Pendleton: 140 Years and Still Weaving

PORTLAND, Ore. — Seven generations and 140 years after its maverick beginnings in the pristine and pioneering Oregon Territory, Pendleton Woolen Mills is proving it still has frontier fever.<br><br>The $250 million knitwear legend, known for its...

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Seven generations and 140 years after its maverick beginnings in the pristine and pioneering Oregon Territory, Pendleton Woolen Mills is proving it still has frontier fever.

This story first appeared in the December 11, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The $250 million knitwear legend, known for its ultrasoft woolens, wide spectrum of tartans and classic better-price knit sportswear, is looking to expand its range of products and to grow its established businesses. Based here, Pendleton now produces women’s, men’s, home and textiles collections for more than 2,500 accounts, along with its own 75 freestanding stores, catalog and Internet businesses.

Although Pendleton’s iconoclastic heritage continues to define its image, style and way of doing business, including a painstaking quality-control process that virtually walks each item through production by hand, it’s embarking on new fashion and home furnishings horizons.

Pendleton is expanding its fashion reach and subtly introducing more trends to court younger women, while growing its core classics to maintain its popularity with women 35 and older. The company is also hoping to capitalize on the trend toward simplicity and authenticity that’s gaining momentum in fashion and home furnishings. It’s reintroducing several vintage fashion items, including a reversible skirt and camp-style jacket.

On the home front, Pendleton is stepping up production of its venerable blankets, popularized on a mass level during the early 1900s as a way to keep warm in those newfangled automobiles, which didn’t yet come equipped with heaters.

Earlier this year, Pendleton opened its first freestanding home furnishings store in downtown Portland close to its corporate headquarters in the historic Pearl district. The 3,000-square-foot store is beating plan and other stores are planned for next year, although details are still tentative.

But it’s Pendleton’s women’s business that continues to lead company sales. The better-price collections generate about 45 percent of annual company volume, according to Mort Bishop III, president of the privately held, family-owned business that was founded in 1863 by Thomas Kay, an English weaver who relocated to the Oregon Territory.

Though Bishop wouldn’t divulge sales, analysts have estimated that Pendleton posts about $250 million annually in wholesale volume, meaning that its women’s business generates more than $110 million at wholesale.

“Our women’s business continues to grow by double digits each year and is very gratifying,” Bishop said last week as he supervised a Pendleton fashion shoot in the seaside resort community of Santa Barbara, Calif.

“We’re expanding our existing businesses and growing our national channels of distribution,” he said. “There are lots of elements of newness, including our fashions, home stores, textiles business and our blankets.”

Other top categories at Pendleton include men’s wear, with 25 percent of sales, soft home furnishings, including blankets, with 15 percent, and textiles, also ringing up 15 percent of sales. Outside of its in-house retail channels, the company has about 1,500 women’s and 2,500 men’s accounts, including specialty and department stores. They include Dillard’s, Nordstrom, Boscov’s, Von Maur, Bon-Ton and Gottschalks. Pendleton also has accounts in Canada and Japan.

Jennifer Black, executive vice president, managing director and senior research analyst at Wells Fargo Securities, also based here, said: “Pendleton is really opening its eyes to new opportunities in the marketplace. Women’s and home especially have real growth potential for them. They have a really unique heritage that makes them well known and memorable. Pendleton has invaluable name recognition that it leverages to market its products.”

The company has a low-key but sophisticated strategy to marketing and advertising. It’s continuing with its popular “Good For Life” tag line and will run lifestyle-focused advertisements next year in The New Yorker magazine.

Pendleton takes a lifestyle approach with women’s apparel and has designers and merchandisers for career, relaxed career and weekend dressing categories.

“Classics are a big portion of our women’s business, but Pendleton is agile and fast-paced when it comes to delivering styles our customers want,” said Pat Fowler, women’s wear division manager. “Our collections are market driven. We listen to our customers. Younger women are really tuning into classics, which they’re purchasing as investments to build their wardrobes. Coordination is one of our major strengths. The uniform dye lots and classic silhouettes in our essentials program make our styles an active part of a woman’s wardrobe for a long time.

“Pendleton is paying close attention to marketplace trends and, when appropriate, very subtly incorporating them into our collections. Asian, Indian, Native-American and novelty patterns; lace and trims, and lots of color are really important now.”

Wholesale prices top out at $100 for jackets; $65 for pants or skirts, and $17 to $40 for knit tops. For spring, key styles are zip-front, three-quarter-length and V-neck jackets; knee- and calf-length skirts; knit shells; cardigans and pullovers; capris, and tailored pants. Patterns include tartan plaids, herringbones, florals and stripes in colors such as rose, wine, sky blue, pink, khaki, black and white.

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