The Staying Power—and Evolution—of Wrangler Jeans

The denim for cowboys went from the dude ranch to 'Old Town Road'

Wrangler evolved from a rugged pair of jeans for cowboys.
Wrangler evolved from a rugged pair of jeans for cowboys. Courtesy of Wranglers

Lurking amid the ubiquitous bacchanalia of Super Bowl weekend in Miami was a hopping little event called Gronk Beach. As the name suggests, it was an outdoor party in North Beach hosted by retired football star Rob Gronkowski who, aside from his considerable skills on the gridiron, boasts equal prowess in partying. As CBS put it a few years ago: “[Gronk] only has two favorite offseason activities. He likes to take his shirt off and he likes to be at the club.” True to form, Gronk Beach featured much sun and sand, a DJ booth and an ocean’s worth of vodka and grapefruit juice. So it came as something of a surprise that, as the event kicked off, Gronk presided over a red carpet. Not only was his shirt on, his ox-size torso was covered by a jean jacket.

Courtesy of Wrangler.

You know Wrangler, right? It’s the legendary Western-wear brand that is for the country and western scene what Apple is for urban hipsters. The fact that Wrangler was sitting on the back of a New England Patriot who’s likely never been to a square dance not only speaks to the denim label’s staying power but to its recent evolution.

“We really did start as a cowboy brand,” said global brand president Tom Waldron. “That’s where the roots come from.”

But market forces have dictated that today’s Wrangler not confine itself to the realm of ponies and paddocks. The Wrangler of today is walking a fine line between its heritage and its future, touting a rough-hewn ethos even as it reaches for a broader base of customers, some of whom have no boots or flannel shirts in the closet at home.

In 1904, C.C. Hudson (1) started the overall business that eventually became Blue Bell and started making Wrangler jeans (2). Wrangler’s tough-guy appeal broadened to include Dale Earnhardt (3), who endorsed them, and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury (4) whose rawhide style led to a posthumous capsule collection in 2018. More recently, Rob Gronkowski sported his Wrangler jean jacket at his Super Bowl beach party (5).
Courtesy of Wranglers; Getty Images

“We are an iconic American denim brand that stands up to a life lived with a little bit of risk and a little bit of courage,” said senior marketing director Holly Wheeler. “It’s not the literal cowboy [brand], but that independent spirit.”

That spirit dates back to 1904, when C.C. Hudson opened the Hudson Overall Co. in Greensboro, N.C. Hudson later changed its name to Blue Bell and in 1936 began producing Super Big Ben Overalls, which used “Sanforized” denim that didn’t shrink in the wash. During World War II, Blue Bell bought out another workwear brand called Casey Jones, which gave it use of a minor trademark called Wrangler.

The name came in handy when, in 1947, the company wanted to create a rugged pair of jeans made especially for cowboy duty. Blue Bell approached tailor Bernard “Rodeo Ben” Lichtenstein, who had outfitted famous cowboys like Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy. The resulting jeans—sold as Wranglers—were uncommonly heavy and featured a range of innovations including flat copper rivets and double-needle felled seams. Sales took off, since Wranglers appealed not only to real cowboys but to millions of men and boys who, during the postwar craze for westerns, wanted to be like them. That appeal held steady for decades. Even with the rise of designer labels and trendy imports, Wrangler never gave up much territory. In 1996, one in four American guys wore Wranglers.

Courtesy of Wranglers

But the more recent rise of athleisure has led to a sales slip for the denim category overall, one of the presumed reasons why parent VF Corp., which had owned Wrangler since 1986, spun off the label last year. Now, Wrangler rides on its own, venturing onto new trails such as its partnership with rapper Lil Nas X (see sidebar) and, of course, Gronk.

As Waldron puts it: “We’re taking this brand to new places.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.