Stars aligned for Betty Madden and Vivian Rivetti, global vice presidents of design at Lee and Wrangler, respectively, when the duo first met at Kontoor Brands. And although Madden and Rivetti design for separate heritage brands that possess distinctive identities, their joint approach to holistic, sustainable and authentic fashion is wholly unique — and, it sparked a friendship.
Here, Madden and Rivetti talk to WWD about collaboration, designing for a brand’s DNA, and the importance of authenticity in storytelling.
WWD: Tell me how both of you work together, because it sounds like you collaborate. Could you give me a sense of what that looks like?
Vivian Rivetti: I’ll start with that and say simply Betty and I realized once we met here that we were absolutely cut from the same cloth, and we continue to say that. Our offices are probably 50 feet away from each other. So, we meet regularly or occasionally, but we actually have many drive-bys. We are both from the same creative background and world, even though we both came from different places. But our DNA and aesthetic and mind-set of how to set up a design organization is teamwork, which really feels good. We both have a partner in crime on doing that, which reinforces the benefit, the value, I believe, for this total organization.
Betty Madden: I think it would be hard for people to believe that Vivian and I both are the first design leads in both of these brands ever, setting up a freestanding design organization. That’s part of it.
But the second part of it is sharing with people who have never had that, what that means, how design adds value, what our role is in the whole process, and what we can bring to the table. So, having someone like Vivian, especially someone who I adore and love and we have very similar points of view, and actually similar personalities, it’s nice having someone like that when you’re trying to go through this. And when you feel a little crazy when you’re trying to explain something, it’s a reminder that you’re not.
WWD: Are there different personality traits that you see in one another that influence design in any specific way?
V.R.: I think a key term for us that’s on value would be the integrity of the brand. I think we’re both big believers. To me, it’s brands first and really understanding the value to us. Not saying value dollars figures, but what does it mean to represent a brand and the personality of having that integrity to stand up that brand or bring that brand to the next level from a creative point of view I think is something that you really have to have embedded in you. So, ego totally goes away, and it’s really about brands first.
B.M.: It’s funny, because part of the reason I took this job is because there was such an emotional response when someone said Lee to me. Typically, when I work for a brand, I kind of pour myself into it. This brand has been exceptionally fun to pour myself into because at 130 years, there are so many stones to turn over and so many cool things to see. The groundwork, the foundation of this brand is so interesting that as we move into the future, every day it’s just exciting to figure out what little piece we’re going to pull and start talking about.
I think the different personalities of the brands, when you look at Wrangler and Lee, when you think about it in a really flat way, it’s like, “Oh, well, you make denim.” The personalities of these brands are so different. Although we have threads of our story that are similar, like Western and some of those things that are true parts of our story, the essence of our brands and the emotion you get when you think of them is very different.
WWD: What about modernizing brand authenticity?
B.M.: Lee has a very lighthearted, entrepreneurial, proud confidence about it and a real beauty to the way that they solved problems in design from day one, and that’s kind of the way we think about the brand every day. How does it feel through that lens? I see my role as being the steward of making sure we always speak through the original essence of how this brand was articulated, which was really super optimistic and positive.
V.R.: I think another area is respecting the authenticity of each of our brands. We don’t have to fake it. At Wrangler, I have almost 75 years of history. Again, we just go down that timeline, and we showed up as a lifestyle, not just as a category. I think it’s really important that we felt that from each of our brands, which do show up quite differently. We share denim, but our personalities, meaning the brands’ personalities, are quite different. Again, Wrangler is within the spirit of…rooted in a Western sensibility. So, we do show up differently, which makes it dynamic for Kontoor to have these two different brands.
B.M.: I think it’s important to know, for Vivian and I both, that the goal isn’t to have some dusty old museum brand. We have history that spans 130 years, and within each one of those decades, Lee had a place in time, but it played through that lens and through that spirit of our brand. We were very much founded in workwear and the industrial building of America. There are so many facets of that which are cool and optimistic and moving forward. So, I don’t look at the past as sort of like a don’t get stuck there, but more of like, wow, that grounds us.
V.R.: Yeah. I would say it’s about grounding yourself in the past and colliding it with the future. That’s where innovation comes into play for us, because we’re going to use innovation as a way to create compelling product that’s purposeful to our brand. It’s really just exciting colliding with the future, and future impulses, gut and innovation with our brand in creating new products.
WWD: One thing about Wrangler that we recently learned is that it still has a major stake in rodeo. Could you elaborate on that?
V.R.: Well, I can tell you a story about that. I joined Wrangler a little over two years ago. Of course, I knew the Wrangler brand since I was very new to the Lee brand, and we all know these dynamic American denim brands. But really being immersed into the Western lifestyle was so fascinating to me. In fact, I’m actually headed out to WNFR, which is the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, or rodeo finals, next week. It’s in Vegas, and it incredibly turns into Wrangler land. Every dad, mom, grandfather and child is head-to-toe Wrangler.
There’s a real affinity to the brand, and you really can see where the spirit of the brand started from. Our original jean, which is our 11MWZ, was created and crafted uniquely for the purpose of the cowboy. That was in 1947, and through the years, it’s still believed. It has that credibility and authenticity for that consumer, and it’s amazing. It’s amazing to see them in real life and the humble confidence of the cowboy and the cowgirl.
You have to realize what your consumer is doing. And I love that. That energizes me. So, it’s not about watching a runway show. It’s not about shopping the stores only. You have to be where you consumer breathes and really get into their psyche, get into their DNA, understand their values and their morals and their lifestyle.
WWD: How is Lee modernizing its heritage for the upcoming season? What does spring 2020 look like for denim?
B.M.: I can speak to that because Lee was really built on innovation. When you look at Lee from the early, early days, [it was about] the problems we were solving, whether it was the pencil you were putting in a pocket for the head engineer for the railroad, to [designing a utilitarian] cowboy jean, which we made as well. We were constantly innovating. We were one of the first brands to have stretch in the Seventies, so for us it’s always been part of what we do.
Right now we look at innovation also through a sustainability lens, so we have where we can put sustainability into our fabrics and our stretch and our fit and some of the properties that our jeans have. That’s one way we’re modernizing, just making sure that we’re addressing how people live now, and what it means. What is the pencil pocket for someone today who isn’t on the railroad?
WWD: Tell me more about sustainability in design. How has that evolved?
B.M.: Lee has always been function with style, so as we move forward and design the collection, we run things like sustainability and innovation through the lens of style, so what’s happening socially and going down the runway and what are the problems that need to solved. And then how are we running that through whether it’s fabric development or some of the technologies that our team in innovation are working on.
We have a Shape Illusions collection right now at Walmart that is all about highlighting that part of a female shape that’s doing well. So, those are the types of things that we’re doing moving forward. The big push, though, with that is to make sure that the aesthetic of the brand, the DNA of the brand and how we project that into the world, is unified, regardless of what we do.
V.R.: I would definitely mimic that sustainability aspect. Sustainability is responsibility at this point. It’s really important that we are looking through a lens of being sustainable. But I would say the key thing that drives me as we try to maintain our roots of design and aesthetic of where we came from is comfort is key.
We know the consumer, male or female, wants to look cool, but also needs to be comfortable. So, how do you not lose that, and we have no intention to lose the cowboy cool. At Wrangler, we always call it cowboy cool essence. And when I say comfort, it’s not just comfort. It’s comfort basically that you don’t see, which is physically comfortable, but also confidence, the sense of confidence that we’re driving for that consumer to have.
There’s nothing worse than anyone wearing something that’s physically not comfortable; it’s not going to give you the confidence to wear it as well. So, I think a lot of aspects of innovation and future impulses and what the consumer wants, and how do we deliver to them what they never knew existed, they never knew they wanted. We have a chance to make that change or deliver product with that point of view.
B.M.: Agreed. Sustainability is such a key, but I almost think about it as humanity at this point. Sustainability is just a key element of humanity, and how are we as a brand behaving and operating. What are putting into our product, how are we treating people, how are we serving people? In the fashion industry, it used to be what’s trending, what’s this, what’s that. I think there are these umbrellas that are being created around the world in terms of holding people accountable for the greater good. That’s a big part of it. I think Vivian would agree that both of us are really focused on that humanity piece, which is all facets of sustainability, really.
WWD: Has the Lee or Wrangler consumer evolved since you’ve been in your respective roles?
B.M.: With Lee, there’s this whole revival of nostalgia for brands that are real. When you think about Lee, Levi’s, Wrangler, they’re the three brands who created the category of denim. Denim is something that is the most democratic, it gets better with age, it goes with everything. You think about the two coveted brands that Vivian and I oversee, the trend right now is that people want something that feels authentic, that feels real, that has a story attached to it, that’s not just made up. It doesn’t have a buzzword attached to it. There’s a real trend to all this drink Coca-Cola, wear Lee, Wrangler, and find those pieces of society that were really rooted somewhere. That really plays well to what we’re doing currently.
For Lee specifically, I think it’s more of a brand that kind of faded away for a little while. A trend right now is for people to really feel like they’ve found something, they’ve uncovered something, they’re excited, they’re the only ones wearing it, and Lee is in that moment of discovery right now where this generation is meeting Lee almost for the first time.
We’re seeing this huge surge there of excitement around Lee. Of course, the vintage movement and the second-hand movement is also playing into our brands really well. Also, because it’s bringing people to our product in a different way and then in that way bringing them back to our brand now. So, it’s an interesting time in terms of really heritage brands.
V.R.: I think a key word that you mentioned is trust. I do think that there is an absolute aspect about a consumer trusting a brand. I know consumers who trust brands that don’t even exist anymore. That’s the power of a brand. It’s just amazing. I do think with the trend of nostalgia, it’s about the authentic trust of this Wrangler brand of once upon a time and today. It never went away, however, it has its peaks and valleys of how it addresses, let’s say, the more modern market.
There’s this sense of authenticity and storytelling, and there’s something precious about a consumer’s purchase, their choice of purchase that they want to carry on or pass on. I do think the consumer is shopping more…let’s say, purposefully. They are making their choices, and we need to be delivering those specific dynamic choices. I always like to say we can’t make filler…Everything that we create and design behind our brand needs to (1) be compelling design, (2) have innovation, thought for the psyche of the consumer, not just to answer what we believe he is saying, or she, that they want. Again, delivering what they might not even know they want, and there we are showing up with it.
It’s really a dynamic time. I think there are a lot more trends going on out there other than sustainability. Again, I believe sustainability at this point is more responsibility, and now there are a lot of product stories, and what the heck can this product do for the consumer, or just for me, that is going to make a difference for that consumer to make that purchase. But again, it’s still thinking and developing and creating with the integrity of the brand. It’s looking through the lens of the brand.
B.M.: It’s interesting. Someone said to me a great brand creates memories and trust. So it’s not just trust. It’s also memories. I thought that was really poignant, because when you think about why people buy vintage denim, why people buy an old house, really. When people buy into brands, whether it’s what they used to do or what they’re doing now, there’s a story there. I think with denim, I can sit in my chair with a pair of vintage jeans on and imagine who used to wear my jeans or what happened in these jeans. I always say how many asses have been in these jeans.
Your jeans tell a story. They really do. But I have a pair of these vintage blue jeans that are just…well. However many people owned them, they hung onto to the last scraps. Whenever I get a compliment, I always say, “There were a lot of asses in these jeans.” I can always imagine who was there. I think that’s the privilege we have of taking these brands into the future, is the stuff that we’re creating now, the legendary product that we need to be creating now and the new icons.
We have a lot of icons in each of these brands, but the new icons we’re creating, we have to create with that in mind. We want to make product that’s so beautiful and well done that 20 years from now people are looking at it and imagining the story behind it. I can get emotional about it because it’s such a cool privilege to be able to do that with a brand.
V.R.: Wrangler does have that sense too, absolutely. When I came in here two years ago, I moved from New York. When I told my friends or people I know, family, that I was going to Wrangler, they didn’t say, “Oh, I had that one pair of Wrangler jeans” or “I had jeans.” They were “My first pair of bell-bottoms were Wrangler” or “The first time I got on a motorcycle I was wearing Wranglers.”
WWD: Betty, you mentioned that when you took this job you had an emotional reaction to just hearing the word “Lee.” Can you tell me more about that?
B.M.: When I was growing up, all I wanted were Lee jeans. Lee was just as cool or cooler than any other brand. Madonna wore Lee, Cindy Crawford wore Lee. There were so many people who wore Lee, and Lee was the brand. Just like everything else over the years, it had faded away. It had kind of become something else over the years. When I was presented with this opportunity, I had forgotten about the brand. The minute it was mentioned, I had [a flashback]…and that’s why I said the comment about how a good brand is a memory. That’s exactly what happened to me, because when the recruiter said, “Oh, I have an opportunity at Lee,” I was immediately back to the Nineties, the Eighties.
In my career, I’ve grown up where there are brands I can really believe in. It’s hard these days to find a brand that you can pour yourself into, you can be the evangelist for it, you can talk about it all night long because you love it so much. I felt like this was a brand that I could do that for. The other thing that really relates to me about this brand is that the Lee woman was always kind of an ass-kicker with lipstick. She was wearing Lee, riding a horse, working in a factory, wearing men’s jeans, doing things that women weren’t really supposed to do. I really relate to that. I was very much a tomboy that loves lipstick, so that’s been a fun thing too.
WWD: What role does storytelling play in product design? How can heritage brands strategically and authentically innovate?
V.R.: Sustainability is now the norm. OK, so now let’s keep on doing that, let’s assume that’s part of our job now. Now let’s bring the innovation in or bring the products new stories. Storytelling is key. It’s really important as leaders of design to ensure that we are, from a design perspective, are presenting our stories and capsules of dynamic products, and that it’s not just us here making jeans all day long. It’s really about storytelling, making magical moments for our consumers. We have a broad range of consumers and different lifestyles, and different stories.
B.M.: People really get into like, “Well, what are you doing with the product?” We can make beautiful product. In my mind, that’s not the hard part. The hard part is not making beautiful product. We can do that with the right people and the right tools. It’s how do we emotionally connect, that we strike a nerve immediately, just like it did with me, when you say “Lee” there’s that immediate emotion. That’s really the important thing that we have to capture. The rest of it is going to come up around it.
V.R.: At the end of the day, it’s good design, it’s innovation, it’s amazing collaboration with our production teams here at Kontoor that really make a difference. And not to be cliché, but it does take a village. The belief of the Kontoor entities that have design at the table is really, really supportive and powerful.
B.M.: Since 2008, when everything happened in retail and then how data became such an integral part of how people operate, I think design sort of took a back seat for a while, and it’s refreshing and exciting for Kontoor to really put design at the table in a leadership role. We have a very strong seat at the table in terms of how we create the culture and operating model here to really drive design at the forefront. I think that is critical. I think we’ve learned over the past decade how critical it is to be visionary leaders.
V.R.: Yes. And getting that support. All of the technology that’s out there is really enabling Betty and I to create a dynamic global design organization which is really, again, amazing with the support of the technologies and the 3-D, and the lasers, and everything that we need to propel a dynamic design force.
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