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Creating durable, high-quality work boots for loggers allowed Viberg Boot Manufacturing Ltd. to continue making footwear in Canada long after other manufacturers gave up or moved to Asia. Viberg still makes logging boots, including the spiked caulk (pronounced “cork’) boots that enable loggers to keep their footing on slippery logs. But the economic woes of B.C. forestry industry and its shift to mechanization chopped down the number of loggers and with that the demand for logging gear.
To survive, Viberg needed to take a risk on new markets for its hand-crafted boots. A big breakthrough came several years ago, when the company received an order from a retail outlet in Japan for 50 pairs of boots to sell at its stores in Tokyo and New York. “We were pretty amazed,” Viberg says. Today, Viberg boots are sold in about 120 locations in Japan, where a cultural obsession with early 20th-century working-class culture has made big business out of authentic “heritage brands” like Viberg. Boots that sell for $350 to $600 to Canadian loggers can retail for upwards of $1,800 a pair in Japan.
Leading this strategy has been Brett Viberg, the younger of Glen’s two sons. (Son Jason works in production.) He travels to fashion events in places like Berlin and Florence promoting Viberg as the heritage brand it is: Glen’s father, Ed (who died in 1981), began making boots in the 1930s in Saskatchewan. In the 1950s, he relocated to B.C., first to Prince George and then to Victoria, where since 1970 the company operated out of a maze of small spaces in a former rooming house on the edge of the city’s Chinatown. The shoemakers still use many of the same techniques and equipment today.
Evidence that the fashion strategy is paying dividends: Viberg recently sold 350 pairs of boots to hip fashion retailer Barneys New York, including hiking boots patterned after those worn by Antarctic explorer Robert Scott (a project on which Viberg collaborated with British designer Nigel Cabourn).
The fashion trade now accounts for about 70 per cent of Viberg’s business, up from 60 per cent in 2011. “We came from work boots and it’s kind of hard to let it go,” he says. “And believe me, we’re not going to.” Since moving into a new location in the Victoria suburb of Saanich in April 2012, Viberg has ramped up domestic production by about 30 per cent from the 6,000 pairs it was making each year before the move. Viberg hopes to increase annual production to 10,000 pairs by next year.
Even in its new factory, the company takes about 100 days to complete an order. Viberg plans to invest in new machinery and manufacturing processes that will enable it to produce faster, as well as make dressier styles of boots. “We’ve kind of gone as far as we can, with the way our process is, to make shoes,” Glen Viberg says.
The Japanese market for the company’s heritage footwear has probably reached its saturation point, he says. But the company anticipates growth in the U.S. and in Europe, where it now has about 25 distributors. “By far the best market in Europe is Germany, due to product knowledge, climate and a strong economy,” Brett Viberg says.
He has also been working with Cabourn on designing a collection of heritage clothing, based on 1930s factory-worker attire, to complement the footwear. “I am just really enjoying what has been unfolding for us and look forward to seeing how far we can grow.”