Dressed in a faded T-shirt and scruffy trainers, 63-year-old Glen Viberg isn’t what you would expect from the owner of a brand with a cult following in the world’s fashion capitals. Founded by his father Ed in 1931, Viberg was for many years a traditional workboot manufacturer. In the past decade, however, it has grabbed global attention for its contemporary riffs on utilitarian footwear. Today a pair of Vibergs is as likely to be seen on the streets of Tokyo’s Aoyama as on a stomp through the forests of British Columbia.
“It’s something I never expected,” says Glen, recounting the history of Viberg. After starting up in Shellbrook, Saskatchewan, Glen’s father moved the company to the west coast in the 1940s, operating in various cities in British Columbia before settling in Victoria in 1970. The following year the firm revolutionised logging footwear with the invention of replaceable grip spikes so that boots didn’t have to be completely resoled when the base was worn out.
The foray into fashion happened in 2006 when Nepenthes, the parent company of Engineered Garments in Japan, came knocking. “They loved Americana and wanted to collaborate on what was basically a glorified workboot,” says Glen’s son Brett, who began developing designs that suited urban environments while retaining a rugged aesthetic.
This was before the widespread movement to rediscover historic fashion brands in the West. “Nobody had developed new products then so we were ahead when heritage brands started to become popular outside Japan a few years later,” says Brett. He updates vintage shoes with more streamlined silhouettes for the modern-day consumer.
In an age of throwaway fashion the Nepenthes collaboration introduced Viberg to a global market hungry for brands with authentic stories. It was perfect timing too: offshore production of mass-manufactured rubber boots was suffocating traditional boot manufacturers in Canada but the partnership allowed Viberg to dig in its heels and keep production in Victoria.
It also continued using quality leathers from other long-time partners in the US, Italy and the UK. This commitment hit the bottom line initially but has since paid off. Viberg moved into a bigger factory four years ago and sales have been climbing about 20 per cent annually.
In the Victoria factory each boot is still constructed by hand beneath rows of more than 20 flags, which hang from the ceiling and mark the final destinations for the finished products. Currently, 80 per cent of the boots that Viberg makes reach footwear aficionados all over the world (the US, Japan and Europe being the biggest markets), while the remainder are supplied to loggers in western Canada.
On the day we visit, the 40-strong production team is busy cutting, sewing, moulding and buffing almost-finished pairs of shoes. No pair leaves the facility without passing under Glen’s watchful eye. “I spend at least 10 minutes with every single pair,” he says as he sands down the rough edge of a shoe. Glen’s other son Jason is involved on the production side too, while mother Leslee is involved in all operations, including making sure that there’s enough toilet paper. “What don’t I do?” she says, laughing.
An open channel of communication runs between the second and third generations of Viberg leadership. Glen trusts Brett to steer the firm through the fashion world’s uncharted waters, armed with the same frontier spirit that his own father possessed.
With the brand’s global profile on the rise, Viberg is under pressure to expand production capacity but the family plans to keep certain things the way they have always been. The designs may be sleeker and come in more colours but each new collection is underpinned by the same uncompromising attitude that the founder had towards making his first boots 85 years ago.
1931 Ed Viberg establishes his eponymous workboot company in Shellbrook, Saskatchewan
1940s Moves to the west coast following the logging boom, operating out of Prince George, BC and then Quesnel, BC
1970s Settles in Victoria for its weather and taps into the lumber industry in British Columbia
1971 Revolutionises workboot design with the invention of replaceable spikes
2006 Approached by Japan’s Nepenthes to collaborate
2012 Expands into current Victoria location
Viberg fans in Japan
Viberg’s reputation for durable handmade leather boots has won the brand a strong following in Japan’s big cities. Fans rave about the craftsmanship and the boots’ enduring style; here we track down two of them.
Works at: Nano Universe The First Floor (Abeno store)
Viberg wearer since: 2013
Viberg model: Service Boot (Colour 8 Chromexcel)
Works at: Fashion retailer Warehouse & Co (Kitahorie shop)
Viberg wearer since: 2013
Viberg models: Engineer Boot (Black Chromexcel), Lace To Toe Oxford (black)
Four more Canadian brands that are big in Japan
Alleghanys Maple Farms: Japan’s infatuation with pancakes is driving the country’s addiction to Alleghanys Maple Farms’ syrup. The Québec company collects and concentrates the sap of maple trees in the eastern Appalachian Mountains in early spring for its organic-certified products. alleghanysmaple.com
Arcteryx: Japanese consumers love urban fashion that has been tested in the harshest alpine conditions. That’s a big selling point for Arcteryx’s “Made in Vancouver” Veilance line: slim-fitting overcoats, blazers and trousers (and a few backpacks) made from water-repellent fabrics and with seams that won’t let in water. It helps that fashion retailer Beams sells a selection of the brand’s products. veilance.arcteryx.com
Canadian Sweater Company: Cowichan-style wool sweaters – first made by native Coast Salish women on Vancouver Island – are a winter-wardrobe essential for many Canadians and the family-owned, Surrey-based Canadian Sweater Company’s products have done brisk business with fashion retailers in Japan since the late 1970s. canadiansweater.com
Imax: What’s not to like about seeing Godzilla on a screen that’s 18 metres tall and 26 metres wide? Imax, based in Mississauga, Ontario, demonstrated its technology in Japan during the 1970 Osaka Expo but the country didn’t have an Imax cinema until 1987. Today there are 29 across Japan and the company has signed deals for a dozen more. imax.com