by Anthony Enright
I’ve spent this week in the weird bustling oil boom town of Williston, ND, and it’s been interesting to say the least. It’s a sea of trucks, boots (dirty ones, not the hipster variety) and workwear of all sorts. I guess I’m just completely acclimated to city life, but I was kind of shocked by just how well…dirty people get out here. I mean, obviously the original purpose of all this warm, durable American made workwear is to cover and protect you while you perform manual labor, so getting dirty is part of the bargain. On the other hand, it seems like the workers of the past (who I’m sure got equally dirty) somehow managed to still look classic and put together. That I think was the beauty of the heritage of American work wear, it was immensely functional, but still has a sense of style and quality. Seeing such a high concentration of workers wearing pieces (albeit in less self conscious ways) that can be seen on many a stylish urban guy was illuminating and jarring. The combination of my week in North Dakota and this weekend’s Northern Grade fall market has me thinking hard about workwear, heritage brands, and what the seemingly enduring trend toward durable classic American clothing means for the modern gentleman.
I’m one to contend that there’s no downside to the heritage brands trend, the whole concept of ‘authentically’ wearing something a bit bogus if you ask me. So you’re not working as a roughneck in an oilfield or building on a construction site, does that mean you can’t wear Red Wing boots? Of course not, though be prepared for some good-natured ribbing when you pair them with skinny jeans. I do think, however, that it’s helpful and appropriate to be aware of the history and lineage of those brands, and respect that history. The fact that men from all walks of life are embracing locally made and crafted items into their wardrobes and are willing to pay for the craftsmanship and quality that comes along with that can only be a good thing, and I think it should be encouraged rather than stigmatized as inauthentic. Even as urbanites, we like this stuff for a reason. On some cellular level a great flannel shirt or pair of boots connects us to a shared heritage and reminds us of our dads, uncles, grandfathers and all those other guys who we respect (and even as we rebel and balk at the idea) on some level want to emulate. The sentimental connection was obvious in the weekend’s Northern Grade’s marketing as they used old Polaroids of family members and friends in classic work and outdoor wear to highlight the link between the aesthetic and emotional.
Of course, the reason working men are willing to pay $300 for a pair of boots isn’t because they look sharp or make them feel like their Dad, it’s because they will wear them every day under punishing conditions and need them to hold up and be worth the investment. The same goes for nearly every category of clothing being offered by the classic heritage brands, they carry mid-range prices that belie their durability and defy the stratospheric rise in costs that has attacked the upper end of the fashion industry. I don’t care how tricked out you want your wardrobe to be, there will always be a place for long-wearing durable pieces that are as useful for chopping wood as for going out on the town. Below are a few of my favorite pieces from key heritage brands (with links on where to buy) that will patina nicely, and get you through your next foray into the wild, be that the boundary waters, Williston, ND, or a trip to the new Uptown Theater.
Red Wing: Heritage Boots No. 8111
Some truly classic boots originally worn by Iron Range miners, these only become more beautiful as they age. These are a quality product that will need to be broken in and cared for but will reward you with a lifetime of wear. These have a somewhat more formal edge than some of Red Wing’s more directly work focused boots, so they can be dressed up as well as down. Red Wing, MN, has been the home of this company for over a century, and they have recently undergone a Renaissance with a host of classic styles 9from original designs) being produced with the same high level of attention to detail that made them synonymous with quality. You can also find deals on their products by taking a short and scenic drive South to visit their factory store. If you missed NorthernGRADE, they’re available at various Metro Area retailers and on the Red Wing site.
Duluth Pack is a Minnesota company that’s been around for 130 years and is based right where you would expect from the name. Their products are of course locally made and come with a lifetime guarantee. I’m particularly digging this laptop bag that’s made in a Scout style (is anyone else expecting a Scout style resurgence after this summer’s Moonrise Kingdom?) that seems a bit tongue-in-cheek while being stylish and functional. Duluth Pack is available at various outdoors and bike shops, including Midwest Moutaineering and Angry Catfish, and Duluth Pack’s website.
While this brand may not have the years of heritage as the two above, I love the connection between handcraft and the apprenticeship model that trades have been based on for thousands of years. Minnesota Leather Works is producing some fine, stylish pieces that while not showy are sure to last and get better with age. I’m particularly taken with their belts, which are available in assorted widths and colors to pair with both formal and casual wear. Minnesota Leather Works is available at various Twin Cities retailers, and online.
I could not be more pleased to see the re-opening of the iconic Faribault Woolen Mill Co.; around since 1865 in Faribault, MN, it is one of the few mills in America that still processes raw wool into a beautiful finished product. Their warm, soft woolen blankets and throws are top notch, and for apparel they are producing these simple elegant soft loomed scarves reminiscent of those that could have been worn by early trappers. Help support an iconic Minnesota business and get a little piece of history. Faribault Woolen Mill goods are available online only.
Dehen is based in Portland, OR, so not exactly local, but considering the spiritual connection between the Twin Cities and the Northwest I thought it was appropriate to highlight. Since 1920 the entrepreneurial Dehen Knitting Company has been making ridiculously well made knits, with a focus on school sweaters and work apparel. The rise and fall of the company’s fortunes seems to mirror the effect of globalization on the overall apparel industry. Throughout, the company stayed true to their roots, and the pendulum has swung again to an appreciation of goods that emphasize quality over quantity. This great piece that merges the best elements of a cardigan and a coat will keep you toasty this fall, and last you a lifetime. Dehen is available locally at martinpatrick3 at and their online shop.
None of these items will have you looking like an oil roughneck, but the connection between what workers have historically worn to accomplish their jobs and the great heritage apparel makers of America remains strong. You can feel good about supporting local manufacturers and stock your wardrobe with highly functional pieces that will only improve with age. Who knows, one day you may be passing these items down to your son; how’s that for sentiment?