When I recently visited Germany’s oldest textile mill in Bavaria, I was so impressed by the quality of their Loden wool fabrics and the company ethos, that I decided to use their fabric in my Fall ‘18 Loden coat production.
My tour guide was Maximilian, a descendant of the founders of the 350+ year-old Tuchfabrik Gebrüder Mehler and himself a potential heir to the company. For him, like his forefathers, running the firm is seen more as a stewardship for the sake of those that depend on the company than an opportunity for personal gain.
Robert W. Stolz and Maximilian Mehler standing in front of the family, "Stammtafel" showing the lineage leading to Maximilian as well as the family coat of arms.
Community Responsibility before Profits
The company is a pillar of the town of Tirschenreuth, depended on by generations of employees, their families as well as its customers, of course. Ensuring its position for generations to come means taking a conservative approach to finances, to safeguard against any economic downturns. Running the company responsibly is not just a motto on the wall, but rather an ethos that permeates every aspect of how the company has been run – for the last 350 years! And the family owners consider their firm’s success attributable to this ethos.
Ownership is Not a Hereditary Right
In fact ownership of the business is passed like a torch from one generation to the next in the most unusual way. First, at the age of 18, any member of the family desiring to work at the company signs away any claim to ownership, relinquishing that right to their elders who will choose the next heir when the time comes. Simply being the son of the last owner is not considered a right to own the company. Ownership is only passed to the descendent who will do the best for the company. Hence, the company’s ownership is not diluted among all the descendants, but rather it typically falls to only one or two family members who inherit the entire company.
A 350 Year Old Family Tradition Continues
Those who are chosen have already dedicated their careers to the business and inherit the entire company with the solemn understanding that it is not theirs to get rich from, but rather a ship to safely sail until the next generation takes over, all the while taking care of its many dependents. Only a modest salary is all the owner will ever get – no beach houses or yachts!
In the United States, most family businesses fail with the 3rd generation due to diluted ownership and conflicting visions, but I bet the Mehler strategy is not very likely to catch on! However radical their ownership practices are, there is no denying their success. Mehler is world renowned for producing exceptional quality Loden wool fabrics for fashion and when I met the craftsmen I could understand why.
Maximilian standing in front of his ancestors
Producing Loden Wool Fabric
As I toured the mill and saw each of the 24 steps to produce Loden, I was amazed by the deftness with which its employees performed their tasks as well as their good-natured familial rapport with Maximilian our host.
I recall Manfred Kinle the ‘Master Walker’ who oversees the critical wet-finishing process that transforms the loosely woven fabric into Loden, a process known in German as “walken”. The sprightly 69 year old man explained with exuberance the particularities of Mehler Loden, intermixed with comic relief in the form of verbal (and physical) jabs with our millennial tour guide and potential heir Maximilian. Manfred had also been Maximilian’s soccer coach.
Maximilian and Master Walker Manfred Kinle
Nuanced Difference between Bavarian Loden and Austrian Loden
Manfred Kinle explained to me with great pride the intricacies of what makes their Bavarian Loden wool fabric different from the Austrian Loden wool fabric. The difference is essentially that at Mehler they run the almost finished fabric through a machine that shaves the fuzz off the surface of the fabric, leaving a slightly smoother finish. This is called a “glatt” finish in German.
Used in Robert W. Stolz Loden Coats
If you compare the Mehler Loden used in the new production of the “Shiver No More” or the “Florentina” Loden wool coats, with the Loden used in our original “Edelmann” Loden jacket produced with Austrian Loden wool from the Loden Steiner Mill, the difference is subtle but evident. The Austrian Loden wool has just a little more fuzz on the surface. However the difference is so subtle it’s only aesthetic and doesn’t impact the warmth or water-shedding character of Loden wool.
Two classic Robert W. Stolz Loden coats, the, "Shiver No More" and the "Florentina" worn in New York City. Photo credit: Alexandra Rowley
Thistle Cones for Brushing
Robert & Maximilian holding thistle cones on spindles for brushing Loden
A highlight of the visit for this dorky Loden aficionado was to see they still have and sometimes use the 1,000+ year old thistle cone technique to brush Loden. Before the invention of metal combs, thistles were used to brush Loden, the secret to its famous water-shedding ability. Use of thistles has been largely abandoned since they wear out more quickly and don’t have any real advantage, but Mehler can still do it!
Thistle cones on a spindle
Modern Technology Where it Counts
Showing they aren’t stuck in the past, Mehler has also spent millions on a state of the art semi-automated warehouse which allows them to store a vast inventory of finished Loden fabrics hundreds of feet high on racks serviced by a robotic retrieval system. The special building is kept dark and oxygen reduced to preserve the fabrics.
Sophisticated robotic fabric storage and retrieval system
Refugees Turned Part of the Family
If you make a visit you might also meet a few recently arrived Syrian refugees now employees who Maximilian told me have become a part of the family.
Mehler Loden in the Robert W. Stolz Collection
If you’d like to feel the Mehler Loden in your own hands, or how it keeps you warm on a chilly windy day, take a look at our men’s and women’s coats made from this remarkable material: