How to build a heritage brand in 2022
A conversation with the co-founders from Season Three about their footwear brand, and building their business for the long haul.
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Marc Nolan just dropped these calfskin leather loafers. For $115, this is a great penny loafer option to have on hand! They’ve also got a comfortable memory foam padded insole and an EVA rubber sole. Check ‘em out.
Meet the founders of Season Three
I first met Jared Ray Johnson and Adam Klein on a Zoom call a few years ago at the beginning of the pandemic. They had been working on this newer-generation kind of footwear. A product for those with city sensibilities who also have an interest in nature and the outdoors. Building something you could wear to dinner and on a mountain. Something with functionality without feeling too nerdy. Ultimately, something that lasts.
This is Season Three.
Today, they’ve grown their DTC business internationally, are stocked in Nordstrom, have already collab’d with brands like Gear Patrol, and have co-signs from countless publications like GQ, WSJ, and Highsnobiety.
I appreciate that ST has focused on being a single-product brand from the outset. There are too many businesses that do too much. They try to swing far-and-wide early on before they’ve ironed out a core product that fits their brand.
One other thing you should be prepared to know is that Adam and Jared aren’t in this business to ride TikTok trends or turn a quick buck. They’re building this brand for the long haul. There’s real talk in this interview.
First off, you guys met at MIT. How did the idea for Season Three come about?
Adam: Yeah, we met at MIT and started working on Season Three after we connected on our shared passion for well-made physical goods. We were surrounded by software and—to be honest—it was fun to be a little contrarian. We decided to create a boot because Jared was particularly passionate about footwear but couldn’t find boot options he loved in the same way that he could with sneakers. It also made sense because Boston has some shitty winters which make boots an essential item in everyone’s closet.
The two of us were walking around wearing boots that we felt like were compromised. For Jared, it was a thick, bulky pair of North Face winter boots and for Adam, it was a pair of Merrell hiking boots. We dreamed up the idea of a boot that was lightweight and comfortable, but just as durable as the boots we relied upon to trek through shitty weather.
How the fuck does one design a boot without prior experience? Where’d you draw inspiration from?
The way to go about designing anything without prior experience is being honest about what you know and what you don’t know, and allowing others to help you in the areas where you are out of your depth. That’s what we did!
Jared had been collecting a large folder of boots that he liked for a while. We spent a ton of time flipping through images, circling parts of different boots, and researching footwear construction. We settled on the classic hiking boot as our silhouette because it was an excellent choice for both the aesthetic we wanted (heritage-inspired and timeless) and the function that we wanted to engineer (waterproofing and lightweight materials).
Once we had some initial sketches and descriptions for what we wanted, we started working with a partner in Italy—who became our production manager—to design technical specifications. They then put us in touch with a factory that prototyped everything for us. Our design process was a bit of a “Frankenstein situation.” We were asking for boots that combined dozens of different elements that we wanted to test.
In hindsight, that wasn’t a very efficient way of getting us to a final product quickly, but we learned a lot about the design and manufacturing process of making footwear.
What does it look like to create a product for the long haul in a fast world?
Honestly, we chose timelessness as our lane because we’re not fashion designers in an avant-garde sense. We both admire classic American brands like Ralph Lauren, Levis, and Patagonia—heritage companies that stand the test of time by leading with quality and consistency.
You won’t build a brand like that by chasing hot trends. You need conviction to stay true to timelessness, despite how enticing it may be to be reactive to what the market says people want.
How do you inject elements of science and engineering into the brand?
Yeah, obviously one of the advantages of starting a company at MIT is that you have access to all the science you need (LOL!). We consulted with experts in materials science and engineering to figure out the right combination of textiles and components to get the performance we were looking for.
We ended up finding a way to line our boots with merino wool, which brings temperature-regulating and odor-resisting properties and using a special-treated water-resistant leather that baffles people, which is how something so soft and textured can withstand water without damage.
When it comes to the brand, we decided that we didn’t want to smash people over the head with the “material sciencey” stuff, though. We make all that information available on our website and call out some of the magical properties of our materials in our marketing, but we sell the boot as something that, first and foremost, looks good. Despite what some Gorpcore enthusiasts will try to tell you, people buy things to look good first and justify the technical capabilities after the fact.
People have been doing shit outdoors for a very long time, and now we’ve got this bastardized Gorpcore genre growing over the last few years. From Hypebeasts repurposing outdoor stuff to luxury brands adopting pieces into their collections.
I don’t see Season Three falling into either of those style extremes. How do you describe your customer and what you’re about?
Ha! Yeah, to be honest, we saw this trend coming at the time when we were working on Season Three. We didn’t want to play into that lane in an extreme way because ultimately, it’s a trend, and trends die out. It would have been antithetical to our core principle—building for the long haul—if we tried too hard to play into the outdoor trend.
The angle we have always taken is a more realistic one: our customer isn’t doing extreme shit in the outdoors every day. They aren’t necessarily into skiing, hiking, or camping. They live in a larger city, work on a laptop, and can easily find themselves excluded from nature and “the outdoors” entirely. Our brand was intended to be a bit of an intervention. We want our customers to know that being into the outdoors doesn’t have to look like Patagonia catalog shit; it can be as simple as trekking through Central Park.
“We want our customer to know that being into the outdoors doesn’t have to look like Patagonia catalog shit; it can be as simple as trekking through Central Park.”
We should also note that “the outdoors” is currently defined by companies like REI, who, for better or worse, are white as fuck! We were never interested in making a brand that only appealed to white people who already owned gear. We want to challenge people like ourselves to experience the benefits of nature in whatever way they could.
You talk about being a heritage brand for a new generation. What’s different about Season Three from the previous heritage boots out there?
A lot of old heritage was designed primarily for function. Many of those styles became iconic but when you put on some of that clothing and footwear, you’ll find that it’s generally uncomfortable. To be modern is to meet the needs of the modern customer, who primarily wears sneakers because they’re comfortable. We made dozens of design decisions—things like our sole, the merino wool, and our signature back slit—that ensured our boot would be as comfortable as a sneaker. We use that line (comfortable as a sneaker) in our marketing all the time and people think we’re being hyperbolic…until they try them.
What do we need more of, and less of, in the clothing and footwear industry?
We need more capital supporting brands that want to build the right way. If you want to make it as a brand in 2022, you have one of two paths: you either play the wholesale game, where your goal is to maximize hype and one retail account can bankrupt your entire company, or play the Facebook acquisition game, where you’ll forever be pressured to expand your product line in search of economics that makes paying for ads balance out. (There is a third path for brands lucky enough to launch into fanfare due to celebrity connections
or industry co-signs but this is one of those things where you either have it or you don’t so it’s not worth discussing.)
If there were more investors who believed in the power of brand over the long-term, we could have way more Ralph Laurens and Patagonias but the short-term expectations incentivize strategies that corrode long-term brand value.
Where’s ST headed? What’s next for you guys?
It’s a great question. What’s next is to keep going. What that looks like may change but it will be the same formula of working with people we respect and admire to make cool shit.