Wrangler: A Heritage Brand Looks At 70
Wrangler and I have a long history together, going back to the time when they were merely “middle-aged” as a company (last year they turned 70). When my folks were first married, we lived in eastern Pennsylvania, and the jeans that my dad wore (as did just about everyone else, including me), were Wrangler. (He still wears Rustlers, a pair that costs less than one adult movie ticket. And he loves them.)
The cool kids (spoiler alert: not my crowd) all had Wrangler jean jackets with rock band back patches the fit perfectly within the seams. When my folks split up, my mom and I moved to Upstate New York, and Wranglers were nowhere to be found–it was Levi’s territory. And thus was formed my denim world order. Much like with Coke and Pepsi…Chevy and Ford, the world was divided into Wrangler and Levi’s people. And like Crips and Bloods, they didn’t mix.
Thus it came to be. By virtue of little beyond geography, I spent the 80s and 90s in Camp Levi’s. It wasn’t until I got into vintage clothing in college and my early 20s that I revisited Wrangler, but I was fickle then and largely lost touch until quite recently when I reached out to Wrangler on the heels of their 70th anniversary.
I was excited by their bold color block designs and collaboration with pop artist Peter Max, so I reached out to play some catch-up and touch base with the denim purveyor of my youth. Fortunately, Jenni Broyles, Vice President and General Manager Wrangler Modern, and Vivian Rivetti, Vice President of Design, were kind enough to bring me up to speed.
Jenni Broyles (JB): As Wrangler has moved from millennium to millennium, we’ve embraced a whole new generation, yet never forgotten our western heritage. We’ve partnered with beloved country music icons like George Strait and Jason Aldean, and sports superstars like Brett Favre, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Each one drove incredible growth for the brand and inspired each new generation to become loyal customers. While embracing our Americana heritage, we’re giving consumers who are nostalgic for the past and excited for the future of Wrangler a lot to look forward to.
H: The celebration of denim and heritage brands has never been more raucous—new brands are popping up constantly, and old brands are reviving classic designs not seen or available for decades. Where do you see Wrangler fitting in amid a marketplace more crowded and diverse than ever?
JB: I see Wrangler at the forefront of the movement to champion heritage. We are the iconic denim brand and have always stayed true to our roots. That authenticity gives us credibility and relevance for the future.
H: You were nice enough to send along a pair of your 1947 Made in the USA Slim Straight jeans…how important was it for Wrangler to offer selvedge denim as part of your collection?
Vivian Rivetti (VR): Selvedge denim is so special. There’s a sense of character to the yarn, the color, and the shade of it. But there is also a fundamental quality difference. Each of our collections is unique in what they offer the consumer, and the 1947 Made in the USA jean gives them a little piece of American history worth holding on to.
VR: We were all saddened by Cone Mills’ closing. Their denim had an authentic nature and had a certain integrity in the way it was woven on the wooden shuttle looms…with the authentic characteristics of American selvage loom denim, which is so unique. That, paired with the beautiful cast of natural indigo, made them a hard plant to compete with in terms of quality. Cone Mills set a high bar that will be difficult to match, but we’ll continue searching for other selvedge denim suppliers.
H: These jeans are made in the United States—are other pieces as well, and how important is it that Wrangler sell USA made items?
JB: It’s important for us to stay connected to our roots. In addition to the 1947 pair you received, our 27406 collection is not only made in the U.S., but right here in Greensboro, where Wrangler is headquartered. It’s named after the zip code where the denim is cut and sewn, and it’s as close to home as you can get.
H: Perhaps what Wrangler is most known for is its association with the rodeo, and your classic Cowboy Cut denim. How did the rodeo relationship begin, and how do you think it informs design and new product offerings?
JB: Our relationship with rodeo is long and strong, and we wouldn’t trade it for anything. It officially started with Roy Liechtenstein, a Philadelphia tailor that was hired by Blue Bell in 1947. He was known as “Rodeo Ben” for his cowboy clientele, and made the first original Wrangler Western Jean, or 11MW, that used 11oz. denim and stood for Men’s Western. From there, rodeo hall-of-famers such as Bill Linderman, Freckles Brown, and Jim Shoulders started wearing our Cowboy Cut Jeans. We proudly support the rodeo and the entire Western lifestyle. Long live cowboys.
VR: Cowboy Cut influences several of our designs and new product offerings, and we’re constantly looking to our archives for inspiration. The Cowboy Cut jeans were designed with cowboys in mind and added features specific to their use. For example, flat rivets were incorporated into the jean so it wouldn’t scratch the saddle.
Over the years, these features have developed into Wrangler’s 7 icons—seven belt loops, flat rivets, rodeo watch pocket, rope logo shank, back yoke over body, “W” stitching and back pocket leather patch. These icons are highlighted in several of our new collections. High rise, durable, comfortable, and can easily fit over boots—for more than 50 years, Wrangler has been known for their Cowboy Cut jeans, and it’s a western staple for cowboys and many others across the country.
H: Can you talk about the challenge of serving your core audience while at the same time trying to stay innovative and relevant in today’s fancy pants denim universe (1947, Peter Max collab, etc.)?
JB: Our core audience is at the center of everything we do. While we continue to engage in partnerships and collaborations with other brands and artists, we make sure it is always authentic to Wrangler. For example, the brand collaborated with the psychedelic artist Peter Max back in the 1970s, so revitalizing the collaboration to celebrate our 70th anniversary made a lot of sense. We will always stay loyal to our core while building consideration with new consumers, too.
H: And as you reflect on your last 70 years, were there any regrets…things you wished you’d done differently?
JB: I haven’t been around for the whole 70 years, but from where I sit, every action, milestone, product launch, and initiative has propelled the brand forward into what it is today.
H: What’s your favorite Wrangler piece that you personally own and wear, and why?
JB: My favorite Wrangler piece is my 27406 Denim Jacket. As I’ve mentioned, the name of the piece is really special because it’s named after the zip code where the denim was cut and sewn, which is also Wrangler’s hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. The feel of the denim, the story behind the collection and the heritage styling make it unique, yet it is a staple piece I can wear for any occasion. I’m so proud of this collection and this piece is a reminder of that great work.
VR: My favorite Wrangler piece is my pair of Heritage Jeans. They are based on the classic Cowboy Cut Jean but modernized to complement the female figure. I love that they maintain the integrity of the original and stay true to the western heritage with the classic 5-pocket styling, “W” stitching, and leather patch.
H: Going back to 1897 and your “founder” C.C. Hudson…what’s one thing about Wrangler in 2018 that he would unmistakably recognize, and what’s something that would most surprise him?
JB: I like to think C.C. Hudson would be very proud of where we are as a brand. There’s no doubt in my mind that he would unmistakably recognize the “W” stitching and leather patch on almost all of our denim. While I’m sure it was always his hope for the brand, I bet he would be pleasantly surprised by how far we’ve come while still maintaining our core values and staying true to our heritage.
The Wrangler Products of Today
While I’m sincerely grateful to Jenni and Vivian for making time to answer my questions, I will respectfully disagree that old Mr. Hudson would see Wrangler as having stayed true to its heritage. Wrangler was nice enough to send a selection of new products for me to take a look at, and I’m guessing they are a far cry from anything that C.C. would recognize from his day.
And I don’t think that’s inherently bad. A lot has changed over the last 70 years, and Wrangler (along with Levi’s and every other clothing brand fortunate enough to have been in business that long) has changed to not just thrive, but simply survive. Standard issue rodeo wear they may be, but Wrangler has surely become much less a wardrobe staple for the working cowboy and much more a global fashion brand.
The jeans I received were largely from their Retro line, and had the distressed, pre-washed affects I (and likely you and C.C.) don’t love. But I understand that, given all the styles and collections Wrangler offers, there is a place for jeans like these, and my taste isn’t everyone’s (not by a long shot).
The cotton Wrangler shirts you see here were made a few miles down the road from Greensboro, NC…8,253 to be exact, in Bangladesh. And the Cowboy Cut jeans? Hecho en Mexico, mi amigos! But again, if you’re shopping for a “heritage” look without the superior heritage materials and quality, foreign-made clothing is what you’re going to get, and at $35 a pair of Cowboy Cuts represents good value. I get it.
I do, though, find it ironic that the Wrangler item Jenni loved most was a premium selvedge jacket, undeniably the smallest sliver of Wrangler’s overall business. But I hardly blame her; the stuff is nice, and the 1947 jeans they sent me are Cone Mills, American made, and a legit bargain at just $125.
If someone I knew was looking for some gateway denim (friends don’t let friends shop at the Gap), I would absolutely recommend them.
Wrangler is obviously capable of making a high-quality product right here in the U.S.A. (their new Icons line revives some classic Wrangler styles, but it appears that they’re all made overseas), but just as we see with so many of the smaller, boutique brands we highlight here, it’s incredibly hard to find financial success with a purely made-in-America model.
So putting aside all the rah-rah marketing lingo and corporate-speak, Wrangler should still be on your radar. (Since I don’t know otherwise, let’s assume that Wrangler is a good partner to their international workers and not part of the fast fashion problem). For starters, at 70, they’ve earned a seat at the table and at least the occasional looksy; if you’re a denim collector/aficionado/Heddels reader, you should probably have a pair in your closet.
And believe it or not, I don’t think they need to be selvedge or “Iconic”. I’ve worn Cowboy Cuts in the past, and am glad to have a new pair, not worn ironically, but with a sense of fun. They don’t fit or look like any other denim I own, and that’s the point. They’re brighter, break in more easily, and are exactly the kind of no-frills jeans that I wore as a kid, got thrown in the washer, and eventually developed a wonderfully faded quality. (Remember those days, when we earned our fades by playing?)
And for me personally, wearing them connects me to my past and thoughts of my dad, or as my therapist might say, “Imagine taking the loving action … how would you feel if you did?” (OK fine, I found that line on a blog, but if I was in therapy I bet the therapist would say something like that, and that’s exactly why I’m not in therapy.) These plaid shirts are not artisanal in any way, but sometimes all I really need for a plaid shirt to be is plaid…and a shirt. These have the western look I (sometimes) love, and at $20-30 bucks a piece, consider my expectations managed. And strangely, because these shirts aren’t that precious to me, I end up wearing them a lot. I’m a riddle.
The vast majority of what we write about at Heddels is held to a very high standard, and most garments exceed it effortlessly (we truly do own things we want to use forever). We celebrate a fashion niche for sure. But speaking just for me (and no matter what Marie Kondo says), I don’t need all of my clothing to meet that standard or “spark joy.”
Because sometimes I have to meet with people who have never wondered if “selvedge” has a “d” in it or not, because they neither know nor care what that word means. And sometimes I have to go places with my wife where honeycomb fades and a beautifully repaired crotch blow-out won’t be appreciated, and she gets a vote. And sometimes I just need to throw something on and pre-dawn stumble to CVS because we’re out of Half & Half. My closet is big enough to hold outfits for all these occasions, and I bet yours is, too.