informs the material decision. The Japanese cowhide is a heavier weight leather, so it was a good choice for stitchdown and unlined construction, whereas the calfskins and the suedes are definitely more suited to a lined, welted product.
Stitchdown: I’d love to talk about that Japanese cowhide. It was definitely one of the more interesting leathers in the collection. Do you have any thoughts in terms of uniqueness and grain variation, patina potential, and all that?
Guy: I think it ticks a lot of the boxes that our customers seem to be drawn to. One is that it’s a new material for us. It’s a natural leather, which to be clear means it’s undyed. So you’re going to see color variation because of that. It’s vegetable tanned you’re going to see a lot of different character imperfections. It’s also shrunken grain, so you’ll see you’ll see a lot of variance in texture. I think if you look at the Hiker in it, it looks quite smooth. And then you go to one of the service boots and you’re getting a lot of visible grain and that’s just something that’s sometimes hard to communicate.
Of course there’s variance in a natural leather, especially that is produced naturally without any chemicals. And that’s hide to hide for sure, but even within a single hide. We don’t cut every piece of hide, but you have areas closer to the spine that usually have a smoother grain. And that’s usually heavier leather and has less stretch to it.
And then as you sort of get to the outer edges, neck, stomach, areas that you generally avoid, you’ll start to see the grain really shift and the structure and temper of the leather shift as well. So these types of leathers just sit on the polar opposite end of the spectrum of something like a box calf or even Chromexcel, which are just more finished, more uniform.
Stitchdown: Right. On the service boot, even panel to panel there were a lot of variations. It’s pretty cool.
Guy: Yes. We’ve worked with leathers like this in the past, and it just puts more onus on us to communicate the nature of the products to the customer, so that expectations can be met.
Stitchdown: The storm suede was the other interesting one, that, on the scale of this collection, that was jarring in a positive way, and really interesting. And crazily soft too. Do you have thoughts on that one?
Guy: So if you look at the suedes throughout this collection, they’re all the same article, C.F. Stead’s Janus calf, which is their flagship suede. For them that’s the pinnacle of not just what they produce, but they feel that this is the best suede product made right now, period. It’s very specific skins that get chosen. It’s full grain. It’s processed for the suede side.
You kind of nailed it—it has this insanely luxurious soft feel. You pick up one of those shoes and immediately it just feel luxurious, it feels expensive. It’s got this amazing tactile quality. The storm I think stands out color-wise. And part of why I would say that you’re drawn to it and categorize it as something that stands apart in the collection, is that it’s really hard for tanneries to do grey tones, especially depending on the types of leathers. It’s actually a little easier with suedes, but it can be really difficult to nail a true cool grey. You see a lot of grey tones come out really brown, and it’s just sort of the nature of hand-dying. And especially with vegetable-tanned leathers and grain-side stuff, it’s really hard to combat the base tone of the leather. So I think anytime you see a grey like this—and I think it’s probably one of the truest, nicest expressions of a grey-tone letter that we’ve ever had—it really jumps out at you. We’re used to seeing olives and browns and tans, and blacks and blues even, which are all easier colors to achieve.
And then if you look at the styles will be presented, there are two sitting on top of a white Morflex sole, and that really, really pops and I think it brings out the tone of the grey. I really like the Hiker. That contrast between the white wedge sole, the natural welt, the red lace, this like pale kind of mousey grey, I think that’s a really standout combo.
Stitchdown: Do you have any idea what it looks like as it starts to get beat up?
Guy: Suedes don’t patina in the way that say, a grain-side, vegetable-tanned leather does. Suedes are more about, do you want to let them get dirty or do you want to keep them looking as clean as possible? That’s the spectrum. So for something this light colored, we always like the reference of the dirty buck, the classic beat up nubuck shoe. It’s something where it’s delicate and it’s thought of as something high maintenance, but there’s a casualness to it, and letting it develop a little bit of grit and grime. So for me personally, and I would say generally the perspective of the brand, is a little bit more on the casual side in terms of care. If I get a light colored suede shoe like this, I’m not going to baby it. I don’t want it to get ruined, but I definitely like the idea of seeing it pick up a little bit of character and looking lived in.
Stitchdown: So I’d love to talk about the new mule: how it was developed, how long it took, anything interesting that you ran into along the way?
Guy: So the mules were 100% developed for a collaboration with our friend James in Japan, who runs two magazines, one called THE NEW ORDER, and one called her. James had a pretty specific idea that he wanted something like that, a sort of backless, slip-on mule style shoe. And very specifically he wanted to incorporate these Western-style conchos, like an embellished medallion that you’d see on a cowboy boot. They’re something that you see in contemporary Japanese fashion, a lot of brands will reference those types of details.
So we sourced on some of those and we produced a couple different samples, but it ended up being an all black leather with these Western conchos on the top part of the vamp. And we thought it was cool, very different than anything we normally produce, and really fit the vibe of the magazine and his market in Japan.
And the response was really good. It wasn’t necessarily something that we were actively working on already, but it certainly was within our current thinking. It fit with some of the stuff that we’d been working on and tinkering with. So we decided to make a stripped-down version without the hardware, and bring it into the collection as soon as possible. We all felt very good about it. There have been development processes that have taken three to five years for us on new products, but this was something where we felt like we nailed it pretty quickly and felt good about going to production within about a six month-ish process, which is quite quick for us.
Stitchdown: So the mule and the trail runner are the only two all-new shoes for 2020?
Guy: In this collection, I would say the mule is the only truly new thing for sure. The trail runner we’re hoping ends up coming out for spring, but we purposely left it out of the line sheet, and it’s not available to order for our wholesalers in the same sort of guaranteed way that the rest of this collection is. It’s more like if we get everything exactly the way we want then we’ll try to launch it for spring. But it’s less of a guarantee. That one is I would say is very much still a work in progress.
Stitchdown: OK. Interesting. And going back to when I spoke to Brett last, he previewed the idea of the trail runner being something that was being moved towards, especially with the sneaker paving the way. Do you have any other thoughts on it? And what are some things you’re excited about with it?
Guy: The idea with it is being able to participate in something that we feel is a relevant footwear category right now. You’re already seeing a lot of it, and you’re going to see a lot more of it over the next year. But I think given our roots, being able to sort of sit in this outdoor category that we’ve been in traditionally with our hiking boots and our more industrial products, it makes sense. And then having transitioned to launching an athletic program over the last year or two, I think it made sense to try and combine those. I think some people look at it and it feels like a leap for our brand. But I actually don’t think so at all.
I think a bigger leap was producing a fully made in Canada sneaker, and now that we have the capabilities to do that, it’s more about playing more in that category and being able to touch on different reference points and styles, and if you look at the leaders in that realm right now, Salomon or Arc’Teryx, they’re sort of being born out of the same environment and region that Viberg is based in. It makes sense to be in the Pacific Northwest and the west coast of Canada and be able to produce a sort of athletic trail-running shoe like that. So that seems like a natural fit for me. And it just so happened that it’s going to be a very relevant style over the next year or two.
It just comes back to being able to do stuff that we feel good about, being able to try it out, being able to experiment, not feeling like there’s anything that we can’t put our spin on. We don’t want to look at something and go, “Oh that’s cool. But it’s not us.” Why can’t it be? Why can’t we make it Viberg product? You look at it, and it’s a trail running shoe, and you go, ok that’s not Viberg. But then you start to break it down, and you see, okay, there’s a leather insole. It’s made in Canada. There’s a custom last developed for it. There are full grain leather overlays. And then you’re like ok, wait a second, this isn’t just a normal version of this shoe.
Stitchdown: And are you hoping to sell it to people who are actually using it for hardcore trail running? Or is it more adjacent to that?
Guy: Probably not. Adjacent is a good word. The hardcore trail running sector, and I have a lot of friends who are very much in that world, it’s too specific. They need things like breathability and flexibility and they’re wearing a shoe specific to their gait and their pace and all of these things—we can’t compete. We’re going to have one product in that category where the brand that’s really focused so that is going to have a variety of solutions for that particular runner. So I don’t think we’re going to steal any of Salomon’s technical running business. The idea more is referencing that point as a design inspiration and also capturing some of the functionality.
Stitchdown: Switching away from the Spring collections. Do you know how often you’re going to be doing one-off releases throughout the end of this year into next year, on Viberg.com?
Guy: That’s something that we will definitely be doing with regularity. I don’t want to get too specific, but there’s always going to be an approximately once a month-ish type of frequency. There’s going to continue to be the shell cordovan preorders with a lot of regularity. And then between now and the end of the year I guess I can say that there are probably going to be two small, more conceptual packs of product that release that are outside of this seasonal system and outside of our core collection.
They’ll be more one-off things that we won’t necessarily offer to other retailers, because we want to produce a small quantity, and present something very very specific. It ties nicely to what you were pointing out earlier with this spring/summer collection looking fairly accessible, and maybe a little bit safe and refined and traditional. Part of that is we want it to be a really easy entry point, and something that our customers really understand and relate to.
But then we’re going to have the opportunity to release these smaller collections that can really step outside of that, and touch on a very specific theme or material or reference point. So you’ll see you’ll see more of that from us, and tentatively there will be two of those between now and the end of the year. And then next year, they’ll be peppered in. We’re not that far ahead on that for next year, but they’ll continue to happen, maybe a couple a year kind of thing.
Stitchdown: And those will…well, you said it in a different way, but those will kind of go for it a little more? In the way that a lot of people love Viberg for doing?
Guy: Yes I think so. It’s not like it’s just going to be crazy stuff, but it’s it’s going to be more focused. There will be a stronger narrative around those those drops. There will be either a partner alongside of it, or a very specific reference point. But they’ll just allow us to do something more conceptual—it doesn’t necessarily mean the product will be crazy. Maybe on some, it gets a little bit more out there. But the idea is that it’s just more freedom in presenting something with a strong concept. There are some abstract inspirations in the spring summer collection. But really it was about a really nice pleasing color palette, some new materials, some more refined details. We didn’t pull a movie from 1960 and go, ok we’re going to base it all around this specific scene. There was nothing like that.
Smaller collections will allow us to sort of explore things like that, where we can say, here’s a specific era where this was being made it made, this is a really cool piece of history. Or maybe a tannery has a product that is a little bit weirder that they’re experimenting with and we can kind of jump in and interpret it with them, opportunities like that.
Stitchdown: Correct me if I’m wrong on this, but it definitely seems like like the ramp with your Goodyear welt production in full swing, and there’s a lot more Goodyear welt products in spring/summer, especially the Derby shoes and the Derby boots. Would you say that’s the case?
Guy: You’re seeing more representation of the styles, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to more production. We make and sell a ton of our basic stitchdown service boots. That’s still the majority of what goes to the factory, always. So if you look at the seasonal collection, you might be like, oh there’s hardly anything stitchdown here. Well, we don’t even know what quantities any of those are going to get produced in. We know that we’re going to produce them for Viberg.com, but until we close our books for the wholesale season, we don’t know how deep any of those styles are getting bought into on a wholesale level. So just because you see 25 welted products being presented doesn’t mean that there’s not still going to be 80 percent stitchdown moving through the factory.
I think a lot of the customers that you’re writing for, there’s no story about a brown Chromexcel service boot anymore, because they saw it eight years ago. But that’s still 100 percent the most produced and sold product that we that we make.
Stitchdown: Makes a ton of sense. That Derby boot was another interesting one to me. It’s kind of a simplified service boot.
Guy: We originally launched it a couple years ago, for a while we were doing quite a few of our shell pre-releases in that pattern, and felt like it was kind of a natural match.
Obviously there’s huge demand for stitchdown service boots and we’ve moved back to that recently. But the Derby boot is just a really simple, elegant, refined boot. I actually think it doesn’t get enough attention. I think for a lot of people if you’re not really into it, you look at it and you’re like, oh I don’t even get the difference from the service boot. I mean, we have people who look at the Scout and a service boot they don’t understand how it’s different. So if you’re a real casual user, ok, so it’s a lace up boot. But in my mind there are a few details on it that really separate it. I really like it, and I’m happy that it has a larger representation in this collection.
Stitchdown: I also saw the Lactae Hevea outsoles on on the Chelsea boot—they looked very cool. So you’re playing around with those. Is there anything else you’re planning on using those on?
Guy: It’s kind of a one-off in the collection right now. And that’s partly just due to availability. We couldn’t put it across everything just in terms of inventory of that sole. But we want to do more with them. Even just their ideals as a producer are really aligned with us. And I think it’s a really neat product and so the idea is to trickle it out more, hopefully our customers like it and there’s people who kinda get it, and then we can up the volume with them.
Stitchdown: Excellent, good stuff Guy. Big thanks for the time.