Just over a year ago, Oxford Industries quietly bought the Duck Head trademark. But at the end of this month, the Atlanta-based manufacturer is going to make some noise as it relaunches the venerable men’s wear brand.
“There’s a lot of resonance with this brand,” said Wesley Howard, president of Oxford’s Lanier Clothes division, which is spearheading the return of the Duck Head label. ”It speaks to the authority of the brand — there’s a lot of emotional connection.”
Duck Head traces its history to 1865 when two Nashville brothers, George and Joe O’Bryan, turned duck — heavy canvas used for Army tents — into sturdy work pants and overalls. The company’s pants with their mallard logo became a wardrobe staple and were especially popular in the South. The company changed hands several times over the years and in 2013 was sold to Prospect Brands LLC, a joint venture between apparel industry veteran Tom Nolan and McCarthy Capital Fund V, an Omaha-based private equity firm. Although Prospect had big plans to revitalize the brand, they were never realized and Nolan resigned as president and chief executive officer early last year.
For the past year, Howard, along with former Tommy Bahama ceo Terry Pillow, who now serves as an adviser to Oxford, have been working with the company’s design team on new positioning for the brand. They have created a comprehensive marketing plan and will launch with an e-commerce-only play at the end of September. Down the road, Oxford plans to wholesale again as well.
“In the mid-1980s, it was a $150 million business and it was basically selling chinos for $49,” said Pillow, an Arkansas native who grew up knowing about Duck Head. “We haven’t done one nickel of commerce since we bought the brand, but we’re in this for the long term. We think it can be a complete lifestyle brand like Tommy and Lilly.”
The cash cows for Oxford Industries are its Tommy Bahama and Lilly Pulitzer labels. The group also owns Southern Tide, another Southern-themed brand that it purchased last spring.
Howard said Lanier’s expertise in sourcing and design will serve Duck Head well as it prepares to relaunch. The Lanier division, which has sales of more than $100 million, markets and manufactures men’s dress and casual apparel for Kenneth Cole, Nick Graham and others.
As a result, “it made the most sense” for Oxford to put Duck Head under the Lanier umbrella, Howard said. “This is a good place to nurture and build a brand.”
Pillow added: “We have a whole infrastructure in place within Lanier with all the back-end pieces. We just needed the front end.”
Pillow said the decision was made to “put our stake in the ground with chinos, surrounded by other items.” Not only is Duck Head’s history in chinos, it’s also the “second pant” in every man’s wardrobe after jeans, Pillow added.
The plan is also to slowly introduce oxford shirts, polos, T-shirts, work shirts and denim shirts. More products will be added down the road and Duck Head may add women’s wear in the future.
Although not a sports brand, it will have a distinct sporting bent and will be targeted to an active man aged 35 to 45 years.
Oxford’s update of the brand includes brass buttons with a mallard head in a circle that is a nod to the original logo. Buttons are real horn with brass inlay, belt loops are sewn into waistbands. The chinos will have 2 percent stretch for comfort and cotton herringbone fabrics line the pockets.
Prices will be elevated from the original and will include chinos and shirts for $118, T-shirts for $38 to $48 and two-button polos for $89. This will position the brand just under other leaders in the premium chino market such as Bill’s Khakis, whose trousers retail for around $185.