Published: Sep 26, 2010
The idea behind HeadButler.com is that just about every movie, book or music CD ever released is available on the Web --- so why would a cultural concierge recommend only New Stuff, which is mostly dreck?
Most of the time, I stick to my mission of raving about my favorite books, movies and music.
Every once in a great while, I run into a product that I think more people ought to know about --- and I write it up.
But a few months ago, on a vacation week in the northernmost county in Minnesota, I strolled into a store specializing in seriously cold-weather clothing --- and found a coat for my wife that looked as if it had been designed by Jil Sander.
It wasn't just stylish --- it was shockingly functional.
That is: warm.
This isn't surprising. Wintergreen Northern Wear isn't some Filson-come-lately --- it's the Gold Standard for cold-weather coats.
Well, in January, the average high temperature in Ely, Minnesota --- headquarters for Wintergreen Northern Wear --- is 5 degrees.
If keeping warm in cold weather matters to you, consider the North Shore Jacket for women. It looks like velour, but it’s made of Expedition weight 12.2 oz. Classic Polartec® 300 and has a plush fleece lining. There’s a full zipper and two generous hand-warmer pockets. It comes in five colors --- peony, teal, honey gold, navy and loden --- with contrasting cuffs and mock-turtle collar. Inside the neck, there’s a subtle touch: a band of embroidered fabric that is the company’s signature. Yes, there's a Wintergreen icon on the coat, but it's astonishingly small and tasteful. The price: $155.
My wife is a reluctant shopper. But this proposition didn't require much debate. [Wintergreen also has some knee-length coats in this style that we thought are better suited to winter walks on Madison Avenue, so we bought one. It's called a North Shore Coat, and it's a winner in mocha, with a tan collar and cuffs. This coat delivers warmth and style for the headshakingly low price of $198. If knee-length is for you, you might write and ask for color and size availability.
A few years ago, another coat for women won our hearts: the Northwind Wool Coat ($350). My wife bought it in white, as much for the hood as for the style and warmth. On the rare occasions when it snows in New York, she’s the only woman wearing this beauty.
Beyond outerwear, Wintergreen is expanding its clothing offerings. Women who require warmth but value style might also consider the black boot cut pants ($65), made from lightweight 5.8 oz Polartec Powerstretch. And there’s a black A-line skirt ($52) made from the same fabric that some New York designer is destined to knock off.
Men get almost equal time. The Northwoods Wool Jacket ($249) is 23 oz. 100% Melton Wool and lined in thinsulate. The charcoal-and-black plaid is the big seller, but as a New Yorker, my vote will always be for solid black.
Finally, Wintergreen has a solid collection of extreme-weather clothes for children and dogs.
Want to try these things on?
Uh...it might be shrewder to shop online.But if you insist on visiting the Wintergreen store, start in Minneapolis, then head north. Four hours and 200 miles later --- longer if you turn off to visit Hibbing, where Bob Dylan grew up --- you’ll arrive in this year’s winner of Budget’s Travel’s “Coolest Small Towns” contest.
Small? The permanent population of Ely is under 4,000. (People are vastly outnumbered here by bald eagles, osprey, white-tail deer, black bear, moose, and wolf.) That's because Ely is, literally, the end of the line --- as far North as you can go and still be in the United States. Beyond it are the Boundary Waters, a 1.1 million acre wilderness that straddles Minnesota and Canada. It’s a gorgeous, ghostly, mostly unpopulated region of forests and lakes --- a place where you can disappear without a trace (as in Tim O’Brien’s In The Lake of the Woods) or, if you’re thinking of refusing to fight in Vietnam, flee the country (as in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried).
End-of-the-line status often makes for considerable charm --- which my wife’s surrogate family discovered almost a century ago. They’re classic Northern Minnesotans: progressive, generous, hard-working, funny. Every other summer or so, we show up at their collection of lakefront houses for a joyous week. It’s hard to wrench ourselves from the deck and the boats, but we do make the occasional expedition into town for a restaurant called the Chocolate Moose, the town’s goofy Fourth of July parade, and a cruise of Wintergreen Northern Wear.
By “Northern Wear,” they’re not kidding.
In 1985, when Paul Schurke and Will Steger started planning a dogsled expedition to the North Pole, Paul’s wife Susan designed some hybrid clothes for their trip, marrying synthetic fabrics and Eskimo style. There would be no room for error: The trek was 1,000 miles, with temperatures dropping to -70. The following year, Schurke and Steger reached the Pole, and the team became an instant legend --- the first ever to make it without resupply. Wintergreen clothes, formed in 1986, were immediately prized among dogsledders and other lovers of sub-zero outings. Six years later, the company was one of Ely’s biggest employers, with a manufacturing plant and a store on Main Street.
A few years ago, Becky and Curt Stacey saw a newspaper ad for a clothing manufacturer in Northern Minnesota. There was no reason they should have responded to it --- they were living in a suburb of Chicago, where Becky was benefits manager for the county and Curt was a consultant. “There was just something about Ely and Wintergreen,” Becky recalls, and early in 2009, they took the plunge and bought the company.
From the start, they thought different. They started phasing out the Wintergreen catalogue and beefing up the Wintergreen website. They began to sell to stores in Southern Minnesota. And --- the key decision --- they decided to expand their product line. “Wintergreen isn’t just for outdoorsmen,” Becky says. “There’s a large, untapped market of people who have never heard of us.”
Wintergreen has already tapped enough cold-weather haters to require 25 employees. Its clothes are made only in America --- in fact, only in Ely, Minnesota. And it pretty much owns a niche that grows bigger with every sharp addition to the collection.
In a time when it’s fashionable to say that America no longer manufactures anything, here’s Exhibit A of the rebuttal.