21 SHARES

Vanson Leathers has a great history behind their brand, one that can’t really go un-noticed.  Vanson has been a symbol for motorcycle riders alike for centuries. We were able to recently visit the Vanson building in Fall River, MA and talk to Mike Van Der Sleesen, founder of Vanson Leathers. Mike reflects on his decision to make their goods entirely in the USA.

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A history and full detailed story on Vanson thanks to Army of Darkness the motorcycle Road racing team.

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.

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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.

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. 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.

Read the entire story here: SourceVanson Leathers Factory – AOD