If you haven’t heard of Aerostich you haven’t been paying attention. The motorcycle gear outfitter has been an integral part of the riding community for decades now, in large part because of its peculiarly wonderful Roadcrafter riding suit.
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In the moto-journalism world the suit is ubiquitous – more often than not the attire of choice when cameras aren’t present. John Burns and Evans Brasfield of Motorcycle.com both sing its praises, so does Mike Armitage of Bike Magazine, as well as former RA head honcho Wes Siler. Meanwhile, you’ll spot the updated version of the suit, the R3, being worn by Abhi Eswarappa of Bike-urious, Zack Courts of Motorcyclist, and yours truly.
It’s not just moto-journalists, though. Aerostich gear can be found in every corner of the globe, worn and loved by hardcore riders of all stripes and types. And fans of the company treat its Duluth, Minnesota, headquarters as something of a mecca, traveling to the former candy factory in hopes of getting a chance to meet the man behind it all: Andy Goldfine.
‘I thought that maybe if I liked it a few other people would also’
Andy will be the first to tell you that he never imagined it would turn out this way. And really, if you think back to where and how things started, it’s kind of surprising that it has.
The Untold Delights of Duluth
Last summer, I travelled up to Duluth to meet Andy and talk to him about the influence he has had on motorcycling over the years – not just through Aerostich, but also through Ride to Work Day, an initiative that has spread internationally. It is amazing and inspiring to think that a simple person from a place you’ve probably never heard of could affect so much positive change.
First though, about that place you’ve probably never heard of:
Duluth, Minnesota, is a city of about 86,000 people sitting on the western banks of Lake Superior, the largest of North America’s Great Lakes. With its downtown perched on a steep hill, the port city is oh so slightly reminiscent of San Francisco, but much smaller, much colder, and much further away from anything else that’s interesting. In modern times, for people outside the region, the city has returned to the obscurity it enjoyed in the 1870s, when Kentucky Rep. J. Proctor Knott famously lambasted it in Congress:
“I accidentally overheard some gentleman the other day mention the name of ‘Duluth.’ Duluth! The word fell upon my ear with peculiar and indescribable charm, like the gentle murmur of a low fountain stealing forth in the midst of roses, or the soft, sweet accents of an angel’s whisper in the bright, joyous dream of sleeping innocence. Duluth! ’Twas the name for which my soul had panted for years, as the hart panteth for the water brooks. But where was Duluth? Never, in all my limited reading, had my vision been gladdened by seeing the celestial word in print. And I felt a profounder humiliation in my ignorance that its dulcet syllables had never before ravished my delighted ear.”
There was a time, though, when the city was kind of a big deal. Timber, grain, iron ore, and countless other goods poured through its docks; in the early 20th century, the Port of Duluth was the busiest port in the United States. The area was home to any number of industries, including textile mills.
By the late 1970s, however, all of that was dying a rapid, horrible death. Thousands upon thousands of jobs were disappearing and would continue to disappear into the next decade; at its height, unemployment in the city exceeded 22 percent.
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Born and raised in Duluth, Andy was in his mid 20s then. Armed with a degree in English and Philosophy he was still kicking around trying to figure out what to do with his life. He worked in real estate and made OK money, but wasn’t happy.
“I was not sure what to do with myself – mentally, emotionally,” he told me. “It didn’t feel like my life was coming together in ways that were comparable to my peers.”
However, there were a few things he knew. Whereas jobs were fleeing his hometown like animals from a wildfire, Andy wanted to stay put. And he had come to realize his addiction to two wheels would be lifelong – not something to be outgrown.
“At that same time, industrial sewing was leaving the United States for Asia very fast,” he explained. “There had been about a million people employed in textiles in the United States; that whole industry collapsed. Factories were auctioning their equipment off for pennies on the dollar.”
Because he didn’t know what else to do with his life, and because he was able to get them and factory space “almost free,” Andy sunk his life savings into buying a number of industrial sewing machines – despite not really knowing what to do with them.
“I spent about a year trying to figure out what to make,” he said. “I looked at all the activities that I personally did – I knew a little bit about fishing, a little bit about camping, a little bit about rock climbing, a little bit about skiing, a little bit about motorcycling… Everywhere I looked I didn’t think I could make anything – any gear or equipment – better than what was already out there. Except motorcycling.”
The industrial sewing machines Andy had bought, as fate would have it, had previously been used to make snowmobile suits. Thus the Roadcrafter was born.
The classic Roadcrafter is a one-piece riding suit made of Cordura. One of its great selling points is that it’s available in dozens of sizes, so it is more likely to fit comfortably. Not the most fashionable item of clothing (something Andy himself is quick to point out), its ugliness is outmatched by its usefulness.
“I thought that maybe if I liked it a few other people would also,” he said. “The fantasy, of course, was that once it existed, people would look at the Ford or Chevy in their garage and go, ‘What the hell do I need this car for?’ And I would be the next Henry Ford.”
The reality has been somewhere in between. More than just “a few other people” have become fans of the Roadcrafter, but that didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t happen easily. Those of you who paid attention in geography will note that Duluth is particularly far away from Southern California, which in the mid 1980s was the center of the American motorcycling universe. Or, at least, the center of the American moto-journalism universe. And getting people in the latter location to pay attention to a product made in the former took some really hard work.
“I threw a lot of Hail Mary passes,” Andy explained.
Without any advertising budget, Andy figured the best way to spread the word about his Roadcrafter was to get it into the hands of the people producing motorcycling magazines. Andy started with a unique kind of cold-calling, simply sending suits to the journalists he admired.
“I’d send them a suit with a note that said, ‘Hey, I’ve seen a few pictures of you in your magazine and you look like such and such size. Try this on and I’ll give you a call in a few weeks,’” he explained. “Then I’d call back in three weeks and they’d say they’d never heard of it or that they hadn’t had a chance to try it.”
So, one summer he got on his bike and he rode to California and he went to see folks face to face.
“I’d say to them, ‘Look, I’ve been reading your magazine for years and I’ve sunk my life savings into this. You owe it to me to at least just try this thing out,’” he explained.
As El Jefe of The Motorcycle Obsession, I can’t help wonder how I’d respond to such a proposition from a reader. I guess that, like my peers of yore, I would indeed give the product a try. Especially if the pitch came from someone as enthusiastic as Andy. The gamble worked, and soon his Roadcrafter was appearing on the covers of magazines. Cooler, lighter, and a hell of a lot more commuting-friendly than leather, it was a hit with the SoCal set, and it wasn’t long before that enthusiasm was filtering to riders around the country and around the world.
Live to Ride…
Building on this success, Aerostich slowly expanded its repertoire. There are now four different one-piece suits and an equal number of two-piece suits. In addition, there is a whole range of products. The company today is a little bit like Touratech. But, you know, without the uptight Teutonic mindset. Both companies offer a wide range of items – from clothing, to gear, to books – and both inspire a kind of die-hard fan base. With Aerostich, though – which now employs roughly 60 people – you can see in almost everything the philosophy of the man who started it. At its heart, Aerostich is a company for people who really, really love to ride – set up by a guy who really, really loves to ride, and who really, really believes that riding can be a force for good.
“I think the car is responsible for a lot of our problems in society, be that in terms of health or in terms of social contract,” Andy said. “People need to get out, be more open, interact more directly with one another.”
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He is nothing short of evangelical about riding, and his desire to spread the good word extends beyond his selling items that make riding easier and more fun. He is also the force behind Ride to Work Day, an initiative that encourages people to commute to work on their motorcycles – treating them as more than sunny day recreational objects.
The idea has spread around the world and Ride to Work Day – held each year on the third Monday in June – is observed in dozens of countries. In the United Kingdom, it has expanded to become Ride to Work Week and has the support of the motorcycle industry. But the whole thing started as something of a happy accident, the result of someone making fun of Harley-Davidson.
In the late ’80s Harley began using the “Live to ride. Ride to live” slogan that you’ll still find on a fair few T-shirts. Andy normally rides standard and enduros (I rode up to Duluth on an Indian Springfield and when he saw it, he joked: “It’d be OK if only they’d put a little more chrome on this thing”), so he couldn’t help appreciating the good-natured humor when he spotted a privateer racer who had scrawled “Work to Ride. Ride to Work” across his tank.
Andy liked the phrase so much he asked the racer if he could use it on a T-shirt, which was then sold via the Aerostich catalog. And ultimately the T-shirt inspired journalist Bob Carpenter to pen a column in Road Rider magazine wishing that more people would, indeed, ride to work – even if just one day a year. Life imitated art imitating art imitating life imitating art, and Andy put the wheels in motion to make such a day happen.
Live to Aerostich…
As I say, Aerostich is the sort of business that inspires die-hard fans. At one point, while I was chatting with Andy in the ground floor shop of Aerostich HQ, we were approached by a man and his wife who had come all the way from Arizona. Afterward, Andy told me of how awkward he feels when people sometimes approach him at motorcycle shows and ask for his autograph.
I can understand why they do. Andy has set up a company that inspires a personal connection. Just about everything in the Aerostich catalog – whether made by Aerostich or another manufacturer – seems to have a story connected to it. The pocket on the right arm of the Roadcrafter/R3 is there to keep change for toll booths; it’s on the right arm to help discourage you from fishing for change with the bike’s gear engaged (you have to access the pocket with your left hand, so you can’t be holding in the clutch). The Roper gloves came about because Andy needed gloves when he happened to stop at a South Dakota tourist trap (Wall Drug) that sold Western wear. And so on and so on.
These little stories make everything feel personal. They remind you that there are human beings behind all this – human beings that ride. And for me one of the highlights of visiting Aerostich was the opportunity to meet those people. I got to meet Jenny, Fred, Jake, Mike, and Karen: the people who had made my R3 (there is a tag inside of every Roadcrafter/R3 that lists the people who worked on it). I got to see the fabric being cut. I got to see the suits being stitched together. I got to see the armor being made by hand. And all of this happening in America, in a business that set up shop when so many other business were hightailing it out of town.
Aerostich encourages that personal connection. For example, if you’re ever in Duluth, the business has set up a sort of picnic area for riders in the old loading dock of its building. There are tables where you can sit and chat with anyone else who shows up, pore over maps, maybe enjoy lunch bought at OMC Smokehouse – a barbecue place about a block away. That personal connection speaks also to the driving philosophy of Aerostich.
At one point in our very long conversation (I had anticipated our interview would last 45 minutes; we ended up hanging out for six and a half hours) Andy joked that 70 percent of his customers are over the age of 40. It was a joke made with a mild sense of resignation, but I think Andy underestimates how relevant his brand is to younger riders.
Motorcycling has diversified considerably over the past decade and a half, so it is difficult to make too many sweeping generalizations about the industry, but I’d argue that that diversification represents multiple sides of the same coin: the idea that it’s OK to ride the bike you want to ride. Want to putt around town on a not-too-powerful Triumph Street Twin? That’s OK. Want to command a battleship-sized KTM 1290 Super Adventure across the desert? That’s OK, too. You do you, man – as long as you’re out there on two wheels.
In that sense, Andy is something of an original hipster; he was not worrying about other people’s opinions before not worrying about other people’s opinions was cool. Or, at least, before it became such a big part of motorcycle companies’ product development strategies. He was just out riding.
The company he built has encouraged that mindset in thousands upon thousands of riders over the years – including myself. Want to guess who I see as a role model as I transform TMO from being a personal blog into a full-on moto site? Want to guess where some of the philosophy that influences TMO comes from?
Long may it continue.