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What Exactly Am I Getting from a ‘Heritage’ Brand?

Age? Quality? Luxury? The term has come to mean a lot of different things over the last couple of decades. But is it any more than marketing jargon?

In an era where everything old is new again — from all the movies and TV shows of yore being rebooted, to classic cocktail recipes — it’s sometimes hard to figure out just how old something needs to be in order to be considered “heritage.” Is the demarcation point the 1970s? The 1980s? The turn of the century and early aughts? Better yet, what does heritage even mean these days — especially in the style realm where it’s particularly ubiquitous and used as shorthand to differentiate itself from cheaply made fast fashion? 

According to Vogue, ideas about heritage and luxury became linked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, around the time when the fashion industry was “transformed from a dimming and loosely configured constellation of family-owned maisons into powerful conglomerates with a focus on the bottom line.” 

The thing is, though, heritage doesn’t necessarily mean luxury. In fact, many “heritage” companies have blue-collar roots (e.g., Carhartt, Dickies and Red Wing). “At the deepest level, fashion heritage is a legacy of expertise,” writes Ornella K. Pistilli in her journal article, “The Heritage-Creativity Interplay: How Fashion Designers Are Reinventing Heritage as Modern Design.” In other words, heritage has less to do with the cost of goods as it does with the way in which they were once made and how closely their current manufacturing processes mimic those of the past.  

For some of the most notable heritage brands — a la Red Wing, Filson and Lee — heritage has also long been another way of saying that their products are made in the U.S. and ethically sourced. But there are plenty of issues with that understanding, too. Today, even brands with strong American roots like Red Wing, outsource at least some of their production to other countries. 

Which brings us back to age. The definition of a heritage brand is now pretty much about how long that brand has been around. Maybe not a century, but it needs some lineage, some old roots. The most clear-cut way brands have established this is via a signature piece that hasn’t changed in decades. For instance, Levi’s has the 501 jeans, Barbour has the Bedale wax jacket, L.L. Bean has the Bean Boots and Baracuta has the G9 jacket. By that definition, they’re all heritage brands simply because they’ve built a reputation for excellence in a particular product. 

On the flip side, it’s tough for most mall brands — no matter their age — to claim the same thing. Case in point: Gap. Sure, the retailer has been around since the late 1960s, but nothing in its collection has stood above all the rest over the last five decades. The closest such example, then: “Brooks Brothers,” a subscriber to the Male Fashion Advice subreddit argues. “They’re known for their Oxford cloth button-down shirts. The Gap isn’t known for any one thing.” 

There is, however, one shared understanding of heritage among all of the brands who utilize it — an understanding that has little to do with luxury, quality, country of origin or age. For them, it’s mainly a marketing term used to sell more clothes.