Blake Kim, Consultant
The past five years have led to a complete transformation in the luxury fashion space. From the rise of aspirational fast fashion leading to faster supply chains, to the massive proliferation of direct to consumer brands empowered by social media platforms like Instagram and easy to use website builder eCommerce platforms like SquareSpace and Shopify, heritage brands face more pressure than ever before.
To be successful in today’s increasingly connected and brand conscious world, heritage brands that want to succeed need to update their storytelling for the modern age, requiring a fresh point of view while seamlessly weaving stories of the past into the present in new ways. We explore what lessons heritage brands can learn from the latest fashion upstarts and other heritage brands that have been telling their own brand stories the right way.
An American icon
While American heritage luxury may be seen as a misnomer for a country founded only 198 years ago, Brooks Brothers is an exception to the rule, predating iconic brands like Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Brioni and even Gucci. Founded in 1818 and as the oldest American men’s clothier in the US, this iconic American brand predates many cultural touchstones that the world first thinks of when they think of America: Hollywood, baseball, the Statue of Liberty, the list goes on. Brooks Brothers has outfitted 39 out of the 44 American presidents. And while today Brooks Brothers may be considered to be traditional, the company historically has been a true innovator brand, introducing many menswear details and designs that are ubiquitous today. From the first button-down collars for dress shirts, inspired by polo players in 1896, to the world’s first non-iron 100% cotton dress shirt in 1998, the contributions have been numerous and significant.
Today, Brooks Brothers is a heritage brand, as well as the ultimate flag bearer for preppy Americans everywhere. And while in recent years, Brooks Brothers has stayed relevant with the introduction of a Red Fleece line for younger consumers and an updated Golden Fleece line with technical innovations for its older customers, we see improvements the company could make in telling its heritage brand story for today’s modern audiences.
Brooks Brothers has certainly put a lot of effort into creating content across many platforms, but content strategy is only one part of the storytelling process. To be top of class, Brooks Brothers also needs to dive deeper into its archives of ‘firsts’, styles, and various brand incarnations to leverage those truly special, unique and defining moments which can be reimagined for a modern audience. Together, these brand elements form the foundation for interactive, impactful, and truly omni-channel stories that immerse the consumer in Brooks Brothers’ deep and rich heritage to better inform its present and future.
Defining heritage is oftentimes a difficult task, but as the German writer Goethe once said, “Make a better future by developing elements from the past.” Today, we look at two up and coming brands with no real heritage that have yet somehow succeeded in effective and modern heritage brand storytelling, as well as one storied fashion brand that has gone through an incredible revival in recent years, to see what lessons we can draw to better inform Brooks Brothers’ story telling process moving forward.
American heritage brands generally fall under two iconic American archetypes: the rugged and pioneer outdoorsman or cowboy, and the preppy East Coast WASP. Levis, Filson, Brooks Brothers, and Bass are some familiar names that fall into either category, but today they face increasing competition from newer and fast moving upstarts such as Tracksmith and Shinola. Tracksmith, founded in 2014 by a co-founder and creative director for Rapha and a former senior marketer from Puma, is proof that a company doesn’t need a long storied history of fine craftsmanship to be a premium heritage brand. Sometimes, all you need to do is borrow.
How to borrow heritage and get away with it
The Tracksmith brand is a perfect synthesis of old and new, heritage and high-tech. Appealing to a specific community and niche of hardcore runners, Tracksmith is an upstart premium lifestyle brand that has grown quickly in only two years by associating itself with the rich American heritage that is amateur East Coast running: a preppy and sepia tinted lifestyle of Ivy League track and field meets and long runs through sun drenched forests. Yet at the same time, while Tracksmith certainly pays homage to the timeless traditions of American amateur and collegiate running, it manages to tells that story in a new way.
One way that Tracksmith succeeds in its brand storytelling is through its product. Many of Tracksmith’s products are rooted in the brand’s core identity of a modern timelessness, with designs that have clear hints and references to amateur running traditions of old, but materials and fabrication clearly rooted in the present. One such product, the Van Cortlandt singlet, draws design inspiration from the Cornell track team of the late 1800s, but utilizes a luxurious antimicrobial performance mesh sourced from Switzerland.
Another key strength in how Tracksmith tells its borrowed heritage brand story derives from its flawless visual identity and creative expression. Through the use of beautiful imagery and videography, well-designed typography, and a strong social media presence, Tracksmith creates immersive experiences for customers, evoking moments and emotions of a heritage that is both timeless and nostalgic, intertwining the past and present into a singular cohesive brand story.
Tracksmith understands that for a modern day heritage brand, history and innovation are not best used as separate tools, but as two halves of one cohesive whole.
The lesson to be learned here is that the concept of “heritage” is entirely fluid. While Tracksmith created a brand around the heritage of a niche American lifestyle and sub-culture, Shinola is a company that created a brand around the heritage of an entire city and its legacy. Founded by the man who started Fossil watches and built it into a publicly traded fashion watch empire, Tom Kartsotis, Shinola is best known for being “Built in Detroit.” But while the brand has a powerful feel-good, homegrown, small batch brand story, in reality, Shinola’s successes are largely the result of millions in dollars of funding and meticulously planned brand-led thinking.