At 8am on a brisk day in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the sample sale line is already many dozens deep.
Once the teeming masses get waved in, small group by small group, they flock. A few years back, one guy brought a giant blue Ikea bag to haul his mountain of spoils; now, Ikea bags themselves have become a trend. The unusually well-attired people are here for boots made by Viberg, the 88-year-old Canadian company that originally made logging boots before reinventing itself as the creator of a lusted-after range of lifestyle footwear built exactly the same way as always. Viberg also sells engineer boots, and some very beautiful Chelsea boots, and beginning recently, even sneakers. But these people, more than anything, are here for Service Boots.
Millimeters can make or break the pattern of any boot—both in terms of comfort and how a boot is constructed, and certainly in terms of aesthetics. Outside the sample sale, dozens of pairs of $700, or $900, or even $1400 Viberg boots consistently sell out in days or hours, sometimes even minutes. In other words: Viberg is very good at millimeters.
Viberg’s original boot, produced in the 1930s, shares definite design similarities with today’s Service Boot. It’s also not the same boot at all. The road from there to here was a jagged one, but there’s little question today that the Viberg Service Boot is as close to an exercise in design perfection as boots can ever hope to achieve—one that’s created an entirely new market and inspired imitators galore.
To get to the bottom of how it all happened, I spent hours on the phone and in person over the last few months with Brett Viberg, the Viberg’s founder’s grandson who runs the operation today, as well as Brett’s No. 2, Guy Ferguson. I also spoke with a number of people whose professional lives became intertwined with Viberg’s Service Boot over the years.
This is the story of the Viberg Service Boot.
The Origins of the Service Boot
In 1931, Edwin Viberg started himself a boot company in Saskatchewan, Canada. Originally, Ed produced boots for farmers, and anyone else looking for a hardy, long-lasting, all-around work boot. Viberg’s first model: a boot with an extremely similar pattern to today’s Service Boot.
“It was a work boot for farming, an ankle boot,” said Brett, explaining that it was based on a military boot whose pattern knew almost no boundaries. “You had the American military, Canadian military, Japanese, Australian—everyone had that exact same look. The backstay and the counter,” referring to the piece of leather that wraps the heel on a boot, “is all one, and then you’ve got the quarters, and the vamp. We have a factory photo from the 1930s with my grandfather. Same exact counter.”
At the tail end of the 1940’s, war over, Ed Viberg moved his operations to Prince George, British Columbia—where there were an awful lot of trees. Viberg Boot outfitted the feet of the loggers whose job was to scale them. Comfortably settling into that niche, Viberg made hardcore boots for people with hardcore jobs. And for decades, outside of developing important new technologies including replaceable spikes for logging boots, things at Viberg remained pretty much the same. Until Japan happened.
In 2006 and 2007, Brett started spending more time in Japan and other parts of Asia, where his father Glenn Viberg—who still works at the Viberg factory to this day, finishing every boot that comes off the line—had been fanning the flames of an emerging new market. Japanese boot-buyers were on an Americana kick (yes, Viberg is Canadian…), and religiously obsess over the highest quality goods they can get their hands on. Those dual forces drove them towards products like Viberg’s—a potent cocktail of heritage, impeccable construction, and style that was being adapted for their tastes with every new release.
Viberg’s Japanese-market boots at the time were a far cry from today’s Service Boots. In addition to their Short Shift engineer, Hiker, and Bobcat boots, the lineup was also highlighted by countless low styles, including variations on Viberg’s 145 and 245 oxford shoes, often found mounted on a thick white foam rubber wedge outsole.
“At the time we were making the Service Boot as a standard product, but as an 8-inch workboot with a Packer toe, a higher heel, just a typical western industrial,” Brett said. “Looking through a bunch of boxes in our office, I found a picture of our original Service Boot, which made the lightbulb go off with what we had all along.”
“It was probably 2008 when I figured it out.”
“It” means envisioning the beginnings of today’s Service Boot: a six-inch boot more attuned for daily lifestyle wear in non-work conditions.
Brett got his hands on a couple lasts from British lastmaker Springline and tinkered nonstop, eventually making an embryonic Service Boot sample to take to trade supershow Bread & Butter in Berlin. The boot was much higher, eight inches, with a pull tab as part of the heel counter. Did they sell? “Not one pair.”
Next came Viberg’s 310 last, a bold look if there ever was one. Brett took the Springline last that was distinguished by a toe that was raised significantly off the ground when the boot sat flat (“It was fucking sprung”), and combined it with the toe from a Dayton Toughie boot last that featured a defiantly bumped box toe, almost like jagged mountain peak. “It was a Frankenstein of putting lasts together and hoping it turns out ok.”
It’s hard to call the Viberg 310 Service Boot anything but distinctive. Another way to put it: it’s a goddamned monster. “They get attention,” said Brett. “People who appreciate footwear will say ‘what the fuck are those?’” The comparatively narrow heel running up to a generously wide forefoot and that still very fucking sprung toe made for a showstopping boot that couldn’t help but grab attention.
Samples started to come off the line, and then small production runs—four or six boots, headed to shops in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan. Around that time, the name started to take shape as well. Over the years, Service Boots in slightly different forms were also dubbed the 1940s Service Boot, the 1950 Service Boot (the main difference between the two being the eyelet pattern), and the Army Boot. 2011-ish wedge sole iterations can even be found being referred to the Servicemen Boot. But whatever it was termed at whatever time, the Viberg Service Boot had most definitely been born. Now it was time for it to evolve.
The Stitchdown Revolution and the 2030 Last
Today, Viberg’s Service Boot is as known as much for its silhouette as its now-iconic stitchdown construction: two parallel rows of stitching that attach the flanged-out upper leather to the outsole.
At the outset, all 310 Viberg Service Boots were made with naildown construction, “one of the simplest techniques to make a shoe in terms of machinery,” according to Brett—all you need is a hammer and nails, aside from the last and shoe upper. “That allows it to be repaired on-site, be it at a work site or during a battle, so you can literally nail on the sole when it’s worn out and keep going.”
310 Service Boots were birthed as naildown products, and between 2009 and 2010, they caught on in the Japanese market Brett was so familiar with, as well as a few stores in Germany like Kentaurus Denimshop, 14 oz., and Uwe van Afferden, plus “maybe some random Scandinavian stores and a few workwear guys in England.” In North America, you still basically had to be a logger to have heard of Viberg. But eventually Brett sampled and introduced a new construction method for Service Boots, another employed by a small handful of stalwart Pacific Northwest logging boot companies, and which Viberg had been deploying on other Asian-market products: stitchdown.
“The original idea for the Service Boot was not for stitchdown construction, because it was just too hard for people to understand what the hell they were looking at,” Brett said. “They were so used to a welted product. If you go back to that time, other than Clark’s or somebody doing stitchdown with a single stitch, nobody was really doing a double stitch on the sole.”
“So when you present this new idea, stores would say ‘it looks too wide, it looks too chunky, it’s not a good look, it’s not for us.’ That was basically all of the feedback I had when it came out—people didn’t understand why it had a double stitch when Red Wing only had one row. It was a struggle to get people to understand the stitching, because it didn’t exist. So there was a lot of education on the benefits of it. It took probably a good three years.”
While that education was being doled out, Brett began working on a new last: what eventually became the 2030, Viberg’s most iconic. The 2030 last couldn’t be more different than the 310. Ask 10 people who know really know their boots—and another 10 who don’t—and there’s a solid chance every one of them will describe the 2030 as “sleek,” “elegant,” or both. It’s largely defined by a tapered, almond-shaped toe and a rare-for-a-boot, appealingly low profile.
The 2030 began its life as a Canadian uniform service last—it birthed parade shoes for the Canadian military. “It was standard issue for Canadian manufacturers, a lot like the Munson last,” the famed US military boot last. “You get the contract, you get the last, and you start making the boots,” Brett said.
Unlike with the 310 last (where he added one), Brett removed the bump in the toe from the military last. “I came across this vintage last, and we changed the shape—it was still a bit too thick, and the depth of the toe box was a bit too big,” which was largely because the last was designed to fit every type of foot someone in the military might have. “So we thinned it out to make it more sleek.”
While it was also used on some early 310 models, Brett’s commitment to deploying stitchdown construction on the Service Boot in many ways arose from a functional, 2030 last-related issue.
“I came up with the idea of doing it without a structured toe, so it was soft and would flatten like a pancake, and look worn in,” Brett said. “With a welted product, everything is pulled under, so it’s a lot tighter. When you take the box toe out of a welted boot, it just goes to complete nothing.”
“But with stitchdown, you still have a bit of shape around where the insole is, because you have the two rows of stitching to tighten and reinforce where the insole is. So it gives a bit more structure and stability to it when you collapse the toe.”
The 2030 last was certainly an aesthetic choice specifically geared towards a North American market whose jeans were tightening as their wallets began to bulge post-recession. But it was also personal. “At the time, my own style was changing. I don’t want to keep wearing rigid jeans and very wide workwear. I was starting to get more into 3sixteen-type denim, a more tapered look. And if you wear a super chunky shoe it doesn’t look that great. So I was trying to find something that I could make and wear that looked a bit more commercial.”
Brett sampled a few versions of the 2030-last Service Boot, and in August of 2010, announced it on Viberg’s WordPress blog, on which he largely posted pictures of boots and chatted with customers about orders, one by one. It featured Merlot Chromexcel leather from Horween, a perforated cap toe, and extended tongue. “Service boot — new last — sample”, the headline read.
Introducing: Guy Ferguson and the 4 Horsemen Service Boot
Back in 2008, Guy Ferguson was working as a manager and buyer at 4 Horsemen, a fashion-forward men’s shop in Victoria, British Columbia, situated just blocks from Viberg’s factory at the time. They would see Vibergs in Japanese fashion magazines like Free & Easy, but any efforts to buy boots from Viberg, to sell in the shop, ran smack into a wall.
I’m gonna let Guy take it from here for a minute.
“Miles, the 4 Horsemen owner, was like, ‘How is this thing being made three blocks away, but we can’t buy it?’ You walk into the shop, the product isn’t there, and nobody knows what you’re talking about. So Miles started going in there and bugging them,” Guy recalls. “I now know that he was probably talking to Brett’s mom, and pulling out these Japanese magazines and saying ‘What’s this? How can we get this?’ And they were just like, ‘I don’t know. We don’t know anything about that.'”
“One night I’m working in the shop, and this Japanese guy Kyo comes in wearing engineer boots and a full hickory striped jumpsuit, like he had just stepped out of one of these magazines. He pulls off his boot and he explains that he works at Viberg. We’re showing him Japanese magazines and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I made that boot!'”
“And we say, ‘Well, we wish we could be selling Viberg.” And Kyo says, ‘I’ll tell the owner’s son to come in.'”
“Pretty soon after that, Brett just walks into the shop. ‘I’m Brett, I’m from Viberg.’ And I say, ‘Well we really want to do something with you.’ And Brett’s like, ‘Ok, sure.’ So I ask what the minimum is. And Brett says, ‘One pair.’ I’m like, ‘You mean, we can just make one pair of boots whenever we want?’ ‘Yeah, of course.'”
“We start looking into it. At the time, everything was going really, really slim. We were selling APC New Cure denim, and everyone was looking for this really sleek silhouette. So there wasn’t really a demand in North America for what Viberg was doing in Japan, where everyone was wearing fatigue pants and chunky shoes.”
“We can appreciate it, and the craftsmanship. But is our customer going to walk in and buy a Bobcat on a Vibram 2021 sole and a super-heavy midsole? No. It’ll look insane with the clothing we’re selling. These were truly workboots at the time, just with a slightly different leather, and a slightly different sole. But they were still all 110 last, everything we got shown.”
“We started to go into their weird samples for Japan, and Brett let us put some on display in the shop, so we could talk to people about the brand, and say we were developing a product with them. And everyone is like, why is the sole so chunky, why is the shoe so wide, why is it so heavy?”
“We kept on Brett: have you thought of something slimmer? And Brett said, ‘Well actually, l’m working on something like that right now. And you guys could be the first ones to use it.’ And that ended up being the Service Boot on the 2030 last.”
“Brett came in one day with the sample, in merlot Chromexcel from Chicago’s Horween tannery. And I said, ‘Holy shit. This is the shape. This is it. This is exactly what we’re looking for.’ It wasn’t the right color, and we didn’t want the toe cap. But he nailed it.”
“Brett came back in with a swatch book, which was really limited, and we ended up choosing the black water buffalo because the back side of it brushed up in a really nice way, it had some really nice nap to it, and the smooth side had that slight grain. We wanted to play with texture, we wanted to use the same leather in different ways.”
“We chose a natural midsole, which at the time was a pretty crazy thing to put on a black boot. When I saw the sample, I said, ‘This is insane looking.’ It didn’t look like anything else I’d seen before.” The final specs: a black-on-black number with a roughout buffalo leather heel counter and vamp, and a smooth buffalo leather quarter, Vibram 269 outsole, Cat’s Paw heel, and a thin, extended tongue.
“Brett made a sample, and we were all really happy with it. But then we said, ‘Oh my god we just made a $600 boot. Good thing we only have to make one at a time.’ So we committed to I think 10 or 12 pair. It seemed like a terrible decision. We’re not going to sell a single pair. This is absurd. No one cares about this but us.”
The price: $595, which raised questions, including from one Styleforum commenter: “They look good, but I’m sure the quality can’t be THAT much greater than Red Wing or a similar brand. The prices are all absurd and I think people are trendhopping b/c Red Wing is so beyond ubiquitous.”
But 4 Horsemen customers who saw the sample sitting in the shop got very excited indeed—”People just were awed,” said Guy—so awed that they forgot about the price. “They day the boots came in, in late 2010, we had somebody waiting for the store to open,” Guy remembers. “We were like, what the hell is going on?”
In 2010, Viberg didn’t have an e-commerce website; just that WordPress blog. But aside from Victoria locals, a different corner of the pre-Instagram internet caught wind of the boot: forums like Styleforum and Superfuture, plus a few largely sneaker-focused men’s fashion blogs including Hypebeast.
“For the first couple years, the Service Boot was super-niche,” said Jason Pecarich, owner of Seattle heritage shop Division Road, which stocks likely the most complete selection of Viberg boots anywhere in the world. “Stockists were ordering four pair, six pair. I imagine there were probably like 100 geeks sitting around looking at Service Boots, and we all bought up a very small run of something. It was about as niche as it could get.”
But within that boot-geek group, photos of the 4 Horsemen boots proliferated, and while sometimes mixed (one comment: “looks nice, stitching is bad”), the reaction was largely quite positive: this boot was unlike anything anybody had seen before. But when they saw it, they knew they needed it.
“I was calling Brett so excited, saying, we need more,” said Guy. “So we made four more. And then we made six more. And then 10 more. We were re-ordering that boot for over a year. Maybe it felt like more at the time, but I feel like we must have produced somewhere between 60 to 100 pair of that boot. Maybe it was 50. Whatever it was, it was huge even by today’s numbers.”
“I remember my first trip to New York market week, every booth we stopped at, people were like, ‘what the hell are those? What are those boots??’ It felt like something truly new at the time, which is crazy to think about how ubiquitous the shape and all those details are now.”
The Service Boot had arrived.
More 2030 stitchdown Service Boots came off the line. One with a brogued toe cap and white Vibram Christy wedge sole in mocha oil tan leather, plus extremely work-boot-y taslan laces, for British shop Superdenim. Another in brown calfskin with brogue detailing on the toe cap and heel counter—still mounted on a wedge.
[Side note: while you can certainly still get them today, including right here, the wedge sole was a major part of the 2030 Service Boot at its outset, and for a not short time after. Especially given that, it’s pretty remarkable how effectively the original sample and 4 Horsemen boot foretold the dressier, largely Dainite-soled boot it would ultimately become.]
The Barney’s Moment
All the while, Viberg was scoring bigger and higher-end retail accounts—including Leffot in Manhattan, one of the upscale footwear meccas in the entire world. But most of those accounts weren’t picking up Service Boots. That all changed after Brett met Nigel Cabourn, the (now) consistently overall-clad Brit designer who by this point had become a workwear icon in Japan. They became friends, and in addition to bountiful ideas and an understanding of the marketplace, Nigel had something incredibly important: connections with retailers who trusted him.
“Nigel made it easier to get the conversation going,” Brett said. “His list of accounts was one of the best in the world. He could get anyone to stop and listen.”
Nigel and Brett knocked their heads together and cooked up a Service Boot specifically for Barney’s. While it’s certainly had its recent business troubles, back in 2011 Barney’s was still one of the most thriving and important luxury retailers in the world—so given that sheen-y veneer, the particular Service Boot Barney’s bought was an intriguing choice.
“We were at Pitti,” the twice-yearly ultimate men’s fashion trade show in Florence, Brett said. “And there was a guy wearing really old, beaten Red Wings on the stand. Nigel and I sold them on that boot, made by us.”
Said boot was a six-eyelet cap toe Service Boot in aged bark roughout with a Dainite outsole, and a distinctive rivet plopped at the front of the quarter. In late 2011, Barney’s bought into a small order for them but a big one for Viberg, especially as Brett struggled to imprint his vision onto American customers: 75 pair. The only thing left to do? Really beat some boots to hell.
“I had to go home and make the boot, and make it look totally distressed and used,” Brett said. “I put acid on all the eyelets to oxidize the brass, took hammers and pounded the shit out of the toe, put oil all over it.” He even dug through bins of old, weathered laces that Viberg saved from customers who send in their work boots in to get re-crafted, and used them in the Service Boots, every pair different.
But the true rise of the Viberg Service Boot wouldn’t come from big flashy department stores and Brett dumping acid on eyelets. At the same time, a small community of—well, let’s lovingly call them nerds—who spent their time talking about shoes and boots on StyleForum, Superfuture, the Iron Heart Forum, and more began spending more of that time talking about Viberg.
Outside of a high-fashion, full-pockets Barney’s customer, or one who had discovered the joys of Alden or Crockett & Jones shell cordovan models, spending $600+ on a boot was seen by most men at that point as, essentially, completely insane. But word started to get around about Viberg’s heritage, and its near-peerless construction techniques and standards—and the boots just kept looking better and better, as Brett’s vision evolved. To even order a pair, though, was not exactly a streamlined process, one that could be best summed up as “Email Brett.”
The nice thing about that: Brett would make you pretty much whatever you could dream up. The less-nice thing? It was probably going to require a bunch of back and forth, and the boots would take a couple months to get made. And while that’s well within the realm of tolerability for a True Believer Customer, the average person, even one with a stack of hundreds burning a hole in their selvedge jeans pocket, probably wants their new boots right now. Oh and nobody had any idea how these very expensive boots—which you probably ordered custom and therefore can’t return—even fit.
Which made it all the more important to get Service Boots into retailers. But despite the Barney’s moment, it was—as it largely remains today thanks to outfits like Division Road, Standard & Strange, Brooklyn Clothing, Lost & Found, Miloh Shop, and more—a network of small boutique retailers willing to take chances that would truly drive the Service Boot and Viberg’s climb, as they worked with Brett to create interesting makeups. Freeman’s Sporting Club, an influential shop in Manhattan, did a run in late 2011, as did Canadian shop Tate & Yoko.
A notable harbinger of an order also came in late 2011 from Manufactum, the German retailer focused on high-end, well-made products that last. Their boot was another important first: Viberg’s initial foray into shell cordovan, the inimitable, remarkably durable, high-shine leather that is generally considered to be the best shoe material in the world—and one that Viberg fans would flock to in herds, waving around $1,000 and more, in the years to come.
The Manufactum boots had an interesting five-eyelet setup (what was originally called the 1940s pattern) that was based on Australian military boots to allow them more flex—something that Brett would continue to use for a bit as he played around with eyelet configurations, sometimes deploying smaller eyelets and using as many as 10 (which has become a highly sought-after number for Viberg-heads). They sold well. But the road to true success still stretched out towards the horizon for Viberg.
Andrew Chen’s Legendary Harness Leather Service Boots
In 2011, Andrew Chen and Johan Lam, co-founders of seminal denim brand 3sixteen, met Brett at Bread & Butter. Andrew and Johan were in the midst of getting a brand off the ground, and Brett was still busy trying to reinvent his. A few months later, both Johan and Andrew ordered Viberg boots. Johan went with a 310-last Service Boot “in crust Chromexcel I think, that was reminiscent of Japan-style Vibergs from the time,” Andrew said. He landed on a cap-toe 2030-last Service Boot in a deadstock harness leather that Brett had sitting around the Viberg factory.
“To me, that was it,” Andrew told me as we each handled one of his boots in 3sixteen’s Lower East Side office. “That was a Viberg boot. That was the look. At the time this wasn’t really what they were making a ton of, but maybe I wasn’t thinking about how other people were feeling about it. And it was something you could dress up, or thrash. I really liked that.”
Andrew wore the boots “almost every day during fall and winter” for four years. About a year and a half in, in March of 2013, he posted some pictures to his personal blog, which drew, to be modest, a metric fuckton of interest—and countless people asking if they could get Service Boots made up in the same leather (they could not; “to my knowledge,” Andrew said, “this was the last pair of boots made with this leather.”).
The True Boot Believers had discovered Viberg, gotten their heads around the double-row stitchdown construction, and had seen what the Service Boot could be. They were in line—first metaphorically, and then quite literally at the sample sales to come.
The Industry Aftershocks
As the Service Boot was inspiring lust and devotion, it was also spawning imitators. Pre-2011, a boot that was sleek and elegant but not quite dressy-dressy was far more difficult to find (the Crockett & Jones Coniston is probably the closest you’ll get…and it’s very different)—and essentially nonexistent when you looked at North American bootmakers. Today, it’s hard to name a bootmaker that doesn’t offer at least one model that directly references Viberg’s 2030 Service Boot.
The imitators came early. Here’s another Guy story.
“The first real case of it, Brett and I were in Berlin at Bread & Butter. We’d shown a few times, the brand was really picking up steam, and I think we were starting to exert some influence for the first time. We finished the first day, and we walk by the NDC Made by Hand booth. And Brett and I stop and say, ‘what the fuck is that. That’s our boot.'”
“And I’m not talking kind-of our boot. The season before we had sold a 2030 Service Boot, commando sole I think, brogue toe cap, Loden green, to 14oz, the shop owned by Karl-Heinz Müller, the guy who owns Bread & Butter. Very specific boot. I remember it perfectly. We’re walking by this NDC stand, and there’s our boot, I kid you not.”
“For one, it’s the same color. Brogued toe cap, same height, same stitching. It’s stitchdown. Double row stitchdown. NDC only made welted footwear. And they had this service boot, sitting there as a new product. This was the first time this had ever happened to Brett. And I remember the look on his face—he was just dumbfounded. It was our last. It was our boot. And we’re showing at the same show. And it was the first realization that this was happening.”
“Brett calls Karl. Karl wears Vibergs, and 14oz was also a huge NDC stockist. And Karl immediately reached out to NDC and said you have to pull this product or you can’t show here.”
“And the owner of NDC ended up getting in touch with Brett, and admitted that he had bought the Vibergs from 14oz, and sent them to a factory to have them completely regraded. He had the last injection molded, he had the stitchdown recreated. Everything. He basically framed it like, ‘I’m just such a fan.’ But he pulled the product. I don’t think it ever ended up getting manufactured. And that was early. Maybe 2012 or 2013.”
(There’s a silver lining: Enrique Corbi, who was running NDC at the time and is now senior director of design at UGG, formed a strong connection with Brett after the mishap, and the two are still friends today.)
The most notable company to be formed in the wake of the Viberg Service Boot is likely Truman Boot Co. Truman’s core product is often outfitted with beefy commando soles to create a more rugged overall look, but it doesn’t take a seasoned shoe detective to notice the similarities between Viberg’s and Truman’s pattern.
“When customers feel like they’ve taken ownership of a brand,” Andrew Chen said, “they also can take ownership of a silhouette, and say, ‘We made it popular. So if someone else is doing us a service by making us boots in the same leathers, and somehow finding a way to do it for a lower price’…well, there they go.”
Even Bostonian, the once-respected made-in-the-USA shoemaker who now manufactures the bulk of their their products abroad for cheap, is selling a $500 boot made in upstate New York. An untrained eye might not be able to tell the difference between it and a Viberg.
“The company was basically founded on that boot,” Guy said. “It’s Brett’s grandfather’s legacy. And I think it meant so much for Brett to bring it back into the public realm and to have the response that it had. So for him I think the initial period of it being copied and reproduced was just so…personal.”
“Name a good product that isn’t copied,” Guy continues. “Are you significant in any way if someone out there doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to copy that’? We reference other people’s products all the time. But we look at is as a jumping off point. I’ve been very open with the fact that we looked a lot at R.M. Williams when we developed our Chelsea boot, because we thought they were doing the best wholecut version. Did we make an R.M. Williams knockoff? I don’t think so at all. I don’t even think they look similar.”
And I don’t have any anger towards them, but I think there are entire brands that are derivative of us. The type of person that I am, I could never have this thing that was mine, my baby, and know deep down that it was all based on something else that wasn’t mind. But it’s flattering. So I don’t have a particularly negative view about it.”
While Brett has felt different ways through the years about competitors aping Viberg’s design, at this point, he’s softened to the reality that it’s unavoidable.
“That’s just the give and take of how everything works,” he said. “You can only look at it as a source of inspiration, where someone starts a new career or a new brand and that’s a good thing. Where the market is now, you actually need to have all these brands. If no other company that was doing something like the 2030, you couldn’t supply an ounce of the demand.”
“I spent a lot of years upset about it. And eventually I said, I can keep being upset about it, or I can focus in and build my business.”
OK Let’s Fast Forward To Today
For the last decade, that business has been one of evolving and experimenting—painted horsehide, anyone??—as Brett continues to feed his need to push the boundaries of Viberg’s design, manufacturing and creativity (which often—although not always—aligns with Viberg customers’ own cravings).
“We’re very fortunate that the Service Boot sells and people like it,” Brett said. “That allows me to play around with stuff—most of which is not even worth pursuing, because it will never become a viable business. But it keeps things interesting.” But all the while, whatever the new direction, the Service Boot boot stays vigilantly true to its primordial form, despite a few tweaks along the way.
“The only difference really is that the counter used to be a little higher,” Brett said. “The balance of the height of the counter didn’t equal the height of the quarter. It’s basically millimeters, but I’ve changed it a fair bit, to find a better balance. I also made the 2030 last a bit more narrow from the waist back to the heel, just to make it more snug. I put it on a weight loss program, basically.”
Viberg only manufactures about 10,000 total boots a year—a sliver of what a brand like Red Wing makes—and about 60% of those are Service Boots. But when you consider lasts (10 of which have been used on service boots over the years), and leathers (many, many dozens), and outsoles, and eyelet options, and cap toes or no cap toes, and brogueing, and pinking, and…well, you get the point. The permutations are essentially endless. Brett is currently even working on a fully waterproof model with a membrane/bootie inside that still looks exactly the same as the current product.
“That’s one of the other amazing things about it. Johan did a Service Boot makeup on the 2040 on the mini-ripple sole,” Andrew Chen said of another 3sixteen Service Boot to make some waves. “Heel tab, copper task roughout. And that completely reimagined the Service Boot all over again. Put that boot next to my 2030 harness leather boots, and they are NOTHING alike.”
Get those ten people from earlier who don’t know boots—and maybe even some who do—line up 10 Viberg Service Boots in front of them, and it’s completely possible they’d have no idea they’re all, at their core, the same boot. The boot’s flexibility, every bit as much as its aesthetic beauty, is a huge part of why it’s become what it has.
“I was talking with someone a long time ago about: what is modern day workwear? People don’t just work in factories,” Brett said. “It got me thinking about the Service Boot and how applicable it can be, and the flexibility that the boot has. It’s essentially a modern day uniform of workwear, because of the adaptation of it.”
“The ability to take this basic silhouette and apply it to many different industries is interesting. I can make it with a steel toe, and I can make it out of shell cordovan for someone who works in a lawyer’s office. If you work in a denim shop, you might love the 310 last. But it’s the same boot—and it’s providing a service. That’s the whole concept.”
Division Road‘s Jason Pecarich said. “The market has broadened to include not just the logger and construction worker, but also doctors and tech guys. At the end of the day it’s amazing how many different types of people this product—with numerous leather specification options, and sole options, and last options—can appeal to. But that happens because Viberg has more control. They’re closer to the factory floor. Invention, and how many variations can they make on a service boot, is right at their fingertips.”
Andrew Chen agrees.
“I think that’s fascinating, because the workplace has changed so much since Viberg was established,” Andrew said. “And industries that were incredibly important to Victoria when they were founded, or Canada at large, have tapered off or died out. So what does a work boot company have as an option? You contract or innovate. In Red Wing’s case, they started Heritage.”
“The difference here with Viberg is—this is their business now. Without recontextualizing and looking at how the market has changed, Viberg might not be around anymore. They probably wouldn’t be.”
But Viberg is very around, and isn’t going anywhere—and neither is the Service Boot. “The concept of service is something we later found in the name, but it actually all ties in together with what is the next phase of workwear? What is that new uniform? And it fits.”
“It would have been genius if I came up with it beforehand.”