The Sterlingwear Story

Sterlingwear of Boston is the classic American company, making classic American clothing in classic American style.  They are a solidly rooted family company, stable in their dealings, bold in their approach, and committed to building one of the best American-made brands ever produced.

The signature piece of their lineup is the peacoat, worn by sailors for hundreds of years and treasured for its perfect combination of form and function.  The peacoat is built like a battleship, but with the lines of a clipper; it is always in style.

Sterlingwear and the timeless peacoat are perfect reflections of one another.  Fashions change, but the classic, enduring, hardy, hardworking nature of this company still wears well after 45 years.

Beginnings

But there is so much more to the Sterlingwear story than just the peacoat.

The story of Sterlingwear begins way back in 1920 when 16 year old Lorenzo Fredella boarded a ship bound for America.  Life in his hometown offered few opportunities, and like so many immigrants of that time, he saw America as an opportunity to find work to support his family and make his way in the world.

With the help of family who had already come over, Lorenzo found work in a New York clothing factory owned by a cousin.  He performed odd jobs and maintenance at first, and over the next several years worked his way up to the level of foreman.

Toward the end of the 1920s Lorenzo married and started a family.  About the same time, his company moved Lawrence, MA.  As the company changed and grew, his family moved and changed with it, eventually settling in Medford, MA.  From the beginning he had harbored a hope that perhaps he could launch his own enterprise.  He even dreamed that perhaps one of his five children might join him.  But times were tough and the moment never seemed quite right to break out.

The Sons Join in

Between the Crash of 1929 and the start of World War II, running a business was no picnic.  The Great Depression sunk many a company, but through smart decisions, hard work and a little luck, Picariello and Singer, the company for which Lorenzo was employed, managed to stay afloat.

At the onset of the war in 1941, Lorenzo was in his late 30s with five children.  Many men were called to serve in the military, but he served in other ways.  His company focused its energy and resources on providing uniforms for the United States armed forces and so contributed significantly to the war effort.  This experience would prove important in later years.

After the war, Lorenzo’s son Frank began working in the factory as an assistant to the designer, cutting paper patterns.  He was only 16 and worked part time after school.  After graduating in 1947, he continued to work while attending Boston University evenings.

Although Frank took a little vacation to serve with the U.S. Army in Korea (he brought home a Purple Heart and a Combat Infantryman’s Badge as souvenirs), throughout the 1950s he continued to expand his professional abilities and take on more responsibility.  He continued to study at the University while learning virtually every aspect of the business firsthand, from cutting supervisor to designer, to production control, sales, and manufacturing controller.  Then in 1961, after years of persistent effort, and evenings apart from his family, Boston University awarded him his well-earned Bachelor Degree in Business Administration.

Viking and Vi-Mil

Around that time, Frank began to talk more earnestly with his father about that long held dream of a Fredella family company.  The country was prospering.  The outlook was strong.  Perhaps now was the time to leave the safe harbor and set sail on their own ship.

It was a tough decision because Lorenzo still remembered the Great Depression, but Frank convinced him that it was indeed time.  So, with Frank leading the way, supported by his father Lorenzo and his brother Anthony, the Fredellas formed Viking Clothing, Inc. in 1965.  Viking started initially doing cut-and-sew contracting for other clothing makers and retailers.  Like any small business, they were actively seeking new growth opportunities and it wasn’t long before they found an opening that would change everything.

During the military buildup of the mid 1960s the U.S. government was looking for contractors to provide all kinds of materiel for the war effort.  Among the contracts out for bid was one for the peacoat, the distinctive outerwear of the U.S. naval enlisted man. This was an opportunity tailor made for businessmen who had extensive experience with engineered construction and efficient production methods.  In a competitive bidding process, Viking won the contract and became the exclusive maker of the peacoat for the United States Navy.

It didn’t take long before Viking was filling government contracts for a wide range of military uniforms out of their manufacturing facility on the east side of Boston, MA.  They changed their name to Vi-Mil (Viking Military) in 1968 to reflect their almost exclusive focus on military clothing.

Sterlingwear of Boston

Times change and so do government contracts.  While the company prospered during the 1970s, the outlook was clearly shifting as the decade wound down.  So in the early 1980s Vi-Mil began seeking a way to expand and diversify its business.

The obvious move was to expand into the commercial fashion sector; obvious, but not necessarily an easy move.  Vi-Mil knew as much about military contracting as anyone around, but doing business in the rough and tumble world of the commercial apparel and fashion would require a real transition.  The manufacturing operations might not change so much, but the areas of product development, marketing and distribution would require extensive overhaul.

Then in 1982, Vi-Mil found another opportunity to diversify.  They decided to purchase an existing company with a strong line of rainwear and outerwear.  The company, Sterlingwear of Boston, already boasted a diverse lineup of outerwear, an existing sales force, and strong manufacturing and distribution experience.  Vi-Mil assumed the name Sterlingwear of Boston to reflect its new diversity.

Sterlingwear soon began selling through Army/Navy Surplus Stores – a logical place to start given their military roots. The peacoat is such a distinctive and desirable item that it was easy to sell to civilians who wanted one of their own.  It didn’t hurt that buyers knew that their new coat was crafted to the same specs by the same people who made the official version.  Sales were solid.

Then Sterlingwear won a military contract for raincoats to add to their ongoing production of peacoats.  This provided a solid base of revenue that protected them through the tough years of the late 80s and 90s.

The following years saw further growth and expansion. In 2005 they relocated to their current 160,000 square feet East Boston facility, and opened an additional new factory location in Fall River MA.  This increased their total manufacturing capacity to over 200,000 square feet.  For the past 40 years, Sterlingwear has provided between 250 – 350 jobs in the New England area.  In the 1990s Frank’s son Larry, daughter Gina and Anthony’s son David added their talents to the business, continuing the Fredella tradition of the family business.

A New Generation

In recent years, Gina, Larry and David assumed leadership of the company. Frank still actively consults in the business, bringing his deep wisdom and perspective to the table. The same things that made Sterlingwear successful through the years are still part of the fabric of the company today.

As the third generation of Fredellas moved into leadership they also began pushing the company into new frontiers.  True to the original heart of the business, Sterlingwear still produces peacoats, raincoats, uniforms, as well as a new line of cold weather fighting gear – protecting our armed forces around the world as they protect us.

Nevertheless, Sterlingwear has not been afraid to make some alterations to itself to better adapt to the fashions of the time.  By bringing on designer May Aye in 2009, Sterlingwear committed to producing an entire line of products tailored to appeal to a fashion-conscious consumer, while still anchored to the original functional design.

Using a variety of fabrics, colors and patterns Aye creates surprising combinations that delight the eye and the hand.  With a longer line here, a shorter seam there, wider sleeves or slightly narrower profile, she has created variations on a theme that are unmistakably true, yet indefinably original.  It’s no wonder that independent specialty retailers and major department stores have taken on the Sterlingwear line.

So it only made sense when Sterlingwear began opening its own dedicated retail outlets.  The first store in Nashua, NH opened in 2009, followed soon after by a store in Braintree, MA.  These stores have seen solid sales growth as the word gets out.  For the finest quality and proven practicality, combined with something that has both flair and enduring good taste, Sterlingwear fills a unique niche

Moving Forward

As we move into the second decade of this century, Sterlingwear steps firmly into online sales, finding ways to market their products through their website, Facebook and other social networking channels.  That’s just one more step in the effort to build a brand synonymous with the best clothing American manufacturing has to offer.

Plans to open additional retail outlets move forward, including construction of the next store attached to the East Boston factory.  It will likely become a Boston destination – another not-so-best-kept secret for a great American city.

The future is bright indeed for a company that manages to be innovative and anchored at the same time.  The values that made it successful from the beginning still serve very well, and the courage to take risks will give their customers more reasons to love them as time goes on.

That’s why Sterlingwear remains committed to producing all their products right here in the United States.  In today’s business climate, it takes a certain amount of courage to resist the temptation of offshore manufacturing.  But there is no replacement for the pride that goes into each garment, and no substitute for being able to directly oversee and manage every aspect of fabrication right here where we live.

We believe strongly that by keeping our factories here in the United States, we give our employees the respect they deserve and in turn they produce a garment whose quality is absolutely second to none.  It turns out that it’s a good deal for everyone.

That quality is part of the mystique of the peacoat and all of the products it inspires.  Many a sailor has handed down his navy issue peacoat to the next generation.  Many a young man or woman has felt a bit of awe as they pulled it out of the closet and put their arms into the sleeves.  Not many garments inspire that kind of feeling.

In the same way, it may well be that generations from now, Sterlingwear coats and jackets will be handed down and treasured by their recipients.  A coat with this kind of enduring appeal, quality construction, and solid performance cannot be matched.

Just like the company that makes it.