Hertling USA, that long-time supplier of superb quality and effortless American style, is here to stay if Justin Christenson, Hertling’s CEO, has anything to say about it. Hertling’s supposed closure was reported and discussed widely on menswear blogs like Put This On and Styleforum.net, where the official Epaulet account claimed in February that Hertling was weeks away from closing its doors. Coming hot on the heels of the death of Hertling’s beloved patriarch, Julius “Julie” Hertling (covered by Ivy Style here), the closure seemed inevitable, an act of nature. The old-guard, and the companies they lovingly steered, were dying of old age.
The news spread. The teeth of menswear enthusiasts everywhere began to gnash. Wrists were wrung. I even joined in myself, confidently proclaiming the end of an era. Several weeks after the news broke, prominent luxury consigner Matthew Ruiz (owner and operator of LuxeSwap.com) acquired a massive quantity of Hertling’s stock and provided it to his customers at a steeply discounted price, a move that was interpreted by me as evidence that Hertling was dumping their remaining stock and preparing to shut the doors for good.
Perhaps most human beings are pessimistic at heart. Perhaps we look for the negative and hold onto it as if our happiness depended on it. If so, that tendency may have fooled us all.
I was recently contacted by Justin Christensen, Julius Hertling’s hand picked heir and the current CEO of Hertling USA. He wanted me to know that I was mistaken in my assumptions. Hertling was not closing. In fact, they were just beginning to fight, and Justin was lacing up the boxing gloves as we spoke. After our initial conversation, Christensen agreed to answer a few of my questions and give Ivy Style’s readers an exclusive insight into his background and the state of Hertling USA. He does not lack experience in the realm of menswear and retail clothing, having worked stints at Ralph Lauren and Brioni.
But Christensen had bigger ambitions than simply working for someone else’s company. He and his wife nurtured a dream to own their own premium apparel brand. In 2015 he began creating a business plan and seeking investors to make their dream come true. It was during this period in 2015 that he met Julius Hertling. After a memorable lunch at one of Julius’ favorite Brooklyn spots, Bamonte’s, Justin knew he had met a very special man who ran a very special company. “To say the least,” he recalls, “I was intrigued from that day on about this man, this company Hertling. Long story short, that was the beginning of my efforts to convince Julie to sell the business. After all, he was 90 years old, and with no heir apparent, I couldn’t help but see how our visions aligned to carry on the heritage of quality American manufacturing.”
Julius sold Hertling USA to Christensen in October of 2016, a little less than a year before his death. The importance of stewarding, not only a legendary menswear manufacturer, but the legacy of Julius Hertling, is not lost on him. “The weight of knowing I’m a steward of Hertling heritage, as well as others’ investment, is heavy and sometime overwhelming,” Christensen says, “but I love the responsibility. Creating and merchandising high quality products as well as leading a team like this are the kinds of responsibilities that I’ve dreamed of throughout my career. While I was at Brioni I was part of the global team who was transitioning a classic manufacturer into a modern luxury brand, and I learned so much about having reverence for who and what made the company great while being innovative to serve a new customer audience. I get to put my heart and soul into every conversation and decision, knowing that there are real consequences to my choices whether positive or negative. I go to sleep and wake up with this healthy weight every day.”
Although momentous — not only for Hertling’s loyal customers but for their employees and investors — Christensen’s choices are focused on creating a vibrant and healthy company that will continue to serve customers who have come to expect the highest quality from Hertling. “We have worked hard to keep our expenses low,” he says, “ranging from head count and labor costs to fabric purchasing and sales efforts. At this point we have a good sense of what our capacity is, what selling prices we need to maintain, and what type of customer we can serve best. We have developed a stock program of cotton stretch chinos and wool dress trousers from which we hope to launch e-commerce and entice new retailers to buy. The key for us now is to grow our sales with existing and new customers. The challenge is financing our inventory of fabrics with which we can fuel seasonal and basic replenishment orders. I am working toward creating reserves and bringing in new capital to achieve our goals.”
But the choices being made at Hertling USA aren’t just about dollars and cents. Christensen is approaching Hertling’s future with a keen sense of who the Hertling customer is. “Generally the Hertling customer has a classic and elevated style,” he explains. “The Hertling gentleman makes deliberate choices about how to dress and where to shop. Those who think highly of Hertling have most likely been influenced by their local specialty store where they purchased the trousers, where the store owner or sales person spoke with respect for Hertling manufacturing, made in Brooklyn. There is a cool factor associated with Brooklyn, and this has been helpful for retailers and brands to set Hertling apart from others.”
With all the efforts to ensure that Hertling USA is financially healthy, appeals to a discerning customer, and maintains the highest standards of quality, the question still remains as to how the rumors of Hertling’s closure start in the first place. It seems hard to fathom how such an idea could have spread when the company’s new CEO is so optimistic about Hertling’s future and about continuing his dream of running a premium apparel company. On this issue, Christensen is forthright: “Ultimately I’m responsible for whatever rumors spread, because I was transparent with our customers about [the] challenges we’ve been experiencing and possible outcome scenarios. I had warned them that we may need to close or change our business model if we couldn’t sustain the financial strain on cash flow, but I also explained that I was the eternal optimist and it was possible we could find ways to survive.”
It’s hard not to see this as a misstep, though one prompted by a desire to be open and honest with customers. And to be sure, the challenges facing Hertling USA are real. They, in some ways, mirror the challenges faced by clothing companies around the world as the realities of the retail landscape change. The constant pressure to discount clothing items and to compete with the bargain basement prices that some overseas manufacturers are able to charge, has strained the American clothing industry for years, and there seems to be no end in sight. But if the pessimism that made so many of us believe that Hertling was going to be yet another casualty of fast fashion’s race to the bottom really is as pervasive as it sometimes seems, Christensen seems not to have been infected by it. Expect changes. Hertling USA can’t survive without them, and it can’t survive without drawing in new customers. But he is clear on what his focus is, and will be, moving forward. “On one hand the focus remains the same,” he says. “To design and manufacture high-quality men’s trousers. On the other hand, since I come from a retail background and have specific convictions about style and brand, our goals have changed slightly. Now we are making decisions about what we make and how we sell it more with the brand and the end consumer experience in mind. We have defined our mission as ‘elevating style through beautifully handcrafted products,’ so we are working out how to achieve that from design to service, and we are essentially in the beginning of this journey.”
Christensen’s excitement for what’s to come on that journey is palpable. Talking with him about what he has planned is like talking with a kid who gets to design his own candy. “I hope to expand our offering of seasonal fashion style, aka ‘fancy pants,’ through ready-to-wear and made-to-order programs and I’d like to invest more time into collaborations with others, such as the development of an update to the classic Preppy Chino with a higher rise and tapered leg to bottom, which I’ve discussed with Ivy Style’s editor Christian Chensvold, and which we are in the process of fine tuning now. Of course the development of a women’s line would be a natural next step as well. Lord willing, we will continue to serve retailers, brands, and end consumers for years to come.”
Plenty of changes, to be sure, but Hertling is still a classic American brand. The long-gestating Ivy Style chino not only represents Hertling’s commitment to classic style, but also Justin’s desire to continue honoring Hertling’s long time customers while looking forward to new opportunities as well. If you want to keep making the classics sometimes you have to make fashion as well. Through it all, Christensen still maintains a deep reverence for the Hertling legacy and for Julius Hertling. “Julie taught me a lot as we engaged over two years, but I feel like I only scratched the surface of his life prior to his passing in August 2017. I continue to learn something new about Julie and/or Hertling each time I have a conversation with a customer or vendor who has been doing business with Hertling for 10, 20, 30, in some cases over 40 years.”
And what about that large Luxe Swap purchase that made made me so certain that Hertling was getting ready to close the doors? It turns out that Hertling wasn’t dumping stock after all. According to Christensen, the Luxe Swap purchase was actually an effort by Hertling to clear out old, first-quality stock in preparation for future projects. Hertling wasn’t preparing to throw in the towel, they were preparing to fight another round.
Julius Hertling thought Christensen was the right man to take over Hertling USA and to continue to fight for Hertling’s customers and employees. In his short time in the boxing ring of fashion retail for Hertling, Justin has demonstrated an ability roll with the punches and is ready to spar with the fickle 21st century fashion industry. Time will tell whether Hertling continues to be a knock-out with consumers, but If I’m putting money on it, I’m betting on Justin. Besides, I like to believe that he’s fighting with “Julie” in his corner. — PANI M.