When Western Glove Works launched Silver Jeans 30 years ago, there was trepidation and anticipation about whether its own line of designer jeans would work, just as there is any time a product is launched.
Bob Silver, 71 and his brother Michael, 63 had the advantage of the company's 70 years of experience in garment manufacturing.
That gamble on its own brand of denim jeans currently accounts for close to 90 per cent of its business as Western Glove Works marks its 100th year in business in Winnipeg.
This year is the parent company’s centennial and the Silver Jeans’ 30th anniversary, both milestones are almost unheard of in the era of disposable fashion.
The company started in the early 1920s by making workwear such as dungarees, jackets and gloves. It grew to become an anchor for Winnipeg's booming garment manufacturing industry, the third-largest in the country after Montreal and Toronto. It's one of the last ones still standing.
Its transition to denim started around the time Bob Silver bought the company from his great-uncle in 1981, along with his cousin Ron Stern, whom he credits to this day as an inspiration. (Silver and Stern are majority owners of FP Newspapers Inc., the owner of the Winnipeg Free Press.)
At the time, the company was making double-knit slacks and leisure suits, something any self-respecting member of the age of Aquarius could not relate to. Western Glove did do some denim, and Bob’s first short-lived foray into the company's own jeans brand — wide-legged ones as was the style of the early '80s — was called Ziggy.
"It was my first lesson on trademarks," Silver said. "Loblaws, which had a delicatessen line called Ziggy at the time, came to me and said you can’t use that name."
The company’s manufacturing prowess started to attract brands that wanted to contract out their manufacturing, starting with Bootlegger, which needed domestic manufacturing capacity in the era of import quotas. (Only a certain volume of imports were allowed into the country from various countries before massive tariffs were added.)
The company became experts in the field, eventually making private label blue jeans for the likes of Calvin Klein, Gap International and Nordstrom, and growing its manufacturing operation in Winnipeg to close to 1,200 people by the early 1990s.
However, the writing was on the wall for the end of the quota system and the value of owning their own brand becoming more apparent. So, they staked the future of the company on their own Silver Jeans.
"Luckily, Michael was able to attract a team with the talent that allowed us to do that," said Bob. "Now, Michael is an overnight success that was 30 years in the making."
Michael said at first he told people that if they hit $1 million in annual sales, he would be the happiest guy around. Then it was $5 million in five years. It’s now doing about $100 million in wholesale revenue.
"We have grown over the 30 years to a number I never thought we would reach," said Michael.
They’ve made more than 100 million pairs of Silver Jeans in factories in Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in Asia; the jeans can be found in about 15,000 stores in North America.
It is now the oldest private denim company in North America.
Although the company has tried swimsuits and other leisure wear, those forays into expanded product offering haven't been successful; and the company is happy to concentrate on what it knows best.
"We have tried just about everything," Bob said. "There have been many, many failures. But you learn not just by your successes."
He does attribute some of the success to the avoidance of greed – the brothers have listened to, but have turned down, offers to purchase the company — and a commitment to continually try to improve the brand.
A case in point was a significant investment in digital infrastructure that has boosted its direct-to-consumer sales by 20 per cent during the pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated consumer demand for online shopping and Silver Jeans was up for the challenge.
The Silver brothers' respect for the product, and their commitment to its integrity, has served it well.
"The denim business has gone through an enormous amount of change over the years," Michael said.
Western Glove/Silver Jeans remained players when the market was dominanted by brands that owned their own retail, such as The Gap and Guess. Then fast fashion purveyors such as Zara and H & M disrupted the market, but Michael believes rising consumer demand for sustainable products has brought things back full circle to a greater appreciation of garments with the right fit and feel, that will also last.
"There has been a nice push back to that from the younger generation, who want products that can last and not cause harm to the environment," he said. "Everyone is saying denim is popular again. That’s great, but now there are 100 more brands who want to get into it."
Michael leads the design, sales and marketing teams in California and New York, but the product development team and head office remain in Winnipeg, where the company has a much leaner staff of 75 in total.
As most Winnipeggers know, Bob spends a lot of time on civic pursuits, probably rivalling anyone not named Richardson or Asper in terms of membership on the boards of community initiatives.
"In Winnipeg, we have to try harder — and we did. We have not stopped trying harder," said Bob. "Many others have succeeded but I don’t think they worked as hard or as diligently and cared as much about the people with whom they work in order to have that sustainability as we have."
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.