Just a few years back, the L.C. King Manufacturing Co., founded in 1913 and the oldest family-owned cut-and-sew garment factory in the U.S., was nearly extinct. Inside the company's weathered brick factory in Bristol, Tenn., orders for workwear staples like overalls, chore coats and dungarees had slowed to a trickle. Sewing machines sat idle, a workforce of 130 having shrunk to eight. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, which lifted tariffs on cheap clothing from Mexico, was in part responsible for emptying the place out, but so was another major development: The core customers who'd kept L.C. King's famous Pointer brand vigorous for generations—factory workers, construction workers and farmers—were disappearing.
"The traditional blue-collar worker was the target audience for the bulk of the L.C. King garments," the company's marketing director Chris Stewart points out, but "our world changed. With the decline of the blue-collar worker came a decline in sales. Fewer people needed overalls."
It's a familiar American story. The old mill shutters and Main Street businesses follow. But L.C. King had a happier ending, getting an unlikely savior in Junya Watanabe, the influential designer for Comme des Garçons, who placed an order for some jackets he would go on to sell in Tokyo for $800 apiece. In time, other fashion labels—Ginew, Beams and the Brooklyn-based Smith & Butler—would come calling. Today, L.C. King's machines are humming once again, and business is booming—to its core line of bibbed overalls and chore coats, it has added accessories like skirts and wallets and upgraded its fabrics to include hickory stripe, white drill and raw selvedge denim.
"To survive, we had to adapt," says Stewart.
L.C. King's experience mirrors that of other traditionally blue-collar brands, which in recent years have benefited from a surge in demand largely attributable to the rise of hipster fashion and the casual office. Heritage labels that for decades turned out rugged, no-frills workwear that nobody would have ever thought to call fashionable are now standard issue for the fashion conscious. While the trend is certainly not new (Portland, Ore.-based Pendleton Woolen Mills, for one, started opening stand-alone stores and selling to the general public in the '80s), the pace is definitely accelerating.
Take Seattle-based Filson, which started out in 1897 making rugged clothing for men swept up in the Klondike Gold Rush. Filson still sells its original rugged Mackinaw Cruiser jacket, but last year it introduced the Seattle Fit, a slimmer, more contoured cut aimed at guys who don't happen to be prospectors or loggers. ("Built for Alaska/Fit for Seattle" goes the copy in its catalog.)
Then there is Dickies, a workwear legend since E.E. "Colonel" Dickie founded it in Bryan, Texas, in 1922. Last month, the brand announced a new collection dubbed Dickies Construct. Not traditional workwear but, rather, "work-inspired," the line combines the signature designs of Dickies' famous overalls with a "contemporary, fashion approach."
Says Michael Penn, Dickies svp of sales, licensing and marketing: "Some of the features are still rooted in the heritage of workwear, but they're taken to a more contemporary level" designed to appeal to consumers who wore the brand when they were younger and are now "in a different stage in their lives, and we didn't have a product line available for that tier of distribution."
Another brand with a proud, working man's pedigree that's become the height of fashion is Dearborn, Mich.-based Carhartt, which started out making coveralls for railroad workers in 1889. Fast-forward to 2011 and the opening of Carhartt's boutique in New York's SoHo. Its centerpiece is Carhartt's Work in Progress collection, originally developed for the European market and described as "original workwear cuts reinterpreted and refitted for the demands of an active life in the urban environment." Carhartt recently announced that WIP will be expanded to retailers such as Fred Segal, Stag and Steven Alan.
WIP retails at a significantly higher price point than Carhartt's heritage line. A basic pair of traditional-fit Carhartt jeans for men starts at $39.99, while WIP can go for as much as $108.
Carhartt svp of marketing Tony Ambroza cites growing consumer demand for the higher-end spinoff. "We feel the time is right to slowly increase the brand's availability," he says.
It's not that all blue-collar brands face extinction if they fail to reach for white-collar customers—but they would be leaving market share on the table. They also would be ignoring the obvious shift in employment trends. Despite recent headlines about the "reshoring" of U.S. manufacturing jobs, the blue-collar workforce here has steadily eroded across two generations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of American manufacturing jobs has fallen 25 percent since 1980, with 4 million jobs vanishing between 2000 and 2010 alone.
At the same time working-class brands like Carhartt chase a more upscale, fashion-oriented customer, the general public has for years, as noted, embraced the heritage products of the old industrial brands. Rejecting the flashy aesthetics and marginal quality of fast-fashion chains, a new generation of young, discriminating, typically city-dwelling consumers has developed a taste for the sturdy, utilitarian style of workwear from decades past. That many of these brands are still made in their original American factories is an added draw.
Just ask Tobias Berblinger, who manages Hand-Eye Supply, a "work-focused supply store" in Portland, Ore., that stocks hand tools and workwear and whose customers run the gamut. "We sell to woodworkers, artists, craftspeople, tattoo artists, farmers, DIY types, forestry service members—and yes, even blue-collar workers," says Berblinger. What all these shoppers have in common, he explains, is a desire for clothing that's not just American made but that represents an American aesthetic that is absolutely genuine.
"The overall popularity of heritage workwear is a natural backswing against the trend of cheap and poorly made products that have become the norm in big-box stores," he says. "Workwear is symbolic of quality in the consumer's mind. When your grandpa's denim jacket is still in great shape and a recently mass manufactured one falls apart in a year or less, it's easy to see why heritage workwear resonates strongly with people."
So strongly, in fact, that selling "authenticity" can sometimes be a tricky business.
In 2006, J. Crew started selling clothing under the Madewell label, a workwear brand founded in 1937 whose trademark the retailer acquired in 2004. Madewell has become a growth vehicle for J. Crew, even though, as Dan Nosowitz wrote in a lengthy essay for BuzzFeed last year, "Madewell as it stands today has almost nothing at all to do with the company founded by my great-grandfather almost 80 years ago. How many corporations are out there rifling through the defunct brands of America's past like a bin of used records, look for something, anything, that will give them that soft Edison-bulb glow of authenticity?"
Then there's the case of L.C. King, which owes its very survival to this trend. For the time being, the century-old manufacturer has not merely avoided extinction, but its authenticity has become an asset nearly as durable as its clothing. The company is collaborating with artisanal startups such as Kooth Brand, Stash and United by Blue. What's more, it is working with its own designer to expand products under the L.C. King label.
"We've existed for 102 years by creating great quality," says marketing chief Stewart. "If we are to last for another 102 years, we just need to keep doing more of the same."