The Fall of Best Made Co: Why the Enigmatic Axe Company Was Sold for Parts

What’s left of Peter Buchanan-Smith’s trendsetting outdoor brand?

October 26, 2020 8:27 am
best made co. logo
Best Made Co. went dark at the beginning of the pandemic. Now it's back.
Main image: Duluth Trading Co.

It’s been hard to get your hands on outdoor equipment during the pandemic. After being told for weeks to stay at home, Americans responded to initial COVID restrictions with a renewed fervor for the wilderness, buying up bikes, RVs and everything at REI

For fans of Best Made Co., however, procuring the brand’s signature painted axes, enamel camp cups and handsome chore coats wasn’t just difficult — it was impossible. Just 10 days after New York, where Best Made had been based since 2009, declared a state of emergency, Best Made went dark. It wasn’t just the stores; the company replaced its online webstore with a single page bearing a cryptic four-sentence message.

“While the world goes through this unprecedented turmoil, we’ve elected to quiet down and return to the workshop, where we find meaning in making,” it read. “We remain committed to our values: steadfastness, curiosity, and optimism, the ultimate survival tools.” (A similar proclamation was posted to Facebook and Instagram.) But it ended with a glimmer of hope: “Expect to hear from us in the fall, and in the meantime, have courage.”

An email to a PR representative for the company in March yielded no further details. “I currently don’t have information on this however, I’ve checked in with the team and will keep you posted,” the rep said. No follow-up came.

Meanwhile, at Best Made’s New York office, the employees were not returning to the workshop. In fact, they weren’t returning at all. 

“Everything was pretty much taken immediately — doors-locked, locks-changed type of vibe,” a former Best Made employee told InsideHook this month. “They didn’t say much else other than that … It was: ‘This is what’s happening, this is your last day, and we don’t know what the future looks like for the brand.’” 

Best Made Co. pandemic message
The message on Best Made Co.’s website from March through October 2020.
Screenshot via

The Origins of Best Made Co.

Best Made was founded in 2009 by Peter Buchanan-Smith. It quickly gained recognition as “the fancy axe company” thanks to its first product, a USA-made cleaver with colorful yet clean-cut “high-quality graffiti paint” designs on the hickory handles. The founder scored a couple buzzy profiles and the axes soon found themselves adorning fireplace mantles and gallery walls from Manhattan to London. 

The acceptance of the humble tool in cultural circles made sense; despite growing up on a farm in Canada, Buchanan-Smith was a graphic designer by trade, working for fashion heavyweight Isaac Mizrahi and winning a Grammy for designing the cover for Wilco’s album A Ghost Is Born. And coming out of the recession, people were anxious and unmoored, looking to reconnect with a simpler time — even if you couldn’t actually move to a cabin or live out of a van, you could buy a handcrafted axe and hold it for comfort every time the news announced a new apocalypse.

But in the following decade, Buchanan-Smith didn’t build an axe company. Instead, he built an idea, selling well-to-do city residents a pathway to the outdoors. The brand expanded into storefronts in New York and Los Angeles, grew its product line into camping gear and outdoor apparel, hosted workshops ranging from field medicine to dyeing clothes with foraged plants, and collaborated on wares with paragons of authenticity like chef Francis Mallmann (who also once presided over a cookout with Best Made in Brooklyn’s McCarren Park).

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?

“We always used to say there was a sense of wonder at Best Made,” Buchanan-Smith said on a recent phone call from upstate New York, “and it’s that kind of intangible element that you can’t really put your finger on.”

Put in a different way, the former employee defined the company like this: “When I think about Best Made, more than anything else, I think we saw ourselves as knowledge keepers in a way.” Knowledge-keeping, unfortunately, doesn’t always pay the bills. “I think selling, which was maybe perhaps the downfall to the business, always felt secondary to creative,” they added. 

In 2017, however, the company made the leap from peddler of “wonder” to one part of what was to become “a fully vertical apparel empire,” as Buchanan-Smith tells it. That was when Bolt Threads, a Bay Area bio-materials startup, bought Best Made with the goal of using the outfitter as a proving ground for its sustainable fibers, like Microsilk which replicates the threads produced by spiders. Best Made was looking for investors, not a buyer, but after the “chance” encounter they made a deal, and Buchanan-Smith was hopeful. 

“I was very excited at the time because they were on the forefront of fiber technology,” he said, “and we were really starting to get into apparel and it just seemed like a perfect match.”

As time went on, it became clear that it wasn’t. 

“[Peter’s] role became less and less involved the more that Bolt became more involved,” the Best Made employee explained. (They spoke on condition of anonymity, and said other employees weren’t speaking openly about the company’s troubles, because “we respect Peter and we respect the brand.”) As for the partnership, they could only think of one Best Made product sold during Bolt Threads’ three-year ownership that included one of the startup’s fibers: 100 spider silk hats. 

Then, in 2019, Peter left the company altogether. “There was a change of leadership at Best Made,” explained Buchanan-Smith. “There was a decision that was made by Bolt and it wasn’t really something that I was interested — it wasn’t a structure that I was really interested in continuing on with.” He adds that it was his decision to leave, and there were other projects he was interested in pursuing, but ultimately it was a failed experiment. 

Best Made Co. axes
The axes that put Best Made on the map.
Duluth Trading Co.

The Final Days of Best Made Co.

On Wednesday, October 21, over seven months after Best Made fired its staff and went quiet, Duluth Trading Co. announced “the addition of Best Made to its growing family of brands.” The Wisconsin-based outfitter has come to be known for its irreverent take on workwear, holding trademarks to product names like Longtail Shirts (featuring “extra length in the body to prevent Plumber’s Butt”) and Ballroom Jeans, which need no explanation. 

“We’ve been longtime admirers of Best Made’s exceptional brand offering of superior-quality products and inspired storytelling,” Dave Loretta, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Duluth Trading, said in a press release. Those praises notably don’t include the staff that deftly cultivated the Best Made lore for the last decade under Buchanan-Smith’s direction, but Duluth isn’t shy about this; in the release, the company notes up top that it only acquired “all outstanding inventory and intellectual property.”

While the relaunch has only been live for a week, public opinion is already mixed. The positive response can be summed up by one Facebook comment: “Happy to see two of my favorite brands getting together!” The negative by one from Instagram: “Good while it lasted. Long time customer. No longer interested.” But the one through line of the comments boils down to one question: What happened? 

“We made the decision to purchase the Best Made brand early in the first quarter of 2020 and acquired solely its inventory, rights to distribute and intellectual property; however, we did not acquire the company from Bolt Threads,” said Loretta, who responded via email through a PR representative. “Business decisions regarding Best Made employees were made by the prior owner before the transaction.”

In short, Duluth Trading is clear it didn’t buy the entire company — salaried employees, retail workers and storefronts included — just the stockpile of products and the branding.

“One of the more upsetting things for me was that they didn’t tell the customers what was going on for eight months,” the former employee said. “I think that they used COVID as an excuse to not say anything when it wasn’t actually COVID-related at all. It just ended at the exact same time.”

However, according to sources, the downfall of Best Made was in fact COVID-related. Duluth wasn’t the only company interested in the brand; there were other entities who were willing to take on all of Best Made, from the employees to the stores, and keep it intact, but when the pandemic hit, the deal fell through. And Duluth, as we’ve seen play out, swooped in and picked up the remnants. 

“The Best Made that I know lasted 10 years and I think we accomplished so much.”

Peter Buchanan-Smith, founder of Best Made Co.

According to the former employee, that’s how they and other colleagues view the reincarnated Best Made: as a sort of shell of its original self.

“It’s such a shame that it had to happen in the way that it did, because looking at the way that [Duluth Trading has] bastardized the content and the way that it lives now on their site, it’s just not right,” they said. “The whole experience, the whole walking into a store and being on the website, it’s all part of the brand, and it’s just too bad. You can just tell that they don’t get it.”

While wary of passing judgement, especially as he acknowledges that he is the one who left the company in 2019, Buchanan-Smith seemed to agree. “I guess I could say I wish them the best of luck — I guess that goes without saying — but from what I’ve seen so far … it feels like a pale imitation of what we created.”

“Best Made was, relatively speaking, a small business, and Duluth is publicly traded,” he continued. “I think that for them … it boils down to a bottom line on a spreadsheet. There was a magic, a sense of wonder — or call it what you will — at Best Made that I don’t really see how you can foster that in a large company without any of the architects and the sort of magicians … any of those original people. And I think it’s going to be literally impossible for them to recreate that.”

Where the Fancy Axe Brand Goes From Here

“It feels like the end of an era,” the former employee conceded. “Best Made was full of mottoes and full of these big, sweeping existential questions and problems to solve and ideas to have. Whatever Duluth does with Best Made won’t really include any of that, because that was so driven by all of the people in the room.”

One motto, which has been emblazoned on everything from patches to T-shirts to towering murals in Brooklyn, was simply: “Be Optimistic.” 

Buchanan-Smith described that simple phrase as something he hoped to imbue into everything Best Made did. While he never thought about the company in terms of “survival” — a brand tenet that’s usurping authenticity in the next wave of outdoor gear — he acknowledged anyone selling outdoor gear has to reckon with it in some way. “If you’re going to be in the wilderness, there may come a point where that instinct is going to have to kick in … And I believe firmly that the key to survival starts with optimism and keeping an optimistic frame of mind.”

But is he optimistic about the future of the company that defined the second act of his career? The one that kickstarted a new wave of gear-minded, city-living outdoorsmen and women? 

“The Best Made that I know lasted 10 years and I think we accomplished so much,” he said, without a tinge of regret. That sure sounds like the closing line of a memoir, but nonetheless, he wasn’t quite ready to drive that final nail in the handcrafted coffin. “Who’s to say that somehow I’m not going to end up back there someday? Stranger things have happened.”

Until that unlikely day, Buchanan-Smith is living three hours Upstate in a “beautiful, tiny little pastoral village,” where he moved after living in the city for decades. He’s even got a cabin with a workshop where he keeps his axe collection.

“I’m learning how to use a nail gun, the intricacies of rough-cut timber — in many ways, living the Best Made life.”

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