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Woolrich gets into footwear

The venerable outdoor brand taps Portland Product Werks, led by former Columbia/Sorel executive Sean Beers, to build new line for fall 2014.

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Woolrich is expanding its venerable name to footwear.

The 183-year-old outdoor brand has tapped Portland Product Werks, led by former Columbia Sportswear, Sorel, and Korkers executive Sean Beers, to debut a line of men’s and women’s boots, shoes and slippers for fall 2014.

Beers and Woolrich President Nick Brayton told SNEWS that the multi-year global licensing deal (terms were not disclosed) had been several years in the making. In late 2012, Beers co-founded Portland Product Werks with creative director and former Nike senior designer Carl Blakeslee to lead a small team of footwear industry veterans in Portland to take on the Woolrich project.

Sean Beers and Carl Blakeslee

“We see this as a natural fit,” Brayton said. “Sean and his team are footwear experts, and when it comes to footwear in the United States, it all starts in Portland, Oregon.” He added that the new category gives the Woolrich brand an opportunity to reach new consumers in places like boutique footwear shops where it wasn’t before.

From Beers’ perspective, “footwear has the ability to really drive a brand,” even one as well known as Woolrich. “It’s a very visual, emotional and impactful product, ” he said.

Beers said the new footwear will distinguish itself with innovate uses of Woolrich wool, which will be incorporated in places like the midsole, footbed, linings and entire uppers of shoes.

“It’s a perfect material for footwear for its comfort, thermoregulation and moisture management,” Beers said. So many consumers have discovered the benefits of wool in socks, he added, so why shouldn’t the natural material play a leading role in shoes instead of synthetic materials, which can act more like a plastic bag around the foot.

Starting Nov. 1 2013, retailers will get their first peek of the line featuring collections for work, outdoor and travel uses, including five entirely sourced and made-in-the-USA men’s boots. The latter was an important part of the deal, Brayton and Beers said, as both companies feel strongly about bringing back more manufacturing to the United States.

Portland Product Werks will reach out to outdoor retailers large and small, along with what Beers calls “better department stores” and boutique footwear shops to sell the line. The footwear will be on display in the Woolrich booth at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014. MSRPs will range from $160 to $300 for the shoes and boots, and $39 to $89 for the slippers.

While the shoes and boots will be brand new, Woolrich slippers have been around since 2001. Portland Product Werks will inherit the business from the pervious third-party licensee, St. Louis-based Elan-Polo Inc., “which did a great job establishing the category for Woolrich,” Brayton said, but both companies were ready to move in a new direction.

For now, Portland Product Werks will focus solely on the Woolrich brand, launching first in the United States, then eyeing international markets for 2015 and beyond.

Beers spent a decade at with Columbia Sportswear as general manager of its global footwear division and Sorel. For the past years, he served as CEO of Korkers. “You look at brands like Sorel and Woolrich and they are revered by consumers, which isn’t something you can buy — you have to earn it.” Beers said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it. We have to have a deep respect for the brand and be good stewards.”

Woolrich shouldn’t have waited so long (183 years) to get into footwear, Brayton said. And although “nothing is on the precipice,” expect to see the brand expand to other new categories in the future.

–David Clucas