By Jacq Lacy
Pendleton Woolen Mills and Levi Strauss and Co. launched a collaborative collection of men's and women's trucker jackets last week, intended for buyers of American-made products. The limited-edition collection is the third collection in the Levi's workwear series and the first collaboration between the two brands. Levi's and Pendleton brand retail stores now display the jackets.
California-based Levi's approached Portland-headquartered Pendleton in June of 2009 to collaborate on a workwear 2010 fall collection. The denim company has launched a marketing campaign titled "We are all workers," and traveled to New Mexico to shoot photos of working Navajo cowboys and cowgirls wearing the apparel.
The iconic American brands strategically target customers buying American. The strategic idea is that a company partners with an iconic American-made brand, and thus becomes American-made by association.
Most U.S. apparel companies began shifting production overseas in the 1980s. In 1992, Pendleton moved 5 percent of total production offshore to Mexico to sew women's blouses. In 1996, manufacturing of Pendleton men's jackets and shirts also moved to Mexico. Levi's closed 11 factories in 1999, moving production overseas for the first time. In 2002, it shut down its last U.S. plant and moved manufacturing to contract companies overseas.
All of Pendleton's wool comes from Rambouillet sheep in Umatilla County. The fabric for the collaboration is woven at mills in Pendleton and in Washougal, Wash. But the trucker jackets themselves are not entirely made in the U.S.
Even though Pendleton keeps much of the initial production within the U.S., about 40 percent of all work for the Levi's and Pendleton's workwear collection happens outside the U.S., said Pendleton President Mort Bishop III. Pendleton sews the shirts and wool panels in Mexico and ships them to Levi's, which completes the manufacturing process in Asia.
In an August 2009 article in Oregon Business magazine, Bishop said that he saw collaborations as key to creating innovative new designs — and staying in business. In a follow-up telephone interview last week, Bishop said that although the many collaborations have required only a few new hires to manage and to assist with communication between the companies, the partnerships have maintained wool production. These partnerships allow companies to remain in business despite incurring higher costs to keep the majority of production in the U.S. and despite the current difficult retail clothing economy.
Over the last five years, Pendleton has been approached to do collaborations due to a huge emphasis on American heritage brands made in the U.S., says spokeswoman Debbie Coryell. This fall Pendleton is collaborating with Opening Ceremony on a Pendleton Round Up-inspired clothing line, with Nike on its "triple black collection," with VANS Footwear on a slip-on shoe and a boot, and with boarder and surfer brand, Hurley, reviving the popularity of the surfing jackets and "boardshirts" made by Pendleton and worn by the Beach Boys in the 1960s.
"We are working together just on this specific season," Bishop explained about the new collection with Levi's. "Hopefully, with success, we'll extend into a second and third collaboration."
Jacq Lacy is an associate writer for Oregon Business.