For more than 100 years Wolverine has been an iconic staple in American footwear, known for it’s hand-crafted, American-made 1000 Mile boot. Looking to expand upon its legacy, the company opened its first brick-and-mortar location in New York City at 254 Elizabeth Street in 2013, and has rapidly become a must-visit for shoppers looking for a great pair of classic boots.
The Wolverine Company Store has become a showpiece for the brand, offering New Yorkers and visitors a peek into the Wolverine story, complete with buttery leather chairs, flea market gems and structural elements that have literally been removed from the company’s headquarters’ walls in Rockford, Mich. Meanwhile, a regular calendar of collaborations, in-store events and parties keep it bustling with newness.
Vamp caught up with the store’s General Manager John Tee, to find out how the authentic American brand landed on one of the most authentic New York streets, and how its neighboring retailers help one another out.
Vamp: How did the concept for the store come about?
Tee: The permanent location here on Elizabeth Street has been open for just a little over two years. Before that we were a pop-up store from around September 2012 to April of 2013, and that space went very, very well. It was really well received and we were really surprised how much traffic and how much volume we were pushing through the store in such a short amount of time. As that store was closing, this space on 254 Elizabeth Street became open, and so it was decided to open a full-time store here on Elizabeth Street, and it’s been doing really well ever since.
Vamp: Why do you think this neighborhood is a good fit for the brand?
Tee: When we were first scouting out the location, [the company] was looking at Chelsea, they were looking at SoHo and Flatiron, but there was a certain vibe to Elizabeth Street [with} it being between the Lower East Side and SoHo and Little Italy, and it’s right below NYU. There’s a sense of authenticity of downtown New York here, and we wanted to capture that authentic vibe because of the authenticity of our boots. The 1000 Mile boot hasn’t really changed in terms of pattern or shape since 1914 when it was first introduced. So we wanted to keep that heritage in mind, but add a little bit of that New York authenticity to [the store.]
Vamp: How did you keep Wolverine’s heritage intact in the store?
Tee: There’s a lot of authenticity in the design of the store. We actually have the first cooperate headquarter sign as the main sign in the store. [It is a] 1,200 pound concrete and steel sign that we needed two guys and eight lifts to get it up on the wall. The large columns that display our 1000 Mile collection – those were the original ceiling beams from our tannery in Rockford, Michigan. So those types of things give that sense of history to the store. It not only speaks to the history of the brand but gives [the store] a more modern feel.
Vamp: What styles do you sell at the store?
Tee: Our store specializes in the 1000 Mile and 1883 portions of our line. We’ve done collaborations with people like Detroit Denim, who do all hand-cut denim. Everything we put in to the store we want to make sure that it surrounds the heritage [of Wolverine] and the American-made 1000 Mile boot.
Vamp: What have been some of the most memorable events held at the store?
Tee: In the past we’ve had events where we offered free haircuts and shave that were a success. This season we’re doing a collaboration with Stormy Kromer on their Peninsula boot and hat, and we had a launch event here at the store here with some of the founders from Grand Rapids Michigan. [We have] a pop-up store through Christmas with Pendleton. We felt it’s a really great brand to be associated with, being American-made and very outdoorsy. We’re looking at even more [events] like that next year.
Vamp: There are several interesting footwear stores on Elizabeth Street right now. Are they competition, or are the business on the street supportive?
Tee: They’re definitely very much supportive. That’s one of the things we loved about Elizabeth Street when we opened the pop-up and still do. Everybody sells just a slightly different assortment from a different point of view. So if somebody’s looking for a great leather jacket we send them to Schott, or if somebody is looking for a great slim cut chino we send them to Unis, or if we don’t have a particular shirt they’re looking for we send them to Steven Alan, and vice-versa. We get a lot of customers coming in saying, “Oh, Quality Mending sent us over,” or “The guys from Goorin Brothers sent us over,” so there is that sense of comradery, and we do definitely play off of each other.
Vamp: How’s foot traffic this season?
Tee: Traffic for the fall has been phenomenal. We did definitely have people come to the store as a destination when they come to New York, especially a lot of the Northern Europeans; the Danes, the Norwegians, Germans, the Swiss. We get a lot of those [customers] coming in, and then they go on and start realizing “Oh my gosh, there’s these other great brands on this street,” which is another great thing about Elizabeth Street.
Vamp: The store has had a lot of hits, but any misses?
Tee: There’s been a few, and I think a lot of it has to do with the time of year and the weather. When it’s miserable out and down pouring you’re not going to get the best turnout. But that was more towards the slower times of the year, during early spring and mid-summer, and the city itself sort of dies out when the people who would normally be in the store would be on Fire Island or in the Hamptons, so we’ve found that the best success has always been during the fall and winter.
Vamp: As a brand store, do you feel any more pressure to offer your customers a compelling experience compared to smaller, independent shops?
Tee: We definitely give the customer the brand experience because we are the Wolverine Brand. We really put forth what the brand stands for and the quality craftsmanship and the pride of being an American-made boot. I’d say the store is a good combination of brand store that’s a part of multi-national cooperation, but then when you walk into the store we really want to make you feel comfortable like you’re at your neighbor’s house, or you’re at a small boutique store that really is there to take care of what your needs are. One of the things is we really want to sell you our product, but we’re also going to sell you the right kind of our product. We want to make sure when you walk out of our store that you are 100 percent happy with the product that you purchased.
Vamp: Will the Elizabeth Street store inspire future Wolverine Company stores?
Tee: I think that they will. I think that the model of how this store came about will be a nice jumping-off point for future Wolverine stores. Starting off as a pop-up in a neighborhood and seeing the vibe and what the reception is very much on the front burner of things going forward.