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Woolrich links updated brand direction with strong heritage roots

SNEWS sat down with Woolrich executives nearly nine months ago to discuss the company's new brand strategy being implemented. We circled back recently to query Brian Mangione, executive vice president of Woolrich, on how the company is doing as it heads into the second half of 2010.

When SNEWS® visited the Woolrich campus and factory in December 2009, we were there to hear about a new brand strategy, and see evidence of the progress with an all-access pass to the factory, offices and hidden alcoves. The new brand strategy being rolled out was built on the foundation of a 180-year history and the clear realization, SNEWS was told, that Woolrich customers expect the brand to update products without deviating from its heritage.

“We have previously misread consumer requests to update our product as meaning something different than it was,” Jim Griggs, president of Woolrich, told us. “What our consumers were saying is they want updated fit and style, but not in a way that deviates from the heritage Woolrich is.”

Central to this strategy is the notion that while there are multiple labels, otherwise known inside Woolrich as “collections,” there’s only one brand: Woolrich.

Griggs also told us at the time that he would be hiring a new executive vice president. That person’s role would be to ensure the new brand strategy was correctly implemented to ensure Woolrich remains relevant in the specialty market, even as the brand enjoys resurgence in popularity on a much broader platform.

In January 2010, Griggs named Brian Mangione to the executive vice president position at Woolrich, charged with overseeing merchandising, design, wholesale apparel, corporate marketing, direct retail, licensing, product development and sourcing.

After giving Mangione some time to settle in, and the company an opportunity to begin to deliver on the promises and plan it outlined with us in December, SNEWS checked in with Mangione to see just how well he felt Woolrich was doing as it headed into the second half of 2010.

SNEWS: Jim Griggs made it very clear to us that the company’s marching orders moving forward — from brand development and design, to production, to marketing and sales — is to ensure Woolrich is remaining current by updating heritage products, while at the same time not trying to be something the company is not — like the failed White Label experiment not so long ago. How is this mandate driving change at Woolrich?

Brian Mangione: As we’ve all seen, there’s remarkable demand in the marketplace right now for heritage products, in nearly every category you can imagine. Woolrich, as one of the oldest outdoor apparel brands in the world, is obviously well positioned to take advantage of this current trend. Essentially, the desire for heritage brands is a reflection of how people are seeking out long-term values. In other words, people are finding comfort in patterns like buffalo check because they know that it’s been a legitimate aesthetic for the last 100 years, and will likely be around for the next 100 years as well. But clearly, while the classic look of Woolrich remains relatively constant from season-to-season, the science of fit can vary quite a bit. One of our current priorities at Woolrich is accurately forecasting fit trends among our consumers, making sure that we stay relevant.

SNEWS: What is Woolrich doing to address fluctuations in fit from style-to-style and year-to-year that Woolrich has become infamous for…and does that mean the generous sizing is being addressed?

Mangione: Woolrich retailers have the luxury of selecting items from a complete “Big and Tall” line, so it’s not that the brand is eliminating larger fits altogether, it’s just that we’re making sure our authentic Outdoor Collection is more in tune with what the consumer is demanding. That process of adjusting our fit began with the fall 2010 line, in which we made some small changes in sleeve and torso measurements. Moving ahead, we’ll continue making minor adjustments as necessary. But when we do, those modifications will always be relatively subtle from season-to-season.

SNEWS: When we sat down with Jim Griggs in December of last year, he told us that it was a company goal to be a major lifestyle brand. Griggs talked about an evolution, and that he was not saying in 2010 that Woolrich had yet arrived at the station he had plans for, but that the company was well on the road to its destination with positive steps. How far down the road are you now toward that goal?

Mangione: There’s a concrete strategy in place, and we know that it will take a few cycles for us to reach our ultimate destination, but you’re right. We are certainly well on our way to being a major global outdoor brand. One of the great benefits of the Woolrich multi-label strategy is that it has empowered the Outdoor Collection to be more focused, more genuine and more in tune with what people are really looking for. Woolrich’s outdoor designs are unique in that they have a direct and visible link to an era when people didn’t merely play outside, they lived outside. The material choices of the collection have always been dominated by wool, as it’s the best choice for dynamic, all-condition designs. And our color palettes and cuts have always been anchored by simplicity and relevance.

By sharpening the focus of the Outdoor Collection, we’re finding that it’s getting easier to connect the dots for consumers throughout the country. People are seeing the new designs, as well as the new fits of classic designs, and embracing them both. A great example of this process is what’s going on right now with the Backpacker magazine “Get Out More Tour” (ed note: SNEWS and Backpacker are owned by the same parent company, Active Interest Media). This is our third season sponsoring the tour, which visits outdoor retailers throughout the country, and speaks right on the retail floor about the latest in outdoor gear, skills and knowledge. We’ve heard numerous times from the tour operators that the products used in the presentation are being singled out and purchased that very day by people in the audience. It’s a great affirmation for our design team to know that we’re that in tune with current trends.

SNEWS: Griggs alluded to an increased emphasis on expanding Woolrich’s influence in Europe. In March, you hired your first European sales agents (click here to read the March 29, 2010, press release, “Woolrich Woolen Mill Division Expands into Europe with New Sales Agent.”) What does this mean for the brand?

Mangione: Our relationships in Europe have been built over the last 20 years, and have been an extremely positive effort. The partnership that we have with WP Lavori is effective, collaborative and continues to improve. Especially since the arrival of their two collections (Woolrich John Rich & Bros and Woolrich Woolen Mills) into the United States market, our relationship has grown closer and allowed us to work more in sync on developing the individual collections in the U.S., and creating effective multi-label strategies internationally.

SNEWS: Explain a bit more about the multi-label strategy for the company in the U.S. and how that is playing out.

Mangione: What we have is a group of collections that individually cater to very distinct market segments. The centerpiece, of course, is the Outdoor Collection. But we also have Woolrich Woolen Mills, which lives in the international fashion world; Woolrich John Rich and Bros, which focuses on exclusive specialty retail; and the Woolrich Elite Series, which is our tactical collection. In each of these markets, the individual labels are designing pieces specifically for consumers in that space, but it all relates back to the heritage and credibility of the Woolrich brand. It’s giving us remarkable strength and name recognition, both nationally and internationally, and it’s proving without a doubt that the Woolrich brand has the ability to relate to consumers anywhere, anytime.

SNEWS: Woolrich walked away from its partner in Japan last year…good decision? Griggs stated it was done because it was not in the best interests of the brand’s long-term global vision.

Mangione: Yes, it was a good decision. Essentially, we changed our structure in Japan from being based on an apparel licensee model to that of a distributor model. It’s consistent with what we’re doing here, in that our primary goal is to find more ways to distribute the brands we have — rather than create new brands to add to the mix. The change helped eliminate the risk of a mixed brand message in the marketplace, and made our brand architecture more consistent across the board.

SNEWS: Talk about how the redefining of the global multi-brand strategy is playing out — brand segments of contemporary, woolen mill collection and outdoor lifestyle.

Mangione: It’s playing out quite well. The general message we’re hearing is that it doesn’t matter if you’re on a fashion runway in Milan or a dirt road somewhere in Montana, people are enjoying wearing a brand with a connection to history. More to the point, the success of individual labels in specific markets is proving to be a solid indicator of a broader appetite for the Woolrich brand. In other words, our various collections are accelerating demand for the entire Woolrich brand. Because the Woolrich multi-label strategy has almost no overlap between its various collections, it allows the brand to be the hero on all levels, and it’s really shining a bright light on the opportunities that exist out there.

SNEWS: Not repeating mistakes of the past is another thing Griggs stressed with us during our visit. What mistakes were those, and how is that playing into the long-term strategy that is now being played out in the second half of 2010?

Mangione: As you know from visiting Woolrich, we’re focused on the opportunities of the future, not things that have happened in the past. Strategically, it’s possible that we were letting the market drive too much of our brand decisions. To remain relevant, as Woolrich has for 185 years, requires more foresight than people think. And while our goal of remaining a major outdoor lifestyle brand sounds relatively simple, we’re working extremely hard to keep Woolrich in a leadership position so that consumers can keep finding us in the right places at the right times.

SNEWS: During our visit, we were told that Woolrich is and will continue to be a two-season company with lines targeting spring and fall. Still hold true?

Mangione: Certainly. There’s an ongoing need out there for versatile, stylish outdoor apparel. And there’s also a hunger in the marketplace for all things Woolrich. We are continually hearing those requests, and through our multi-label distribution model as well as our year-round offerings, we’re answering them. But based on consumer demand, we will continually evaluate our seasonal offerings and act accordingly.

SNEWS: Where is Woolrich product sourced and made?

Mangione: Gary Gifford, hired last fall as director of product development and sourcing, has been doing a fantastic job creating efficiencies in Woolrich’s sourcing structure and identifying new opportunities. Woolrich products are made in locations around the world, including Hong Kong, Thailand, China and India. Though much of our apparel is made overseas, it’s important to remember, as you saw in your visit, we still produce Woolrich wools in the mill. The majority of our blankets are produced in the mill and the mill supplies wool fabrics and finished goods to a variety of buyers. We’ve been supplying the military with wool from the mill since before the Civil War, and numerous brands are integrating our wool into their products.

SNEWS: Jerry Rinder, Woolrich vice president of sales and marketing, told us that outdoor specialty market is where Woolrich is putting a lot of focus and that re-establishing the brand in outdoor specialty stores was a high priority for the company. Can you elaborate on the importance of outdoor specialty to Woolrich?


Mangione: Outdoor specialty retailers have an influence that goes far beyond sales numbers. They’re the trendsetters in the outdoor world, and the collection of apparel, accessories and hardgoods that they choose to stock become the only world that matters for their customers. Having a vibrant presence in the specialty outdoor marketplace is very important to Woolrich, not just because we’d like to sell more active designs in the Rocky Mountains, but because it’s another touch point for our multi-label brand. The success of Woolrich in the outdoor specialty market feeds the credibility of our other collections and the brand overall.

SNEWS: Woolrich is working to make heritage product relevant to consumers today, so what products did you show retailers at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market that are emblematic of that?

Mangione: It’s a luxury for Woolrich to have such a long legacy to draw from, as we can honestly pick and choose from various trends that have been part of our heritage in the past. For example, our spring ‘11 Classics collection takes inspiration from pieces in the 1950s and ‘60s. Madras plaids and chambray details are woven in amongst the collection of button-down and polo shirts. The Yankton jacket is the most emblematic example in the Classics as it’s a cotton Barracuda-style jacket with a plaid lining.

SNEWS: What about the 503 jacket?

Mangione: While the 503 has barely changed since its introduction in the late 1800s (photo top right), we did introduce the Westline jacket for fall 2010 (photo middle right), which features the same heritage plaid as the 503, but is a waterproof/breathable soft shell jacket featuring Technowool. We also unveiled an all-wool piece that stemmed from the 503 — the Tailgating jacket (photo bottom right). It’s a contemporary update of the 503, but in a more contemporary fit, with hand-warmer pockets and a front zipper.

SNEWS: Rinder also told us during our visit, “Ninety percent of our challenges we need to solve are right here in Woolrich, Pa. The good news is all of our answers are here, too.” What answers have the company found to address challenges since January 2010?

Mangione: I think the message here is that the keys to success for Woolrich are, for the most part, totally within our own control. The one big exception is the mood of the marketplace. Right now, even that wind is blowing in our favor as consumers continue to seek out heritage-rich brands. We’re still based in Woolrich, Pa., and we’re still making high-quality, outdoor lifestyle apparel, but when you look at how things are moving forward at the company, and specifically some of the initiatives that we’re backing, it’s not hard to realize that this is a different company today than it was six months ago. There are some new faces, for sure, but there’s also some fresh spirit and energy that is enabling us to harness all the assets and talents we have right here.

–Michael Hodgson