Today I’m proud to bring you an interview I did with Brett Viberg and Guy Ferguson, two of the people steering the ship at Viberg Boot. Viberg is a Canadian owned and operated family business, based in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1931 founder Ed Viberg set out to craft the highest quality boots he could. That dedication to product is still at the heart of everything Viberg does. While the boots were originally targeted to workers in the logging industry, the brand has been in successful in reaching a more fashion conscious market partially due to collaborations with Inventory Magazine, Flathead and most recently Nigel Cabourn. I spoke with Brett and Guy about some of latest developments at Viberg and the challenges of expanding the audience of a storied Canadian brand.
Read the feature after the jump (All the beautiful Black & White shots of the Viberg factory/offices were shot by Guy himself)
Hi Brett & Guy, please introduce yourselves and your respective roles at Viberg Boot. What has been keeping you busy of late?
Brett: Basically I’ve been handling all the creative concept/direction/sales/branding for the company on my own until recently when Guy has come onboard to work with us. Everything from sales to development of new patterns or new lasts, to quality control, I have some sort of involvement in, mainly because we are small and also a large part of it is that it’s my overall vision so I want it to be done the way I set out to make it.
Lately its just been rushing to get samples done for the shows and then also for me, just looking long term, planning what I think the best viable options are for the company and which directions to take it. We’ve never really planned ahead due to the mom & pop style business structure, which is fine, but I am wanting change and with change comes all of the challenges, especially when its family.
Guy: I’ve actually only technically been full-time at Viberg for a couple of months now, but Brett and I have worked together on various things for the last four years. Since I’ve come on board I’m handling a lot of different areas. Basically having a hand in everything outside of actual production. I’m doing some wholesale, I take care of viberg.com, all of our photography, social media, press, etc. It’s a small company so the job description is always changing. One minute it’s a sample sale and the next it’s designing shoeboxes. Overall my main goal is to really just raise the level of the brand and its presentation to something that matches the quality of the product. Brett has been in this role solo for a long time, so we’re kind of playing catch up as far as executing a lot of things he’s wanted to see happen for a while. I’m learning a lot as I go and the variety really keeps things interesting.
We’re halfway through 2013, what have been some of the key developments at Viberg this year?
Brett: We have some new products developed for Spring/Summer 2014, new styles and new leathers, but really we have sort of focused on internal structure, small things you can’t see looking in. Also just basic representation of the product: new boxes, dust covers, polishing cloths, etc. I just feel we have put so much attention on the product, since this is how my dad and grandpa have done it, that the presentation of it has suffered. So once Guy came on board, I was able to have an extra person to help get the things done which are pretty important for the consumer.
Guy: It’s been a hectic few months and the company has seen a lot of firsts. We are selling ready-made boots direct to customers for the first time ever through viberg.com. We held our first real sample sale a couple of months ago on Styleforum and that was a great success. Last month we hosted our first ever pop-up shop with our friends from 3sixteen at their showroom in NYC. We also shot a proper editorial while we were there which is another first. Later this month we’ll be exhibiting alongside Nigel Cabourn at Liberty Fair which will be our first N. American trade show. That’s on top of the product development stuff that is always happening.
As a brand with such a long, unique history, speak on the balance between maintaining this heritage while still forging ahead with new ventures and designs. Has it been difficult to manage this evolution?
Brett: The balance is tough, everyday is tough. Since I’ve managed the production before, I understand what the challenges are, but that doesn’t make it any easier. To make heavy industrial product of any nature and then decide to refine it and make it more about the details, all on the same production line, is really challenging. I have finally convinced my dad to bring in some specific machines that will strictly be geared toward what we are doing on a more mainstream level, not heavy industrial. I basically fight for every inch that I get in the business and the designs, just because its a completely foreign thing to our company, and you need to be cautious, especially with the markets and economy we have currently. I think what we have managed to do in a small amount of time has been pretty good when you stop to look back. In terms of the work boot / logging / industrial side it’s what we have done for 80+ years, so its not a challenge when you have been making something the same for that long. It is however difficult to always continue to source the best materials and components. The basics of the manufacturing are honestly the same as it was 50-60 years ago with the logging and safety boots.
Guy: I think that’s one of the truly unique things about the company, how we are able to balance the old and the new. There are a handful of companies left in the world that can produce a boot using similar construction methods to our own, but I don’t think any of them are trying to be progressive or really innovate to the degree that we are. Shoe making is an old industry, relatively speaking, and older companies are more inclined to stick to what they know and what has worked in the past. I think Viberg is special because we really have a drive to move forward and continue to improve and evolve our product while still maintaining our identity, which is rooted in quality.
Viberg Boots are sold around the world, are there regional preferences in terms of what styles the different territories favor?
Brett: I would say in terms of the most popular patterns, its sort of the same all over, but in terms of the actual make up, parts of Europe still want more of a chunky Americana vintage style, and then more and more in say NY where we have a few good accounts, they are wanting the same patterns but with a more refined shape. Japan is a different beast, mainly because we have zero involvement with what is presented to the market, due to the distribution system there. I plan to sell direct very soon in Japan to allow us to have more control in what is presented, and also structurally fix the existing business that we have there.
Guy: It’s a mixed bag to a degree, but you still have a lot of chunky, wedge sole stuff going to Japan. The turned up toe last is more popular in Europe and certain styles like the engineer boot for example. In N. America it’s almost all Service Boots, Chukkas and Oxfords. I don’t think a single North American account has done a pull on boot of any kind actually. I like that our product range is versatile enough to work in different regions and markets.
You recently collaborated with Nigel Cabourn, what was that like?
B: I’ve done a few things with Nige. He is really just a close friend of mine who luckily is a fan of our boots, and that is really how everything started. I did a used Service Boot a while back with Cabourn which was sold at Barneys, then we did the Limited Ed 2 Scott collection boot, which was pretty amazing, the finished product looked great. Then this year we did a broad arrow chukka, similar to what he personally wears of ours. He is a very interesting character. I’ve learnt a pile of things from him.
Do you guys keep tabs on the fashion industry? What styles do you gravitate towards for the way you dress?
Brett: I don’t keep tabs on what is what, I mean I see what people are doing since we attend some of the shows, but I sort of always wear the same shit really. I’ve got piles of Cabourn, which always nice to have, but just jeans, tees, boots, whatever. I know Guy, since he comes from retail, has a pretty good grasp of it all.
Guy: I’m still helping out with Four Horsemen Shop behind the scenes and I’ve always been a nerd about this stuff, so I keep tabs on as much as I can. I try to follow everything from runway to sneakers and streetwear. I plan to reach out to a few smaller designers about working together on some footwear to go with their collection. Something like the relationship Junya has with Trickers or Geller with Common Projects. I own a lot of basics from brands like A.P.C. and Wings + Horns, but for the last couple of years I’ve been drawn to pieces that are a bit weirder I guess. Our Legacy is one of my favourite brands and I’ve been trying to pick up Stephan Schneider stuff whenever possible. I’m influenced by a lot of different aesthetics, so I don’t necessarily have a uniform, but day-to-day it’s pretty casual. Right now though, especially at the factory, it’s t-shirts, jeans and boots or sneakers.
Could you speak on the decision to begin making apparel and what we might expect to find in the product range? What are some of the differences between producing clothes compared to making footwear?
B: I did the clothing solely on my own, but I did have some guidance from Cabourn. He helped with sourcing quite a bit and I used his pattern maker as well. I was wanting to make a simple, basic collection. Trouser, waist coat, blazer, and shirting. The difference between making clothes and footwear is day and night. With making anything, its not too hard to get samples and basically blindly figure it out, but once you are into production, it gets very, very difficult. Sourcing fabrics / trims, the minimums, logistically making it work and just finding a factory who actually wants to make something for you, and also has the ability to make something quality. It’s a tough gig to make something in North America, which is low volume and specialized, and still have the margins to make money, but also keep it affordable. That is why a lot of people do denim. We have those work wear factories set up and they have figured out the mechanics to make it be cost effective.
Guy: It would be fun to revisit the clothing at some point, but it’s a massive project and we just don’t have the manpower right now. In the meantime we’ve got a couple of small collaborations planned.
What are some of the advantages and challenges of being a Canadian based company? Can you speak a bit about what it’s like being based in Victoria, BC?
Brett: Being a small Canadian company is challenging, but it forces us to learn things outside of our norm and to focus on just making a better product. Being in Victoria is becoming harder and harder since we are on an island, and also in a dying industry, which is like a double edged sword. I would say overall though, where we are located is actually a huge gift since it allows us to keep focused and make great product, without buying into what the consumer says, good or bad.
Guy: Logistically our location makes some things difficult. Duties and shipping are extremely high which can be a challenge when sourcing components and materials. There isn’t a ton of industry in Victoria and the cost of living is high, which is a bad combination, especially when it comes to staffing. I think we also miss out on a lot of press and general buzz that comes with being situated in a larger market. That being said it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and there are some great things happening with independent business and culture here.
What are your personal favorite Viberg boot models? Do you like your boots brand new or really worn-in?
Brett: I like some of the new things we are doing, releasing for summer 14. Finally having my ideas now physically. I’m happy with what we have come up with. I like my boots beat up and broken in.
Guy: I still wear my black service boots that were our first collaboration with Four Horsemen more than any other footwear I own. They get better every year. Also, we are working on a new derby pattern right now that I’m extremely excited for. I definitely prefer my boots beat up. The appeal of using such high quality materials is really in how well they age. Even traditionally high maintenance leathers like suede or cordovan always looks better to me with some heavy wear on them.
Any last words or fun stories you’d like to end off on?
Guy: Just a thank you to our customers and all of our friends and peers who continue to support us. At the end of the day we know that what we’re doing is niche. We’re not trying to compete with Red Wing or Alden, or anyone else really. We’re simply trying to make the best possible product we can and hopefully that will continue to resonate with people and allow us to keep moving forward.
All photos by Guy Ferguson