If you asked a group of denim heads a few years ago what were the best boots in the world, the majority of them would have probably chosen Viberg. This Canadian boot brand absolutely dominated the heritage work wear market in the first half of the 2010s. Founded in 1931 and still family owned and operated to this very day, they had the perfect combination of heritage, style, design, leathers, and most of all, quality.
Today, it is a slightly different story. While the brand is still quite popular in the raw denim scene, its dominance has appeared to drop significantly. While trends certainly exist even in our world of style, the fact that Truman, Thursday, Sagara, and Santalum have been growing in popularity coupled with the fact that Whites and Wesco have both introduced boots remarkably similar to Viberg’s service boot as well as what appears to be a generally more negative perception of the company means that something else had to happen to bring about Viberg’s downturn than them simply being the victim of a change in the market.
The classic Viberg service boot
Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am not aware of Viberg’s actual sales numbers or revenue and do not have any way of proving that they are selling less boots to the raw denim and heritage work wear market. The bench made boot market does not have data the way the automobile industry does so sales numbers and quality issues cannot truly be measured. This article is only meant to explore what I perceive to be a sharp downturn in Viberg’s reputation and relative market share over the past couple of years based on many pieces of subjective evidence including discussions I have seen and actual talks I have had with other denim heads and boot freaks like myself. If you think Viberg is doing better than ever, that’s great. I simply feel personally that the general perception of the brand has shifted over time.
I am sure that some will argue that Viberg’s popularity has not actually waned at all recently, but I believe otherwise. Certainly, there are still many customers and fans of the brand and I do not believe that Viberg is going to go bust or anything like that. However, discussion activity on their boots has dropped sharply on forums, most notably on the Iron Heart Forum where from 2011-2015, there were 384 pages of discussion on Viberg, an average of 76.8 pages per year. In 2016 there were only 25 pages of discussion and in 2017, there were only 9 pages of discussion with no activity at all so far in 2018. Even on Instagram, the news for them is grim. Despite being such an established brand, Truman now has a much larger number of followers than Viberg and also has more likes and comments per picture by a significant margin. Again, this does not mean that Viberg is in trouble sales-wise, but it does show the growing popularity of their competition.
It has become apparent to me that Viberg’s reputation has fallen drastically in recent years. In the past, they were the king of the boot world along with Red Wing and had the reputation of being much higher quality than the Minnesota-based brand. Recent conversations that I have had and discussions I have seen tell a very different story that is much more negative for the brand. So we have to ask, what made all of this happen?
Jack is confused by Viberg
As it turns out, there are several contributing factors to Viberg losing their crown as the king of heritage boots. From what I have seen, the rise of higher quality boot brands, the realization of Viberg’s fallibility, their shift in focus, and the immediate response from other brands have all contributed to the position that Viberg is in now. Let’s take a look at each of these factors individually.
- The Rise of Higher Quality Boot Brands
At their peak, Viberg was perceived by many to be the highest quality work boot brand on the market. From what I saw, this was a major contributing factor to their popularity. Their boots were twice as expensive as Red Wings, but the general consensus was that they were worth the price. At the time, however, the only brand that anyone considered to be as good as or better seemed to be John Lofgren who mainly focused on engineer boots at that time. However, since then, two brands in particular have come more to the forefront that are very clearly higher quality than Viberg. Both Brass Tokyo and Role Club really arrived on the work wear scene strongly in 2015. These two brands quickly captured the hearts of people like me who search for the absolute highest of quality in their footwear with hand sewn welted boots of impeccable design and nearly perfect construction. While more expensive than Viberg, these brands are the best of the best other than the much more obscure White Kloud and have significantly contributed to the next main point. I can say that without Role Club and Clinch, I almost certainly would have bought a pair of Viberg boots at some point. Additionally, John Lofgren has expanded his range to offer more lace up boots, making him a closer competitor to Viberg.
Clinch have cemented themselves as a heavyweight in the quality boot game along with Role Club
- The realization of Viberg’s Fallibility
The introduction of superior quality footwear helped draw attention to the fact that Viberg was not actually as great as the general consumer base originally thought. While it is true that every single bootmaker has had some sort of quality control issue, Japanese brands and Role Club showed that these instances could be exceedingly rare. The Canadian brand, on the other hand, has had a decent amount of quality control issues. They aren’t excessive, but with other brands such as Clinch, Lofgren, and Role Club around, it magnifies the issues that Viberg does have. Take a look at these boots here. The stitch down stitching is absolutely atrocious and completely unacceptable for any boot brand regardless of price in my opinion. For Viberg to sell these boots not as seconds is ridiculous, especially for the price they charge. I have seen Wesco have a wonky stitch or two, but these stitches make Jeremy Clarkson’s teeth look like Kate Middleton’s by comparison.
This stitch down stitching is absolutely terrible when compared to my Wesco engineers
Actually, Clarkson’s teeth might be straighter than those stitches, just more discolored
This one example does not mean that Viberg makes terrible boots because they absolutely do not. What it proves is that Viberg are far from flawless and at their price point, many expect them to be pretty much perfect. This also is not to say that Viberg’s quality has specifically gone down, but with the rise of both higher and lower-priced brands along with Wesco’s foray into more modern footwear, Viberg’s flaws have become more magnified than before.
- Viberg’s Shift in Focus
This is by far the largest contributing factor to Viberg’s relative fall from grace. There must be a reason for it, but I really cannot understand why they thought it was a good idea to shift their focus from the heritage work wear market to a more mainstream fashion market. One would have thought that the famous quote from Yves Saint Laurent “Fashion fades, style is eternal” would have been Viberg’s motto as it is for most heritage brands. The use of Goodyear welting rather than continuing with stitch down construction was met with dissent from Viberg’s main market and it really does not make sense for them to alienate their customers in such a way. Worse still is the fact that Viberg continues to come out with new models and designs that are questionable at best. The Chelsea boots make little sense when the company already makes an engineer boot model and the actual new model is not as sleek as a true Chelsea boot is supposed to be.
I do not think these boots are ugly…
…but I also don’t think that they are as sleek and well designed of these Carmina boots
As someone who owns both engineers from Brass, Role Club, John Lofgren, and Wesco as well as two pairs of beautiful Chelsea boots from Carmina, I can say that in my view, Viberg’s new Chelseas look like a slightly awkward combination of a Chelsea, engineer, and roper boot while neither being sleek like a true Chelsea boot nor rugged like a roper or engineer boot. Yet another strange design decision was to debut the 1004 cantilever last. Supposedly based on orthotic shoes for maximum comfort, the only reactions I have seen from others to this last have been negative due to its very strange and in my opinion, confusingly ugly shape and design. Neither sleek, nor bulky and rugged, it is an awkward middle ground that does not fit well into Viberg’s line up.
*UPDATE: As of 3 October 2018, Viberg’s newest iteration of their tan horsehide service boot is now being offered on the 2030 last. When this article was originally written, it was offered on the 1004 Cantilever last. In addition, as of this date, there is not a single item in the 1004 Cantilever last available on the Viberg website. It is not clear if these changes were made due to customers not liking that last, but I assuming that this is likely the case.*
the way this last curves in gives me flashbacks of Tommy Pickles
Not for me, thanks.
Even worse are the new slippers which I personally find quite beautiful in a unique way. Even so, they make very little sense for a brand like Viberg to sell, especially given the fact that they are not a more rugged, moc-style slipper such as what other brands sell. However, the model that really is the nail in the coffin for this once worshiped brand is their new sneaker that they unveiled recently. This may be the most horrid, confusing, and horrendously ugly new product to hit the raw denim and heritage work wear scene since Evisu… well since a lot of things that Evisu has done, but everyone already knows that Evisu is weird. It would have been bad enough if Viberg did what Gustin did and copied Common Projects, but these new sneakers combine all of the worst elements of New Balance and those disgusting Balenciaga sneakers that were popular in mainstream fashion in 2017.*
There are not enough versions of the word no to express how I feel about these
At least this guy is wearing selvedge, right?!
- The Void Viberg Left Has Already Been Filled
All of these issues are bad enough, but they are made worse by the fact that the void of relatively sleek, service-style boots has already been filled by other brands. Yes, Viberg does still make them, but not as many and for the most part, not with the same specifications that everyone loved before. Southeast Asian brands such as Santalum and Sagara have continued to push forward in the past few years along with Thursday boots (I do not like Thursday boots at all and I want to make it very clear that I do not view them as a viable alternative due to their outsourcing). All of these brands are cheaper alternatives, but all three offer models very similar to Viberg at much lower prices. My brother owns a pair of Sagara derby shoes that are actually quite well made and from his and my point of view, are a decent alternative to Viberg’s derby shoe.
Sagara and Santalum both make similar boots to Viberg even if they are not as good
Sensing blood in the water, Whites and Wesco both have recently released boots that are essentially their take on Viberg’s service boot. If these two brands realize how important it is to give customers unique leathers to choose from, both of these new boots could become very successful models. This is very likely for Wesco given Standard and Strange’s propensity for knowing what customers will actually like and releasing great collaboration boots with some cool and special leathers with Wesco.
If Standard and Strange make something this cool with the new Wesco Hendrik, I would be interested
By far the largest thorn in Viberg’s side right now, however, is Truman Boot Co. This upstart boot brand was founded in 2014 and has become incredibly popular alarmingly quickly. I do not mince words on this blog so I will say what most people are already aware of: Truman is a blatant Viberg rip off. In fact, there is a widespread rumor that the founder, Vince Romano worked for Viberg for a period of time before starting his own company. However, I have confirmed with Vince himself as well as Viberg that this rumor is completely untrue. The fact that it gained so much traction despite being false shows just how much people like to compare the two brands. Looking through the Colorado company’s website, it is very clear to see that their boots are quite similar to Viberg’s classic Service boot on the 2030 last. They have the same relatively sleek trench boot profile, triple row stitching on the vamp, double row stitching on the counter, double row stitch down construction, dainite soles, and natural leather outsole color. Truman even go to the trouble of sourcing as wide of a variety of leathers as possible, much like Viberg does. The only major difference is the fact that Truman generally have 8 eyelets while Viberg’s standard service boot has only 7. Additionally, Truman has recently changed their main last to be much chunkier, helping differentiate their look from Viberg further.
A copy of Viberg? Sure, but that leather sure does look nice
The problem for Viberg is that Truman appears to be a fairly successful rip off of them. Sure, Truman has been known to have issues with quality control, but the difference is that Truman’s boots cost around $150-$200 less than a pair of Viberg boots with an equivalent leather. Furthermore, Truman has done an excellent job of sourcing some impressive leathers from Horween in the USA, Charles F. Stead in Britain, and some truly gorgeous vegetable tanned leathers from Maryam and Tempesti in Itally. Viberg does still offer a wider range of leathers, but both brands are certainly offering high quality hides to choose from.
Truman have become very popular
Perhaps most importantly, Truman have so far done exactly what consumers want and that is to offer a fairly sleek, rugged-looking and well-made boot in a wide variety of excellent leathers at a more reasonable price. This has gained them a very strong following evidenced by their strong social media presence and interaction and the fact that many of their boots sell out quite quickly. The proof that Viberg are on the back foot with this new rival is the now infamous incident of Brett Viberg going on Reddit to complain about Truman boots making a custom boot that looked just like one of their 3Sixteen collaboration boots for a customer. This did nothing but make Viberg look terrible and show that they are scared of Truman. This is not to say that Truman are doing everything right either. They upset people as well by doing what Viberg did a few years ago and halted made to order production, but then again, this was not one of the bigger factors that hurt them. All of this does not mean that Truman are superior to Viberg in terms of quality and construction and I would love to eventually be able to compare both brands’ boots one day. What it means is that Viberg have a much stronger competition to face than before.
I actually think these look quite nice, but I do not think Viberg should be making them instead of more service boots
Are Truman copying Viberg? Yes. Yes they are. However, the trench/service boot look is not something that is exclusive to them and they only have themselves to blame for allowing this to happen. Four or five years ago, the Canadian company may have been able to snuff out the Colorado upstarts or at least prevent them from gaining such a strong foothold in the market by simply taking the high road and building a far superior boot. Viberg had every opportunity to do this. They were entrenched in the market as the king of quality boots in the mind of the consumers and are a true heritage brand. Truman had no reputation and have absolutely no heritage whatsoever. They needed Viberg to give them a chance and they gave them several. Viberg may have actual heritage, but that heritage means absolutely nothing when the company itself appears to be spitting in the face of it. Most all of Viberg’s moves in the past couple years have done nothing but distance themselves from their connection to their own heritage and I am not the only person who sees this as a sort of slap in the face to the very people who made Viberg so popular in this market.
From what I have seen, people do not want this…
They want this
This is not meant to specifically bash Viberg because it is plainly obvious that they still do make an excellent pair of boots. That is undeniable. There is still a fair chance that I will own a pair of Viberg boots one day. Hell, I just wore my first Canadian tuxedo in public today so ‘never say never,’ right? It has just become quite obvious from looking around indigo cyber space, Instagram, and talking with friends and acquaintances in the know that Viberg’s reputation has fallen in the past couple of years and their iron grip has likely been lost forever thanks to other brands jumping on the opportunity that was given to them.
I think the reason that I was so strongly compelled to explore this topic (other than the fact that boots in general fascinate me) is that I have never personally seen something like this happen in this small niche industry that was specifically caused by the brand’s own mistakes and poor choices. Sure, tons of denim heads despise Gustin and Thursday*, but these brands were disliked from the get go. The shoe fit, so why didn’t Viberg just wear it? Make no mistake, much of what I have laid out here is not specifically Viberg’s fault and the rise of brands like Truman may still have taken place even if Viberg had maintained their stellar reputation.
Who knows? I could be completely wrong and perhaps eventually Viberg’s move to a more fashion-oriented audience may pay off for them, but I would be willing to bet that it will not and their reputation in the heritage work wear market will either continue to falter or they will realize their mistakes and return to doing what customers want by building service boots in beautiful leathers on sleek lasts with stitch down construction. One thing is for certain. Viberg’s reputation is not what it once was in this niche community and I do not think they will ever regain the reputation that they once had.
It is fairly safe to assume that at least a few people who read this disagree with me and that is not only OK, it is good. If you have anything to discuss, disagree with, or correct please feel free to leave a comment, send me a dm on Instagram, or an email. If your points are well made, I may add something about them in this article and if enough people comment (whether agreeing or disagreeing with me) I may even do a follow up article on this. I believe that discussion and disagreement can lead to very positive results and is the reason why I encourage feedback. This blog is not just supposed to be me preaching, but rather to be helpful in teaching as well as generating discussion. Join me next time where we talk about why people who prefer sneakers to boots are all wrong… just kidding.
*NOTE* Until 30 August, 2018, this article stated that Vince from Truman had at one point worked at Viberg. This was something that I had read on Reddit and heard from several other sources. I have since confirmed with both Vince himself and through Viberg that Vince has never worked for Viberg in any capacity. I want to apologize for this inaccuracy and I will make sure to double check rumors such as this much more thoroughly in the future.
*I literally typed in “ugly ass Balenciaga sneakers” into Google and the Triple S’s werethe first several images that popped up.
*Coverage and discussion of both Gustin and Thursday is on my ‘to do’ list