Best Made’s Founder Returns, With or Without His Iconic Axe

After almost four years of ownership, Duluth Trading sold the artful gear brand back to Peter Buchanan-Smith. Can he recapture the magic?

November 30, 2023 10:05 am
Peter Buchanan-Smith, founder of Best Made Company, who bought his brand back from Duluth Trading in November 2023
Peter Buchanan-Smith left Best Made in 2019 with no plans to return. Now he's back for a second go.
Photographer: Rob Howard/Getty

Peter Buchanan-Smith is many things: a businessman, writer, aesthete, collector, Grammy Award-winning designer. But above all, his true calling in life may be as a soothsayer. 

In 2009, Buchanan-Smith started Best Made Company by selling hand-painted axes, which exploded in popularity by tapping into the modern yearning to reconnect with the outdoors. In 2019, after building it into an influential apparel and gear brand, he left the company when a new owner started making decisions that irked him; the following year, that owner sold Best Made’s assets off to Duluth Trading Company in something of a fire sale. After the news of that transaction became public, he offered this prognostication: “Who’s to say that somehow I’m not going to end up back there someday? Stranger things have happened.”

Three years later, Buchanan-Smith appears to have spoken this strange thing into existence. On November 14, the 51-year-old made a surprise announcement on the Best Made Instagram account that he had purchased the company back from Duluth Trading. “I am in this to create something new, unexpected, and hopefully more relevant ever,” he wrote. It appears he doesn’t need to hope for relevancy: in the last two weeks, the post has generated over 10,000 likes and 1,100 comments bursting with praise for the return of the axe-wielding founder. 

“That completely caught me off guard,” Buchanan-Smith said by phone from his home in Upstate New York. “What I’m more excited about than anything is [when] I started Best Made in 2009, I started it virtually alone, and now I feel like I have thousands of people behind me. That’s such a powerful feeling that I feel very blessed by.”

There are a number of high-profile examples of founders returning to their creations: Steve Jobs at Apple, Jack Dorsey at Twitter, Charles Schwab at his namesake financial services company. But Buchanan-Smith’s comeback — which is admittedly on a much smaller scale than those cases, and in the business of selling aesthetically pleasing outdoor goods, not tech or securities — is less about turning the ship around and more about starting from scratch. When Duluth Trading bought the brand in 2020, they acquired inventory and intellectual property; none of the Best Made employees or stores came with the purchase. When they sold it, they kept their goods and are selling through what they have left. Buchanan-Smith has his brand back, but that’s pretty much it. 

“Duluth reached out to me in July and they said that they were thinking about selling it, and would I be interested in bidding on it?” he said. “We went back and forth. They were very forthcoming and transparent about everything. We finally got to a number that worked for both of us.”

It’s unclear exactly why Duluth Trading decided to offload the brand they added to their roster just a few years ago. In a brief press release, the company mentioned its “decision to concentrate its efforts on Duluth Trading’s brood of sub-brands” which “allows for a greater focus on the Company’s strategic growth initiatives.” In its 2021 annual report, Duluth Holdings, the parent company that’s publicly traded, showed interest in expanding Best Made, mentioning a women’s line was in the works; in the 2022 report, released in March 2023, Best Made is not mentioned once, showing how early they were considering a sale. There is certainly a question of serving different customers: Duluth Trading sells workwear with a sense of humor, like spacious Ballroom jeans and odor-free Buck Naked underwear; Best Made offers carefully curated gear for creative types who want their canvas jacket and folding knife to come with a hard-won backstory.

Duluth Trading declined an interview and to answer a list of specific questions about the sale, instead offering a quote from president and CEO Sam Sato that was included in their original press release.

“We are honored to have been part of Best Made’s journey,” Sato, who was appointed after the purchase of Buchanan-Smith’s brand, said in the statement. “I am proud of the work Duluth Trading accomplished to foster the legacy of Best Made into the future, and we are excited to see what comes next for the brand as it returns back to its founder, Peter Buchanan-Smith.”

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For what it’s worth, the amicable feeling is mutual on Buchanan-Smith’s side. “They obviously love the brand. They loved it enough that they bought it, and they loved it enough that they wanted the founder to have it back again,” he said. “There’s something about that — that kind of transaction feels rare and special in this day and age. I have a lot of respect for Duluth for including me in it, for carrying that torch…and being good sports about handing it off.”

What Buchanan-Smith does have in common with more recognizable founders like Jobs, Dorsey and Schwab — something that Duluth Trading did not — is that he is intimately entwined with the company he started. He believes he knows what makes it work because he was there at the beginning and put a part of himself into it. 

In 2020, he told InsideHook that it would be “literally impossible for [Duluth] to recreate” the “magic” and “sense of wonder” of Best Made, which under his direction was less focused on quarterly sales goals than weaving together a story about well-made goods, the right ways to use and care for them, and the craftspeople behind them. (An employee who was let go before the Duluth sale admitted that “selling…always felt secondary to creative.”) Some fans of the brand felt the same, as seen in comments on the relaunch post. “I left when you left. I’m back now that you’re back,” reads one. “So thrilled the brand will be restored to what it was,” reads another. 

“Best Made was me, and in that sense the next Best Made will be me,” Buchanan-Smith said. “I think the transition, it’s not going to be wildly different, but whatever it becomes, whatever product we do, will be an outgrowth of my curiosities and my discoveries. In that sense, the DNA is still there.”

If that sounds like Buchanan-Smith doesn’t know exactly what the next version of Best Made will look like, that’s because he doesn’t. Who else is part of the company? Right now, it’s just him. Where are they based? Currently, out of his home office/workshop in the Catskills that he heats with a wood-burning stove. When will it officially relaunch with products? He’s not sure, but hopefully sometime in 2024. Are they going to sell their classic white, black and red enamelware mugs? He’s not certain about anything they’re going to sell. But wait, they’re still going to sell the axe that made them famous, right? 

“I don’t know about the axe,” he said. “There’s absolutely no way I will turn my back on the axe, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I can’t say if it’s going to come back as a product like it did before. But without the axe, there would be no Best Made, so I’ll just say that.”

Instead, what’s occupying his mind is refashioning Best Made with the right approach, not a specific product. He’s interested in the mending, repair and restoration of apparel. He wants to engage customers more in the process of how the products they purchase are made. In the first edition of the company’s new email newsletter, he said that a recent op-ed by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, about the plague of disposable goods and importance of long-lasting products, “reads as a thesis statement for the next Best Made.” 

“I don’t think it will be as specific as an axe, as there’s going to be one product that’s going to define the future. I think it’s going to be more of a mindset, how we look at things,” he said. “I’m just trying to figure out how those interests can dovetail into a product and starting up a new company.” 

That’s not to say he doesn’t have ideas about what’s to come. After releasing the Axe Handbook in 2021, he bought a sewing machine and taught himself to sew. He eventually designed what he calls a “utility vest,” which he refined with help from former Best Made colleagues and produced at one of his favorite factories in Midtown Manhattan. He was building a website to sell it when Duluth Trading called about selling him his brand back. Instead of incorporating it into the relaunch, he put the vest up for sale this week on his own website, insisting it will be a short-lived project as he focuses all his attention on Best Made.

Even if the garment doesn’t continue on with the new-old brand, it offers a mantra for the reborn company. Best Made was known for its inspiring slogans, emblazoned on patches and maps and enamel signs, like “Be Optimistic” and “What Good Shall I Do This Day?” On the inside of Buchanan-Smith’s new vest, made of cotton grosgrain that was woven in a small mill in Japan, you’ll find a patch that reads “All Good Things Must Start.”

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