The Story Of American Manufacturing Bound in Leather
Vanson Leathers Factory
Fall River Massachusetts
July 28th, 2007
Mike Van der Sleesen’s most enduring influence came from shoe shopping with his mother as a child. “She would always ask ‘Can these be resoled’?”, and thus spawned the no-compromise construction, serviceability and durability aesthetic of Vanson Leathers.
Mike Van der Sleesen, founder and proprietor of Vanson Leathers.
Vanson (a contraction of the last names of Van der Sleesen and his original, but brief arrangement with a partner) was founded in 1974. Van der Sleesen had been working in France at a motorcycle dealer at the time and had been traveling to England to pick up parts and supplies. Keep in mind this was when the sun was setting on the English motorcycle empire but there were still several marques thrashing around in their death throes.
While Van der Sleesen was on one trip he made a contact in England to distribute English made leathers in the United States. England was then having difficulty producing much of anything at the time (sort of like the US today) and the English leathers production facility (a row house) was unable to produce.
Van der Sleesen took over the designs and brought the production facility to Boston in probably one of the last episodes of off-shoring English manufacturing to its former colony. Van der Sleesen opened Vanson Leathers on Thayer Street in Boston where it both produced and sold leathers from 1975 to 1988.
With rising demand for Vanson gear and a limited production capacity virtually every piece is sold before it comes off the line.
Van der Sleesen, a man of both vision and diverse talents, set about building a modern manufacturing operation with both software and logistic systems. Computers in 1980, like the motorcycles of the time for those of you that don’t remember, were awful. While operating Vanson, Van der Sleesen also wrote a comprehensive Enterprise Resource Planning software system using the technology of the time. That same software system, with additional features but using the same source code, is still in use at Vanson today. In terms of manufacturing information technology, Van der Sleesen was about 20 years ahead of his time.
Like most of the Vanson factory the offices are functional and extensively decorated with thirty years of motorcycle memorabilia.
In 1987 Vanson opened a production facility in the historic, but declining, Massachusetts garment manufacturing town of Fall River. The dual locations were eventually unified in Fall River with 77,000 square feet of production, warehouse and showroom.
Paper patterns for hand cutting leathers hang from the ceiling everywhere through out the factory.
A computer controlled drag knife. Note the projectors and mirrors which allow the operator to position the hide to make the maximum use of the raw material.
Vanson uses a waterjet to cut leather precisely for graphic and other detailed work. Here the cuts are programmed into the machine.
A high pressure stream of water cuts out lettering.
The factory is a mix of modernity and antiquity. The software and sewing machines are of a similar vintage.
Handcrafted to last a lifetime, as long as you stay away from pop and the donut shop.
Vanson’s exports are staging a recovery since the 2006 election. Here a rack of very expensive jackets awaits export to Japan’s fashion victim youths.
‘Garcon means boy’. A Japanese designed, US built, French labeled fashion leather jacket.
Vanson currently has a mix of gloves that are produced domestically and imported. Their racey gloves (the ones with the carbon protection) are tough to find but are incredibly comfortable. They might be one step down in protection from the best Helds but are a pretty big step up on many others like the ones that use yellow cotton thread instead of real Kevlar or fall apart the first time they get wet or simply tear open after the third wearing.
Artisan craftwork at its most sublime.
Black leather ready to go under the drag knife.
Vanson’s are built to last a lifetime (how many other clothes come with a warranty card and a serial number?) unless you are having breakfast at the donut shop and eating calzones for lunch. Vanson only keeps measurements for six months as they have found that after that they often become unreliable.
The end of the line with the next stop being UPS.
Vanson developed a reputation among serious racers for providing the toughest leathers on the market. Vansons were known for sporting leading edge safety and ventilation features (perforated leather, hard armor) and for being able to absorb enormous amounts of punishment. Massive crashes regularly left rider both unharmed and, more importantly for club and semi-pro racers, with leathers intact and ready to race. Vanson also won loyal customers through their policy of servicing their products. A Vanson racing suit could be used for years, even with regular crashes, by sending the leathers back to Vanson in the off-season for servicing. Vanson jackets became status symbols for non-motorcycle riders as well. Vanson had to discontinue using their trademark ‘Vanson’ labeled packing tape for UPS shipments as so many of their jackets were disappearing into a shipping void between Fall River and the customer. NYC was particularly notorious for being impossible to receive Vanson jacket through normal shipping channels.
The “Made in America” label and uncompromising high quality led to contracts and signature series jackets for export markets. While Americans were just as happy to purchase Pakistani, Korean and Chinese made leather, Japanese and many in the EU wanted Vanson. By 2001 Vanson was one of the highest selling motorcycle jackets in the US. They had 160 employees making race, street, urban wear and fashion leather goods for the US and, importantly, the export market of Japan and Europe.
Then, in 2002, the bottom fell out.
The US market was flooded with cheap import jackets from Pakistan (military dictatorship and home to Osama Bin Laden!) and China (totalitarian communist!). Pakistan was supporting their leather industry with government subsidize and cheap labor. Worldwide brands rushed to take advantage of the military dictatorship’s largess, which finally overwhelmed the US market’s ability to absorb the inventory. Product stacked up in warehouses while sales stagnated. For many casual riders the difference between an expensive long lasting product and a lower quality version of the same was not worth the extra expense as, for the occasional rider, the jacket would simply languish with the trophy bike.
Combined with the deluge of inventory into the US, American businesses in general, and Vanson in particular, were feeling the effects of Federal policy. Leather hides, produced in the US, are counted as an export if they are sent overseas for tanning and finishing. This dynamic helps cook the statistics for the US Department of Agriculture. The export of raw materials is, therefore, supported by the USDA and, hence, the domestic manufacturing of those hides into leather, and then into jackets, is discouraged. Another unexpected hit came from the Department of Defense. As Van der Sleesen explains it: “America is a brand. Our brand has been damaged by the foreign policy”. Japanese and European consumers, long drawn to the American mystique associated with liberty and personal freedom, were not so keen on wearing jackets from a country associated with occupations, torture and secret prisons. Without getting into the debate about the justification for occupations, torture and secret prisons domestically; it is a tough sell for lifestyle accessories abroad. “It is pretty well documented that this administration has been an issue for a lot of American brands. All the American brands have been hurt. And this is coming from a Republican.”
Faced with cheap low quality imports, an undiscriminating customer base, high labor costs, higher raw material costs and a shrinking export market, Vanson faced implosion. In the darkest days Vanson’s sales dropped by 50% and the Fall River staff was reduced from 160 to 45 employees.
Vanson read the writing on the wall and tried unsuccessfully to offshore and out source some of their production. “We did some manufacturing in Pakistan but it was pointless because their production is so low quality that we would have to remanufacture the jackets here before they met our standards. You can buy a jacket in Pakistan for what the zippers cost in the US.” Vanson then explored Costa Rica but again faced issues with quality and timeliness of delivery. Meanwhile sales across the industry continued to deteriorate in the US. The pressure was great enough to bankrupt Joe Rocket; one of the biggest players in the Pakistan import game. Let that be a warning to any rider who is accepting their leathers sponsorship dollars in shares of stock. 2005 was the worst year for sales of leather jackets in the US ever.
The congressional election in 2006 improved the export market slightly and Vanson began to re-hire sewers and cutters. This proved to be problematic in the new manufacturing US environment. “Vanson employees are highly skilled and dedicated. We don’t hire hands, we hire brains in every position. Its not factory work, it is artisan work. As the demand for our products picked up we found it impossible to get the skills we needed to build our products.”
The high cost of housing (see: “sub-prime mortgage bubble”) and living (see: “massive current account deficit + Federal Government printing money as fast as it can to pay for wars and drugs”) in the US also raises labor costs to a level which makes US products uncompetitive with offshore factories. “A racing suit has twenty hours of labor in it. If that labor costs $21 an hour, my employee might walk out the door with $9 an hour (after taxes etc). I can’t sell a suit with $400 in labor costs and my laborer can’t live on $9 an hour. It’s lose-lose all around.”
Vanson, of course, is not the only garment manufacturer in the US forced to look overseas for production. As the garment industry contracts so do all the support industries that go with it. “It is getting to the point were we can’t buy thread, needles, or machines any more. As the suppliers move off shore you don’t just lose thread, you lose the next generation of thread. The know-how is gone. That infrastructure is the basis of a nation’s strength. It is expensive or impossible to recreate it once its gone. But the political climate and economic realities are such that no one can solely exist making stuff in this country anymore. Those days are over. Product innovations mainly rise from the factory floor. If you don’t have the factory floor your innovation will die. America today is where England was in the sixties. The Japanese and Koreans have figured out how to innovate and don’t need us anymore. When the Chinese engineers catch up the US is looking at some serious trouble.”
Virtually all of the leather for Vansons is tanned in Brockton, Massachusetts, but that tannery’s production is down to a third of what it once was. There are no tannery science classes for technical or colleges training in the US anymore. That sounds obvious (who would want to go into hide tanning for a career? Or learn to sew?), but the implication is that that our agricultural, education and manufacturing policies have reverted us to a colonial status with the only value-add of branding, not the production. North Face used to sub-contract a fair amount of their products in a factory in Korea. Eventually the factory owner realized that he could make far greater profits if he made the same products but sold under his own brand. Hence Mountain Hardware was invented. A similar dynamic occurred with Mad Rock climbing shoes.
Faced with joining the ranks of extinct leather companies but unwilling to compromise the quality of the leathers, Van der Sleesen developed a plan to be able to stay in business. After the experiences with Pakistani and Costa Rican production, he discovered El Salvador. Currently there are many US garment companies manufacturing around San Salvador. With the end of the civil war in 1992, El Salvador has worked hard to diversify away from coffee (a market largely destroyed by over-production, but that is another story). With a blend of public and private initiatives El Salvador created the next generation of garment clustering complete with sewing schools, inexpensive mills space and even vocational leather tanning training.
With El Salvador only a three-day container ship ride away from Miami, Van der Sleesen is planning to be able to dramatically shorten delivery times (a historic sore point for even their most loyal customers) for their custom and semi-custom suits.
The Vanson Fall River location, however, will remain. “Vanson Fall River is a destination for motorcyclists. We plan to maintain our current levels of production in Massachusetts but, ironically, that will be mainly for export to Japan and Europe. The Vanson factory will remain a destination in Massachusetts but we will be adding a Vanson destination in El Salvador. El Salvador has great beaches, off-road tours and even a race track.” Not to mention MS-13!
Fans of Vanson should not fret about a decrease in the quality of the leathers because every step of production will still be in a Vanson facility. They are not sub-contracting the work, they are setting up a replica of their factory in a country with cheap labor and national industrial policies aimed to encourage manufacturing. Vanson’s struggles are far from over as they are faced with an impending recession in the US (see “real estate collapse driven by the sub-prime mortgage collapse and subsequent evaporation of American wealth and spending power”) and impending new competition from abroad (Joe Rocket is largely defunct now and Icon is crashing but a higher quality Korean-made brand, Scorpion, is about to make its US debut). Vanson’s reorganization should allow it to produce competitively priced durable leathers for the sake of future generations of high-siding racers.
Mike Van der Sleesen’s rules for building the safest race suit possible:
- Fit – a perfect fitting suit keep the parts the where they belong (armor etc. ) in the event of a crash and keeps the leather from moving and passing through abrasions.
- Comfort – The rider shouldn’t get fatigued fighting the suit.
- Construction - double stitched, thick leather, hard armor where possible and padding where hard armor is not feasible.
- Materials - top grain selected leather that has been finished and tested for abrasion
- Durability - especially for club racing, the suit itself must survive the crash as it's a long weekend!
- Rebuild ability - an expensive well-made suit should be able to be repaired and rebuilt.
- Ventilation - keeping the rider cooler and sharper which may help prevent crashing in the first place.
- Removable liners - for good personal hygiene, comfort, and aid in servicing the leathers
- Kevlar (aramid fiber ) cloth used for ventilation, comfort, and lightness is much stronger than cheaper alternatives.
Vanson’s Fall River Massachusetts factory has a huge show room filled with everything from textile jackets to CHP style jackets, racing suits, women’s armored jackets, men’s armored jackets, un-armored, distressed, and some sort of stunter jeans.
Vanson Leathers are available Prêt-à-Porter or, for the patient and particular, any of the jackets, pants and suits can be tailor made with custom features, colors, graphics and grades of armor.
The most difficult aspect of purchasing Vanson is figuring out which one is exactly what you want out of the baffling array of choices. Your correspondent has found that, like motorcycles, it is just best to have a wide array such that the perfect one is available for any occasion.
The trend away from leather to synthetic textile riding gear has arrived at Vanson. However, in keeping with their “Quality at any cost” philosophy, they use custom finished 1000 denier woven Cordura for their ventilated jackets instead of flimsy polyester mesh.
Vanson manufactures some licensed products. This is a rack of Buell labeled jackets. The Vanson names means many different things to their different markets: Racing, Urban, Fashion and Cruisers.
Your correspondent’s dreams of being the Upton Sinclair of the 21st century were dashed when this child was revealed to be spending the morning playing at Vanson while his Dad ran the leather cutting machine, not an exploited child laborer. A trip to China will be in order for that.
The mind reels at the possibilities.
There is nothing slick at Vanson except the finish on the leather. This is authentic hard- scrabble American old school industry at its most genuine. There is nothing corporate, nothing pretentious, nothing glamorized. This is the real deal. No rectangle glasses wearing designed majors putting a spin on the latest fashions.