Sunday, July 30, 2017

For How Long Can You Rely on a Vendor?


Across decades, staple clothes are almost always available, but the companies that produce them are always changing.  Vendors, including those often described as preppy, Ivy style, or trad, evolve from young and innovative (on the left of the chart) to inert company shells (on the right).  It is often useful to understand in what stage a currently used company is.  The highlighting by social media style sites generally suggests a vendor is on the far right of the chart.
Companies mentioned in the comment section so far (organized roughly from left to right):

Precious
Iconic
New Markets
Cash Grab
Company Shell
The broad characteristics of each stage are as follows (and all characteristics won't apply to all companies):

Crucible
  • A company serves demanding clients in authentic environments significantly better then competitors.  
  • The company’s founder is hands on.
  • Other people often love the products without necessarily recognizing the company that made it.
  • As any VC knows, companies here are highly unstable; they can change nearly instantly, from experiencing overnight rapid growth, to selling out, pivoting, or going away.
Precious
  • Fiercely passionate customers, who are "in the know," are very loyal to the company.
  • The company has much higher prices than competitors, which fans are happy to pay.  

Precious companies have much higher prices than competitors, which fans are happy to pay.  Marketing is poor, and not a priority.  Web sites may be disastrous.

  • Quality is paramount. 
  • Customers can still call or email and get the owner (and often work through any problems).
  • New, great products are added, seemingly effortlessly.  The company has an aesthetic certainty, not derivative nor capricious.  
Iconic
  • The company has widely recognized popular and unique items.
  • Great pride is taken in the company by employees, who go "beyond the call of duty" to make happy customers.
  • Items are expensive, but high quality.
  • New items, extensions of old, are added.
  • Companies gain increasing brand recognition well beyond passionate base.
  • A short term flattening of growth can cause panic.

Iconic companies worry about becoming trendy and stylish, something that cash grab companies are desperate to be. 

    • The company worries about becoming trendy and stylish.  They also fear complacency, bloat, and smugness, and don't want to be thought of as the category leader.  They sell great products, not a great brand.
    New Markets
    • The company is often under new management, typically with MBA and logistics-centric credentials. The company increases focuses on greatly improving contribution margins.
    • The new management begins to purge many of the old employees and suppliers/branded vendors that had contributed to the success of the company. 
    • Companies in this stage are very interested in new categories of customers, and take the existing customer base for granted; many loyal customers find themselves buying less and less.
    • The new management experiments with "leveraging the look and the feel of the brand and brand experience" by tentatively lowering the quality and increasing the channels, supported by ramped up marketing, including social media.   Cheaper parts are swapped in wherever possible.
    • Marketing gets increasingly - often awkwardly - self-congratulatory.
    • The company makes big deals of changing the colors of successful products.  
    • Vendors open mall stores, for example, in this stage, ancillary to design decision making.  
    • No new great products are launched, despite expensive misfires.  Companies go after markets they don't understand.  From a marketing and design perspective, the company becomes derivative, random, and piecemeal.  Aesthetic sensibilities are gone; it looks like the creative output of a Reddit thread.  
    Cash Grab
    • There is a nearly impossible to resist opportunity for upper management to personally cash-in with a one-time windfall through a rapid market expansion with much lower quality goods at still high prices with very high margins, irrevocably sacrificing brand, long-term employees and partners, and traditional customers.  In other words, transforming nothing into a great company is somewhat profitable. Transforming a great company into nothing is highly profitable.
    • Companies believe success comes when they can best distract from, rather than highlight, what they are actually selling.  Many peddle aspirational vulgarity.
    • There is significant confusion from traditional customers.  Long time customers start to experience return-fatigue.
    • Some classics remain (but fewer and fewer).
    • There are wild fluctuations of prices (higher prices, then massive sales, with various coupons and sweepstakes).
    • New products are low quality and relatively expensive.  Companies design for 75% to 80% mark ups. 
    • Mall stores grow in influence over the direction of the company. Outlet stores open. Companies here may invest in "big data" programs.  The culture embraces short cuts to short term success.
    • Companies increasingly outsource production to low-cost providers.
    • Companies are desperate to be stylish and trendy.
    • A cash grab company further increase their PR budget, first spent trying to differentiate the company from their past and pushing new, very-high-margin products, then relentlessly trying to invoke their heritage when the new products flop.  Companies become louder and more strident. Cash grab companies do keep afloat many preppy and Ivy style cosplay bloggers. (Spoiler: most Northeastern preppy and Ivy style blogs are aimed at Midwesterners who want to be Southern.)
    Company Shell
    • Companies' products are no longer significantly differentiated in the marketplace. Branding chugs along.  Companies here find themselves with new competitors and engage in a race-to-the-bottom in quality to shore up crumbling margins.
    • They shift, almost overnight from an external market perception, from relevant and interesting to irrelevant, tired, and over-exposed.  
    • Outlet stores and other bottom feeding strategies become highly influential in setting company strategies.  
    • Black and white old photographs are used that have no connection to the current organization.

    Cash Grab companies align with cosplay blogs through such tools as rewardstyle.com; Company shells, if criminal compatible, align with the for-profit copyright-infringement blogs.

    • They rely on good customer service to overcome quality problems, not to meet individual needs or repair but to efficiently replace or refund.  Guarantees become more restrictive.  Finally, customer service, typically the last point of pride and holdover from the once strong company, fades to squeeze out a few more dollars of profit.

    55 comments:

    1. Replies
      1. J.Crew is the first company that came to mind in this category. I'm not too sure they will even make it to the "company shell" stage. Death watch seems more likely.

        Jacqueline

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      2. The rumor here for some time has been that they're going under, but their one store here continues to operate. Not sure what it is they are selling, it seems to be a grab bag of stuff without much rhyme or reason; it seems they are primarily catering to millennial hipsters with too much money and not much taste or style sense.

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    2. Barbour is the perfect example of cash grab. Hardly any classics remain.

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      Replies
      1. I would also add that most of Barbour's garments are made in China or Eastern Europe. It seems that only classic waxed jackets (mostly Bedale, Beaufort, Border and Northumbria) are made in the South Shields factory.

        Most of the waxed and other jackets are in made in Eastern Europe, e.g. Romania. Similarly, very little knitwear is now made in the UK with China being the main source.

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      2. At least the classics remain for Men. The women's products are absolutely terrible...all fashionable, nothing practical. I have a men's navy Bedale that I expect to hold on to for years. It may not be fashionable, or get photographed for "preppy style blogs" but it is warm, waterproof and perfect for walking the dog.

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      3. Thankfully, I am only interested in the classic waxed cotton jackets. I think that this company is in pursuit of Burberry level success. At least what Burberry was before most people in England recoiled from Novacheck. They're striving to be edgy and fashionable instead of functional and classic.

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    3. Thanks for bringing this post back, Muffy. I always find it so interesting to read all of the comments.

      Jacqueline

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    4. Brooks Brothers is going down. Trying to impress " younger" shoppers with skinny clothes. The older customer is quickly becoming an afterthought....

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      Replies
      1. Agree 100% on Brooks Bros. 20 years ago, it was a staple of my husband's closet and I also had quite a collection of shirts and blazers.

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    5. Cordings of Piccadilly (London) is an iconic brand. It invented the covert coat. No other firm offers a 7 piece tweed suits (field coat, action back jacket, sports coat, waistcoat, long trousers, plus 2s, plus 4s).

      Another British iconic brand is Grenfell. Its outerwear range (such as raincoats, golf jackets and Harringtons) is truly excellent. By contrast, Macintosh seems to fall into your "new markets" category. Aquascutum is firmly in the company shell category, an absolute shadow of the company that dominated Regent Street in decades gone by.

      Private White VC (Manchester and London) meets your definition of a precious brand. However, its high prices could inhibit its growth potential.

      Poor old Ralph Lauren must be a worried man. His company has gone through the cash grab stage and, like the hapless J Crew, entered the cash loss stage. It may not be around in a few years time.

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    6. I know you've covered this concept before, but the phrase "it can indicate when to begin a switch to a new source."

      I think too many people still get caught up in the notion of buying the "right" brands, when said brands have abandoned the principles and quality that built their reputation.

      I remember peeking into a lacoste boutique and seeing polo shirts retailing for up to $165. The whole experience reminded me of the 'upmarket' duty-free shops in international airports. These companies are capitalizing on brand image to chase new aspirational markets that are unfamiliar or unconcerned with the 'material' history of the products; prestige and label are the primary selling points. That's probably why so much effort is put into building "since 1xxx" histories instead of putting money into the product itself.

      A consequence of globalization in the retail market.

      For what it's worth, I've come to prioritize fit and material over brand. Sometimes even company shells reliably produce one or two items that are worth stocking up on, when no other alternatives can be reliably sourced.

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      Replies
      1. Oh yes....Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren are at the cash grab stage, and Ralph Lauren is getting very close to company shell. They are no longer sources for me.

        Jacqueline

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    7. Letherman LTD - Crucible
      Note: Although the clients are not demanding. Just good old New England style.

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    8. Sperry - New Markets
      Note: I have like 20 pair but still wearing ones that are 17 years old on a daily basis. In fact, I just throw them in the washing machine anymore than use shoe forms and set them in the sun.

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    9. The timeframe of the Iconic to New Markets transition seems to be pretty quick and Cash Grab/Company Shell not far behind. I don't frequent shopping centers too often and growing up my family traditionally made purchases from just a few retailers/brands for eons. So I have been caught unawares until the shocking need to switch to a new source because of dramatic change in quality/styling of a favorite. If only I could program my Alexa to monitor trends/business news so as to order in bulk when a retailer is about to evolve into early Iconic, and definitely when it reaches the tipping point!

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    10. We went to Nordstrom's this week to try and buy a new pair of Cole Haan tassled loafers. The salesman looked at us funny and said they no longer carried that style anymore. There was no alternative either. I guess they don't care that baby boomers can no longer replace their worn-out, twice resoled loafers. They are apparently catering to a new generation even though we are the ones with the money to buy their goods.

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      Replies
      1. When Cole Haan was purchased by Nike, the decline began. My husband and I used to purchase so many shoes from them in the early 1990s. They went the way of Coach.

        Jacqueline

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      2. "They went the way of Coach".

        So true. I am still carrying Coach bags from 1990 and only just gave up my last pair of CH sandals from the same era.

        Analysts demand constant earnings growth and management of these publicly traded companies have no choice but to cash grab for as long as possible before they reach their bottoms.

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    11. Not sure where Bean fits any more, pretty much a shell, so many outsourced products, inconsistent materials, cut and fit varies widely. Order three shirts and they are all different. I have Bean items that are 40 years old, still function, show little wear. Bean has become a costume store pushing the brand, no longer building, a quality relationship with their customers. They are not too big to fail. I was lucky to enjoy their products when quality was their number one goal. Things change, New England Yankees, not so much.

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    12. Brooks Brothers is now firmly in "Company Shell" territory. Everything I have (foolishly) purchased from them recently is garbage, but certainly not priced like it. No more.

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      Replies
      1. I recently made my first BB purchase (not counting Black Fleece). BB recently reintroduced its OCDB shirt with mother-of-pearl-buttons and an unfused collar, which gives the collar a really nice roll. The fit (Regent Fit) is superb. Best of all: made in America.

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      2. Sadly, BB's OCDB is priced at over £150 in London's Regent Street. Rip-off Britain strikes gain!

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    13. Check out the book How The Mighty Fall by Jim Collins, in which he describes the five stages of a company's death: 1) Hubris born of success, 2) Undisciplined pursuit of more, 3) Denial of risk and peril, 4) Grasping for salvation, and 5) Capitulation to irrelevance or death. What you describe here for clothing companies is pretty much universal for all organizations, whether companies or church denominations, since they are all populated with people and people behave and react the same way no matter where they are, what organization they are in, or what their product is. No matter where we go, there we are.

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    14. Lacoste is certainly a shell. However I have heard they don't have good costumer service. So, it is even worse than the chart would entail.

      Where the hell do I buy clothes? Everything sucks now.

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      1. Look towards smaller local brands and go to the source. If you are savvy about googling and willing to pay for what the work and fabric is worth you can find pretty much everything you want - the issue starts, I think, when people are unwilling to pay for quality work and materials and the company reduces to keep the profit margin.

        I look towards the heritage workwear subculture as a springboard for many of my buying purchases, not the visible prep fashion community. I think that the core of the heritage workwear community's values are more similar to old school prep values - buy it for life, mend it if needed, and don't be afraid to get a little dirty or do some work in your clothes. At fist glance, especially when I saw it coming out of Japan in the early 00's, the clothes seem to be styled in a way that's kind of like a costume or parody of the work itself but a lot of it does have it's roots in real work. For example, Gamine Denim was developed by a horticulturist who kept busting the knees out of her pants. As an avid gardener I had a similar problem with my gardening pants and finding a piece of clothing designed for the work solved lots of issues and I was pleased to support the company.

        Alternatively, you could sew your own clothes. Or SWNE can pool our money together and do some sort of clothing cooperative/startup.

        In conclusion, I respectfully disagree that everything sucks now - you just have to work a little harder to find it.

        - ER

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      2. I agree about the Gamine Workwear Company. Very well made, In the USA, and the front pockets are berfect for holding secateurs, and other smallish tools. I haven't had a blown out knee for quite some time.

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      3. The SWNE Coop!

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    15. Precious or Iconic - that's where a company should stop trying to be cool, and accept that your 8 or 10 percent of market share is just fine for your company and its 80 or so employees. You get to bask in the knowledge that you're the best there is at what you do.
      Boring, but this approach leads to a company lifetime measured in multiple decades. LL Bean was a perfect example of this, until sometime in the 80s, I guess.
      - Charlie

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    16. Other cash grab companies are Gant, Tommy Hilfiger and Hackett. Almost everything is manufactured in China and Asia. Gant is owned by a Swedish company. Hackett is owned by the Spanish family that owns Zara and Massimo Dutti. IIRC Hilfiger is owned by PVH which other tat brands like Calvin Klein.

      The prices charged by those companies are ridiculously high, similar to Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers. Their garments are no better than other mass market brands that are found in malls and department stores.

      Why pay fortheir huge corporate salaries, luxurious headquarters and excessive marketing/PR budgets? It's cheaper to buy better quality goods that are manufactured in the US, Britain and Europe.

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    17. Somehow I doubt that a company with only 80 or so employees is going to have 8 or 10 percent of the market but I suppose it depends on what the product is and how you define the market.

      There are a fair number of American-made products that are still in the first couple of categories, mostly of a custom made nature. I'm not speaking of clothes necessarily but of all sorts of things. Sometimes a company will not have begun as such a company but evolved into a producer of high-quality custom products, sometimes having begun as a seller of other company's mass produced products. Mass produced, it should be noted, does not imply low quality.

      I have no idea what "cool" is supposed to mean but some companies try to be exclusive or to give the impression they are, probably as a marketing ploy to increase the desirability of the product. That was a marketing strategy for Ralph Lauren for a while, although their products were of good quality.

      I'd have to say that the most significant period that a company goes through is when the founder leaves the company, which is inevitable. The company may flounder for a while before it "finds itself." In some instances it may not be the founder but rather the person who took the company and created something better with it. Ray Kroc did not found McDonald's but he all but did by making it a franchise model. This can be true of even very large companies, too, but it may go unnoticed because of the size.

      We rarely know the internal workings of companies and things may not be as we see them. Markets change. Styles change. Things that we think should sell very nicely may not and for all sorts of reasons. Companies face competition, too. Cabela's is real competition for L.L. Bean and they aren't trying to be anything that you think L.L. Bean ought to be. I've always liked Filson and have a lot of their stuff. But like many of you, I don't care for some of their contemporary styles. All I can say is, I guess they aren't counting on too many sales to 70-year olds like myself. But after all, nothing I buy now really needs to last all that long and I know my son won't wear it.

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    18. I wasn't a customer of LL Bean's or of Brooks or even of Ralph Lauren back when their women's trousers had no stretch and actually fit. I wonder if they ever would have fit me. What I do know for sure is that despite the state of their business, J Crew has managed to maintain a staff that knows how to draft a pattern without relying upon stretch. They are currently offering women's trousers that fit, and I have stocked up at a discount. A few years back, I did the same with Brooks Brother's summer sheath dresses; which involved some of the most difficult to follow drafting I had ever tried to replicate.

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    19. We went to Houston yesterday and while there I hit Brooks, Vinyard Vines, Dillards, RL, in search of a blazer to replace a threadbare jacket I have literally worn to pieces. ( Brooks Brothers)
      Nothing would I wear or consider wearing. The blazer while a summer weight, at Vinyard Vines was so thin, so poorly constructed I think it is made to wear perhaps one season. The other shops offerings were no better. We also visited Orvis to seek a replacement for an older bag that has literally traveled the world. China, England, Korea, Alaska. We found the exact same bag, now 3 times the price and already the bottom stitching was loose. While at Orvis we discussed with an older lady our dilemma and she suggested ' vintage' products being sold on sites such as ebay.

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    20. Having been critical of several brands, I should add to my list of companies who offer superb products.

      Chapman Bags (Cumbria) - precious
      Budd Shirts (Piccadilly) - iconic
      Crockett & Jones shoes (Northampton) - iconic
      Gaziano & Girling shies - precious

      Sadly, I must also add to the list of "cash grab" companies

      Tricker's shoes (higher prices, lower quality, silly colours)
      Hilditch & Key shirts (huge price hike failed, now made in Italy rather than Scotland)
      Gieves & Hawkes (ruined by Chinese owners, probably nearer the company shell stage now)
      New & Lingwood (ridiculous prices, dreadful patterns and mall sub-brand)

      Huntsman (Savile Row tailor) belongs firmly in the new markets category. It's now an expensive toy for its new hedge fund owner and his "designer" partner. More price hikes and all the staff that I knew have left.

      John Smedley is also now in the new markets stage. It is certainly is targetting the youth market, with garish colours and designs, rather than its core customers.

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    21. Please enter Chipp2. Paul Winston, son of the founder, still makes great ties. Will pick up the phone. Great stories about Chipp suits on JFK

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    22. In previous years, Talbots and Lands' End were always mentioned. They are probably in the "company shell" category, but for me they are simply off the chart and off my radar. What about Lotuff? "Precious"? J.Press? I don't remember if J. McLaughlin was on previous charts, but I would put them in the "shell" category. I was in a store recently, and it was racks of pure poly--those dresses that feel sort of slippery like thicker Quiana from the 1970s. If they had told me to take anything I wanted for free, I would have still left with nothing.

      Jacqueline

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    23. New England Outerwear and New England Shirt Company: precious. Hartford Denim Company: crucible. I recently visited all three of these brands, with the first story about NEOC now live: http://someone-else.us/stories/lewiston-maine-mountain-moccasin/

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    24. As Timberland's and Sebago's quality and ranges have declined dramatically due to their respective "cash grab" strategies, I need to find an alternative source to replace two pairs of Sebago Clovehitch boat shoes.

      Does anyone have recent experience of Quoddy and Rancourt? I would be interested to read comments on quality, sizing, fit and customer service. I need an American EEE (UK G) width. Alternative suggestions would be very welcome.

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      Replies
      1. I ordered a pair of Quoddy bluchers back in Dec. 2016. I worked with a rep all throughout the design/order process to make sure the sizing and fit were good. When the shoes were delivered, I realized that they were still a bit loose at the heel. I mentioned this to the rep and she promptly put in an order for a new, smaller pair at no charge.

        I would advise talking to a rep throughout the process so that they're aware of what's going on. I thought the customer service was superb.

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    25. I like Quoddy a lot; great quality and customer service. I notice that they are changing a bit with some sales and added styles. I think their prices are fair for their quality.
      I have been tempted by Rancourt but have not tried them yet.

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    26. Lands' End -- Company Shell (or beyond). I remember when they used to have great products at very reasonable prices.

      My last experience (probably in both meanings of the word "last") was when I took a chance and bought a pair of "penny loafers" from them. First, they weren't real penny loafers, like Bass or Cole-Haan (neither of which you can find here any longer), just some sort of ugly pointy Chinese shoe with a fake piece of "penny loafer" leather glued on top. Second, they began to fall apart and the faux cordovan finish began coming off within a week, exposing an ugly pink undercoating. My wife thought they were so hideous she had a couple of pairs of my old beat-up real penny-loafers re-soled and re-finished at the shoe repair shop and she told me never to wear the Lands' End shoes again.

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    27. This article is enlightening and a little depressing at the same time. Now I finally understand what has happened to my beloved Paul Smith brand - the cash grab. And it happened so fast. Three seasons ago it was still superb.

      As far as brand like Ralph Lauren are concerned I now follow a simple rule - if the garment is made in China, India, Bangladesh or any of the other fleshpots in Asia then I pass.

      Acceptable production areas are anywhere in Europe, Turkey, Morocco, and of course the USA.

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    28. Aside from the cost of American labor, true also in some other countries, manufacturers sometime face the problem of finding skilled employees. Factory work has never been an attractive occupation but that's where clothing comes from. As a matter of fact, it is a problem that seems to be an issue in several industries, finding employees with the necessary skills and good work habits. Perhaps it is no wonder than manufacturers move their operations offshore.

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    29. Leatherman's quality and customer service have basically disappeared. I have been dealing with them both personally and professionally since the mid 1990's. I would say they are in a twilight zone combination of failed cash grab and poorly engineered attempt at new markets. I love and appreciate their original product, image, and mission. Just feel they lost site of that over the last 5 or so years. YRI Designs based in NH since 1967 is a classic ribbon belt company. Superior product quality, fantastic, consistent, and personable customer service. Owners are still actively involved and I have been dealing with the same Rep for 20+ years. They also have successfully balanced the retail and corporate/club world well as well as adding product that appeals to a more contemporary market, but without losing their strong New England flavor or selling out for the quick buck.

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    30. My very old Vera Bradley purses are still serving their purpose at 21 to 26 years of age. Recently, I perused the VB website and was sorely disappointed.

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      Replies
      1. Twenty years ago I attended a tea and book signing with Tasha Tudor and she was carrying an original Vera Bradley that looked as worn as her vintage clothes - so charming! It was a sign of the quality and integrity of their products at that time. While the Vera Bradley raffle basket still draws quite a bit of attention at our annual library auction, it holds no appeal for me. In my opinion, that line has gone down the drain. But I'm happy to have and use the vintage patterns I fell in love with over 20 years ago, all made in Indiana when VB was a cottage industry. I especially enjoy the totes and overnight pieces - some of the same ones Muffy features. Just sadly proves...nothing lasts forever.

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      2. There are many local companies that will sew a Vera-like bag for you, if you don't want to try DIY. There is great US made fabric, such as the Blueberry Buckle series from Clothworks/Marsha McCloskey.

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    31. Some serious irony to this bemoaning the loss of quality as American brands are made overseas. The globalist dream fulfilled, top dollar prices asked for shoddy goods with luxury brand names of yore. Chinese Volvo anyone? As grandfather would say "you wanted it you got it". Hang on to your good stuff and find a good tailor for repairs.

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      Replies
      1. So True. I wish I had kept more. I moved around and was always purging to lighten the load. I didn't see this coming.

        Jacqueline

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    32. Russell Moccasins; the company, the products and the family that manages the operation are precious.
      Old pairs of Barrie's shoes are very precious.
      Thank you.

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    33. There are a few styles of Barbour jackets for women on the TJMaxx site. I didn't check to see if there were any for men. I'm pretty sure these are not the styles that are still made in England. There is a Rannoch Beadnell in navy in size 6, but I think that style is "imported." Is this telling? Cash grab?

      Jacqueline

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      Replies
      1. We were going to rep Barbour at a friend's store, and would have done well with the brand, but the colours of the women's jackets were just so ghastly, that we passed. Dusty rose, faded blue, pale yellow? Hell no!

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    34. We have numerous McArthurGlen designer outlets in the UK and you can tell who is doing what just by browsing each store. There are many shops who are guilty of the cash grab and company shell status; Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Lacoste, Hackett, Hugo Boss. You can feel just how poor quality the clothing is and you know that a lot of it hasn't ever seen a retail store, it's just been designed and manufactured to be sold in the outlet with a RRP price and a cheaper outlet price on the label as if you are getting a bargain. You're not.

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