As folksy as a pair of Dockers, the sweater vest is easing back into fashion, thanks in part to its appearance on the campaign trail.
Republican presidential candidate former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, center, looks at a display of his official, Santorum for president sweater vest, at the Bemidji Wollen Mills store, with owner Bill Batchelder, right, during a campaign stop at the vest manufacturer.
The sweater vest is back.
OK, it never really went away. But it took presidential candidate Rick Santorum to remind us that the comfy sleeveless sweater has always had a place in our closets.
Ever since Santorum won the Iowa caucus, the former senator from Pennsylvania has been wearing a sweater vest at his meet-and-greets, not for a fashion statement but for good luck.
After offering a free vest to anyone contributing $100 to his campaign, Santorum searched for a U.S. manufacturer to make them. Bemidji Woolen Mills in northern Minnesota landed the job. The company shipped the first batch of 1,000 and has already started a second run, said mill president Bill Batchelder.
Batchelder said the vests convey Main Street values -- and he brushed away any suggestion they also have a nerd factor.
"Say what you want, but Sen. Santorum was not wearing high-water pants or a pocket protector when he came into the plant," said Batchelder, a vest wearer himself.
Sam Fehrenbach, buyer at Martin Patrick in Minneapolis, said the high-fashion men's clothier didn't stock any vests last year, but has them on order for the fall. For Fehrenbach, the old-fashioned look of the vests is part of their appeal.
"The vest has longevity, even if it can be a bit grandpa-ish," he said. While he readily admitted that "vests are a bit nerdy," he added, "but I don't see that as a downside. Nerds can be fashionable, too."
In fact, sweater vests have been de rigueur for many iconic characters past and present, from Richie Cunningham on "Happy Days" to the Artie Abrams character on "Glee."
Even Ferris Bueller, the 1986 slacker hero in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," wore a sweater vest. (Somewhat surprisingly, when actor Matthew Broderick reprised the role for a recent Honda commercial, his vest went missing.)
The vest has been a steady, quiet niche seller for years, said Steve Bernick, co-owner of Milbern Clothing in St. Paul. "It skews toward a more sophisticated, older customer," he said.
Other retailers, such as Macy's, J.C. Penney and Hubert White, carry sweater vests, but none reported a run on them before Minnesota's caucuses Tuesday.
Twill, a men's store in the Galleria, did see a 10 percent rise in vest sales this season, said salesman Paul Mayer. But the store isn't linking that uptick to the prominence of vests on the campaign trail.
"We haven't had anyone walking in and asking for the Santorum vest," Mayer said.
Santorum's vest now has its own Twitter account and website, but despite the campaign's catchy "Sleeves slow me down" slogan, sweater vests are still struggling to attract younger fans.
"They're for older people," said Dan Larson, 24, of Minneapolis. "I wouldn't even consider buying one."
Larson also noted that he refuses to wear two other vestiges of modern male maturity -- the cardigan and pleated pants.
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633