Two years ago, Sarah Harbaugh called a San Francisco radio station to defend herself against husband Jim Harbaugh’s baggy, pleated $8 khakis. The 49ers coach, she said, was aging himself “50 years,” and she’d pleaded with him to reconsider his on-field uniform.
This story first appeared in the January 27, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
For football fans, this provided a welcome water-cooler conversation. But for the Dockers team, whose parent company was about to inaugurate Levi’s Stadium, this presented an excellent marketing opportunity.
“We said, ‘Hello, he’s in our stadium — we have to do something about this!'” remembers Dockers president Lisa Collier. Dockers and the Harbaughs filmed a spoof public service announcement against the condition of so-called “Dad Pants,” outfitting him in flat-front khakis.
“When we were spending time with Jim in the lead-up to making that video, he was like, ‘I just need to be comfortable,'” Collier said. “And we said, ‘Jim, do they really need to have pleats?’ In his mind, they needed to have pleats because they needed to have room. I think that was the start of thinking about that ‘Dockers makeover.'”
That makeover moment, she said, is helping the customer be at once comfortable and stylish, and it’s key to the Dockers signature — and to its ongoing renaissance.
“The Dockers brand invented casual Fridays and has remained the leading brand in casual pants ever since,” said Levi Strauss & Co. president and chief executive officer Chip Bergh.
Collier, wearing a casual Friday uniform of overalls at the Levi’s Strauss & Co. headquarters near San Francisco’s waterfront, reflected on the evolution of the brand since Dockers redefined casual men’s wear in 1986 with the introduction of the khaki pant.
The concept of casual pants surged in the early Nineties, when Dockers sent “A Guide to Casual Businesswear” to 25,000 human resource managers. Up until then, Collier explained, “there were jeans or there were suits. And then came khakis.”
In five years, Dockers rocketed to $1 billion in sales. Since then, it has worked to maintain ubiquity in an increasingly crowded market as the customer has become more style-savvy and dress codes have devolved into merely a suggestion.
By 2012, Dockers’ annual revenue had fallen to about $476 million. Through 2014 (the latest figures available), Dockers accounted for about 12 percent of Levi Strauss & Co.’s volume.
“Our peaks of success,” said Collier, who has been at Levi Strauss & Co. for 13 years and took over Dockers in July 2013, “are from really listening to our guy — where he’s going, what his needs are and what has changed.”
The team at Dockers found that their customer wants to be appropriate and favors simplicity and comfort, both physically and psychologically. Dockers has focused on what it considers the four pants styles that a man should ever need: The Jean Cut, The Broken In, The Clean Cut and The Best Pressed, ranging from $50 to $142 globally. Collier refers to it as the “Casual Continuum,” and it illustrates how the customer has changed in the 30 years since khakis entered America’s sartorial lexicon.
Dockers has been rapidly moving away from 100 percent cotton pants to add stretch; by fall, Collier estimates that 90 percent of all bottoms will have stretch and that 77 percent of the business will be done in stretch internationally. By way of comparison, in 2015, Dockers estimates that 29 percent of business was done in stretch.
Collier talks a lot about “unleashing the power of the brand,” and taking advantage of Dockers’ 86 percent brand awareness. She sees the core customer as not necessarily “safe,” but appropriate; not nostalgic, but classic, and not specifically fashionable, but rather, stylish. Although it might be associated with “dad pants” — the original styles weren’t that dissimilar from Harbaugh’s ballyhooed game-day style — people are open to the brand, Collier says.
“Once upon a time, the Dockers signature look was a pair of loose-fitting khaki trousers — possibly pleated — most likely with a center crease, worn with a blue poplin sport shirt and a pair of brown dress shoes,” said Dockers senior vice president of global design Doug Conklyn. “Today, our signature look is more casual: a pair of slim-tapered, broken-in khakis in an array of colors worn with a chambray work shirt and chukka boots.”
That look is still arguably more dressed-up than the average tech worker would consider for a San Francisco job interview, which is to say nothing of the casual Friday scene in nearby Silicon Valley. Interestingly, the best-selling style in the U.S. is the more refined Best Pressed, while in Europe, the Clean Khaki and Broken In lead.
Still, Dockers is loyal to its decidedly un-fadlike signature. When joggers and ath-leisure became all the rage, Dockers sat that one out, introducing instead the “On-the-Go” khaki in 2014, which emphasized free movement with a hidden zipped smartphone pocket, moisture-wicking mesh internals and a jersey waistband.
“Men want to be comfortable. But men need style as well,” Conklyn said. “We believe you can have your cake and eat it, too.”
Levi Strauss & Co.’s 2014 annual report, shared last April, referenced the enduring power of the brand; as the casual pants leader in the U.S., it is estimated to be double the size of its next competitor. But Bergh also conceded that 2014 was a difficult year for Dockers. “[A] priority for the year ahead is to reset our strategy on the Dockers brand going forward,” he wrote. “We believe in its potential and are committed to returning this market leader to profitable growth.”
“Dockers, over the years and at various times, has in some ways been a victim of its own pioneering innovation,” explained retail analyst Carol Spieckerman. “It has really become almost synonymous with casual Fridays, which has been maligned at various times as a non-fashion trend.”
Although the brand toggles between catching the eye of new customers without alienating the core loyalist, Collier sees overlap; among them are their preference for enduring style, a tendency to shop for replenishment and a desire to look appropriate.
“That’s the challenge, and my favorite part: Staying true to what the brand stands for but maintaining its relevance in the market,” Conklyn said. “We continue to focus on innovation and keep pace with the demands of today’s consumer and maintain relevance through the introduction of slimmer fits, color and pattern.”
The company’s latest campaign, “Yes, they’re Dockers,” nods to efforts at surprising a new audience with slimmer, more modern styles. Although most of the focus on Dockers rests in the pants, Collier points out that the brand has “amazing” shorts — called “The Perfect Short” — and the number one-selling brown belt and brown shoe in the U.S.
Dockers for Women was introduced in 1988 and is predominately focused in Mexico as a head-to-toe brand. It has since been licensed, in addition to Dockers footwear, belts, wallets and bags, outerwear, sweaters, dress shirts, kid’s wear, sleepwear and hosiery. The 2014 annual report shared that Dockers accounted for more than $500 million of net revenue, down from the past two years, partially because of the decision to license the women’s business.
This new campaign isn’t the first time the brand has experimented with a makeover. In 1993 and in 1999, it attempted to attract a younger, more stylish demographic with Dockers Authentics and a re-brand as “Dockers Khakis.” More recently, though, they’ve moved away from focusing on age — the key demo is 25 to 40 — to embrace who has worked in the past: the everyman.
Many of the prescriptions for progress, shared in the annual report, reflect those of Levi Strauss & Co. at large. Bergh emphasized the company’s investment in e-commerce, both in technology and capability, and its direct-to-consumer business. “We want the consumer to be able to find what they want, where they want it, so we’re looking at making more effective, profitable and brand-enhancing investments.”
To that end, the company in December hired Carrie Ask as president of global retail. Ask, who will begin in February, will be responsible for growing Levi Strauss & Co.’s global retail business.
“The biggest challenge is their distribution, [with] retailers like Kohl’s and J.C. Penney finding their footing,” Spieckerman said. “Will Dockers be able to grow their direct-to-consumer business? When they started, they didn’t have that option. Now, they have an opportunity to define the brand and engage the consumer directly through e-commerce and social media, and that’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Until now, Collier conceded, “We haven’t made the shopping experience simple. [Our customer’s] got a crazy life, he wants to make it more simple, and it’s our job as the category leader to continue to innovate — and part of that is going back to simplicity.”
The majority of net sales of Dockers are in the Americas, but Dockers products are sold in more than 50 countries; there are 121 stores overall in Asia, Europe and Mexico, but that number is expected to grow.
In 2015, Dockers experimented with a try-on incentive program called “Try. Fit. Go.” inspired by the finding that three out of four customers who try on Dockers buy Dockers. It appeared in 11 countries, in Kohl’s, Macy’s and J.C. Penney stores, and in airports in Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Collier couldn’t confirm exactly where this might lead, but shared that Dockers was considering a range of approaches for blending the digital with the physical. “I don’t believe it’s only a ‘guide-shop’ concept like Bonobos. I think it’s something much more tangible, but we do know that guys are OK with trying it on and having it sent to their house.”
In Dockers’ journey to fully formed adulthood, it’s been worn by princes (Harry), presidents (Clinton) and pop icons (Homer Simpson). But who’s left? Although her then 11-year-old daughter made a PowerPoint after her first day at the Dockers helm suggesting outfitting One Direction, Collier emphasized her hopes for the everyman.
“Sometimes, it’s not about the most famous celebrity, but making sure we’re on the good guy who supports the brand and needs us,” she said. “Sometimes those are the best guys to dress.”