Dickies

We’re not a flash-in-the-pan company. We’ve been making denim the whole time and we have a rightful place.” Michael Penn, Dickies

Kyle Fewell

Dickies wants a piece of the fashion denim business.

This story first appeared in the May 4, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“We’ve proven ourselves as a workwear brand, but we’re going to be making a major push into the five-pocket part of the business,” said Michael Penn, senior vice president of marketing and international licensing for the Fort Worth, Tex.-based brand.

Its weapon will be what is now called X-Series denim, a line that features boot-cut, skinny, slim and tapered fits in lightweight ringspun fabrics and multiple washes with performance features such as reinforced stitching, leather patches and the brand’s signature X stitch on the left leg.

“We think these will appeal to a younger customer,” Penn said.

Dickies will be making a “very concerted marketing push” for the collection for fall, he said, in hopes of gaining a larger share of the five-pocket market. The marketing will talk up the range of product offerings and the performance attributes.

Price points will be similar to the workwear denim products and will retail in the mid-$20 range. “We’ll always be a value-oriented brand and very competitive in the marketplace,” Penn said. Distribution will be primarily independent specialty stores as well as midtier and regional department store chains.

Dickies’ heritage will be one of the major talking points.

It was just after the start of the 20th century when C.N. Williamson and E.E. “Colonel” Dickie created a “vehicle and harness” business in Bryan, Tex. That led a few years later to the creation of the U.S. Overall Co., a business that was renamed Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co. in 1922. Its claim to fame was the denim bib overall.

Nearly a century later, the privately held company is the largest workwear manufacturer in the world with a presence in all 50 states, as well as South Africa, Australia, Russia, Chile, Japan, Iceland, Canada, Europe and Mexico.

Dickies-branded khaki pants, bib overalls, jeans, fire-resistant uniforms and footwear remain a mainstay for the blue-collar worker, but a growing percentage of its sales — and an even larger percentage of buzz — comes from more modern offerings that have caught the attention of young, trendy customers.

Whether it’s used in an automotive body shop or to stroll the streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Dickies ethos hasn’t changed. The company remains committed to providing the wearer with a quality garment that will perform on the job.

“That is our DNA and our heritage,” Penn said. “Compared to other faux workwear brands who come into the space when it’s hot, we’ve been there since 1922.”

Workwear continues to represent 90 percent of the company’s sales and the crux of its focus. “With all the things we produce, the end use is the worker,” he said, “even if he chooses to wear it on a Saturday night to go skateboarding. We still build it to perform on the job.”

Dickies now offers a full assortment of apparel and accessories for men, women and children that it either manufactures itself or licenses out. There are 20 categories, ranging from underwear and socks to slippers, but all with performance and comfort attributes.

A percentage of the business is targeted to the medical industry, law enforcement, painters and other physically demanding jobs.

Since the company got its start in denim, that business remains a priority. Penn said from the Twenties until World War II, the business was “rooted in denim.” But during the war, the U.S. government “sequestered” the company to make twill uniforms for the troops, he said. Dickies produced nine million twill uniforms and became the “go-to product for twill” — and denim took a backseat.

Even though Dickies may be better known today for its twill, the company still produces a “substantial collection of denim.” But while 80 percent of the overall denim market is five-pocket models and 20 percent is carpenter or utility, “we are flipped opposite,” Penn said. Dickies’ jeans with tool pockets and hammer loops continue to be “embraced by workers.” The brand’s slogan is: “If it’s Dickies made, it’s made to work.”

With its fashion denim offering, Penn believes what will set Dickies apart from competitors such as Wrangler, Levi’s and Carhartt is that “people trust the brand name and know we stand by our product. It’s a crowded market, but our brand has a distinct advantage.”

While it remains a small part of the business, Dickies has also dabbled in collaborations with companies such as J. Crew, Converse, Spitfire and Urban Outfitters — products that have helped raise its cool factor. “We’ve been selective partnering with retailers and other brands,” Penn said. As long as the partners respect Dickies’ heritage and the products are “on brand,” the company is game.

There’s also the niche 1922 product offering. Named for the year of its founding, the capsule collection is made up of authentic replicas of garments produced in the early years of Williamson-Dickie Mfg. Co., which are manufactured in small quantities in the U.S. They are sold in small boutiques that embrace Made in the U.S. garments with authentic workwear features.

The line is made from premium selvage denim from Cone Denim Mills of North Carolina, and includes chambray shirts, barn coats and carpenter jeans. Prices are significantly higher — the chambray shirt, for example, retails for $175. This is the brainchild of Dickies’ archivist Ann Richardson, who has a passion for vintage cuts and finishes and has created this project to bring some old styles back to life.

While 1922 may garner press, Penn stressed that collection and the collaborations are just icing on the cake. “It’s not the cornerstone of how we market the brand.”

Instead, the focus will remain on outfitting the worker and promoting the new X-Series, where it hopes to gain a foothold.

“We’re not a flash-in-the-pan company,” Penn said. “We’ve been making denim the whole time and we have a rightful place.”

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