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Brand Profile: Duck Head…Flying High Again

Years ago when I still lived in New York City, I was at a fancy schmancy show biz event and spotted a guy across the room I knew I had to meet. Why? We were the only two men in attendance wearing bow ties, so I figured he had to be a kindred spirit.


I was right—his name was Bill Thomas, the founder of Bills Khakis and the man responsible for setting a new standard when it came to the modern interpretation of the WWII-era khaki pant…the variety adopted by post-war college kids who would go on to define classic Ivy Style.


Bill became a friend and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. I was saddened to hear that he sold off his company a few years back (though it’s still called Bills Khakis, Bill is no longer involved…sigh, the quirky nature of the business acquisition world), but I was even more encouraged when I heard about his latest gig–reviving the storied southern brand Duck Head. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect pairing of person and project.

The Duck Head tale (forgive me) is a long one, chock full of characters and eccentricities. Here it is in a nutshell, courtesy of the Duck Head site:


The Beginning

In 1865, Civil War veterans George and Joe O’Bryan had an idea—repurpose surplus army tent material to make work pants. Supplies were scarce throughout the South. Their product couldn’t fail. Enduring quality wasn’t a principle, it was a necessity.

The brothers were avid outdoorsmen so the heavy canvas material, also known as “Duck,” felt right as their company moniker. After failed attempts to register “Duck” with the U.S. Trademark Office, they added “Head” and the legendary brand, complete with a mallard logo, was born.

O’Bryan Bros. operated into the 20th century producing various work clothing such as overalls and denim jackets under the Duck Head/O’Bryan Bros. label. Their production was held in such high regard that the government contracted their services to make soldier uniforms for WWII.


A Civilian Life

In 1978, Duck Head again took a chance on surplus fabric buying 10,000 yards of 100% cotton fabric from a local mill. Polyester was king, so no one wanted the cotton twill known as “chino”. The VP of Sales, Dave Baseheart, researched an original pattern and applied the gold mallard logo over the back pocket.

Baseheart’s first sales call took him to Oxford, Mississippi where Duck Head was quickly discovered by students at Ole Miss. The Duck Head we know today took off from there to become a southern cultural icon. The rest is history.


Into the Future

Today’s Duck Head is future-facing while drawing inspiration from our rich heritage. As stewards of a 150+ year old brand, we remain true to our roots by producing garments of enduring quality, functionality, style, and value without compromise. Thank you for sharing in this remarkable experience known as Duck Head. Join the revival.

As I said, who better as keeper of the flame of collegiate Ivy Style than the man who—through his now legendary brand—really helped set the stage for a brand revival like Duck Head’s. It was a pleasure to catch up with Brand Director Bill and Design Director Debra Miller to hear more about the big shoes they have to fill, and their big plans to fill them.

Heddels:  Bill, I think it’s fair to say you know a thing or two about khakis. How did you come to work with duck head?

Bill Thomas:  The opportunity to relaunch a storied brand like Duck Head is both an honor and a challenge. Faithfully evolving the brand for today’s customer has been our first priority, and it’s rewarding to see how well our work has been received.

(H):  As a brand, Duck Head has a long and storied history—is there one nugget you’ve gleaned along the way that you think speaks especially well to Duck Head’s unique place in sartorial history?

(BT):  Duck Head’s sartorial legacy is the Duck Head chino which became a “uniform” for a generation during the 1980s and ‘90s. That khaki pant with the gold mallard label became ubiquitous throughout the south and eventually most of the country. Our “Gold School Chino” is a natural starting point for today’s reintroduction.

(H):  For your classic chinos, were any tweaks made to the fit for today’s millennial Duck Head customer?

Debra Miller:  The fit of today’s Duck Head is up to date with market preferences. The fit is clean—not full or baggy—and is worn more on the hip than above the waist. As with most brands today, we have incorporated a slight amount of stretch which provides added comfort and performance. Our fit has been a highlight of the re-launch and appeals to a broad range of ages and body types.

(H):  In addition to your Gold School chinos, you also offer an American made Gold Glory chino that’s a Ben Franklin more expensive than the Gold Schools (in my opinion, worth every penny). Why was it important to have a made in the U.S.A. option as part of the collection?

(BT):  As an authentic American brand, we feel it’s important to continue the tradition of American manufacturing. It’s the right thing to do.

(H):  Duck Head also offers their take on a 5-pocket chino, a very contemporary move from a brand with deep roots in tradition. What inspired that decision?

(DM):  The 5 – Pocket chino style represents at least 50% of chino purchases today. This trend has been building for 10 years. A brand that focuses on chinos would be incomplete without it.

(H):  What is it that makes Duck Head that brand that never says die…to what do you attribute the longevity?

(BT):  Two things:  Duck Head’s story is unrivaled and authentically American. At the end of the Civil War, two brothers in Nashville start making work clothes from surplus army tent material. That heavy cotton canvas known as “duck cloth” serves as inspiration for the brand name.

Brands with such a rich heritage can’t go away. Secondly, in the 1980s, college students in the South discovered the Duck Head chino and made it their own. The brand grew to become a symbol of southern sensibility and spread quickly into New England and the Midwest. A generation grew up loving Duck Head and then it vanished leaving millions of fans asking why.

(H):  You’ve certainly put in time fighting the good fight in the khaki trenches…what’s something that would surprise us when it comes to a career in the trade?

(BT):  It’s a lot more work and complicated than people think. Making an idea a viable business is a blend of art, science, dedication, financial discipline, execution and relationships. To succeed, you better love what you do.

(H):  You’ve been slowly rolling out the collection…beyond the usual suspects, to what can we look forward?

(DM):  We plan to continue to build around what the Duck Head customer wants and fits his outdoor lifestyle. In addition to both traditional and 5-Pocket chino styles, and shorts, our full product story spans all categories including woven sport shirts, knits, outerwear and branded tee shirts and hats.

People love the iconic Duck Head logo. We plan to roll that out selectively in a way that the market will embrace today.

The website copy and above interview don’t even scratch the surface when it comes to the colorful history of the Duck Head brand—Bill shared some wild stories with me, but I leave the retelling of them to him and the book I hope he writes. And while Duck Head has indeed rolled out a well-rounded collection, let’s focus on their three iterations on the traditional chino.


Duck Head Gold School Chino


Duck Head Gold School Chino


Come to Heddels for the articles, but stay for the booty shots


Duck Head Gold School Chino

The Gold School Chino, available from Duck Head for $89.50:

  • 7.b5 oz. Twill
  • Classic Fit (Not full. Not slim)
  • Enzyme Washed
  • Natural Drill Cloth Interior
  • 13” Front Pockets
  • Industrial Grade Antique Brass YKK No.5 Zipper
  • Bound & Piped Interior Seams
  • Signature “Z” Stitch Inside Fly
  • Iconic Duck Head Gold Tab Label
  • Laser Engraved Button on Back Left Pocket
  • Locker Loop
  • Coin Pocket
  • 97% Cotton, 3% Stretch
  • Imported
  • Machine wash cold & tumble dry low

These are the standard issue Duck Heads, and you may claim that the 3% stretch kills the authenticity, but damn if it don’t make them a hell of a lot more than 3% more comfortable. The trim and manufacturing details are several notches higher than you’d find elsewhere (super deep pockets, YKK zipper, finished interior seams), and I love the medium weight fabric and “Goldilocks” cut. They’d be my new go-to chinos had I not tried…


Duck Head Gold Glory Chino


Duck Head Gold Glory Chino…I got them unhemmed as I like to wear ’em rolled


Duck Head Gold Glory Chino…pants and booty both made in the U.S.A.

The Gold Glory Chino, $189:

  • Made in USA
  • 100% 8.5 oz. American Made Cotton Twill
  • Pre-Washed
  • Classic Fit (Not full. Not slim)
  • Genuine Drill Cloth Pockets
  • Corozo Buttons
  • Button Loop Closure at Back Left Pocket
  • Reverse Fold Belt Loops
  • Industrial Grade YKK No. 5 Zipper
  • Antique Riveted Coin Pocket
  • Signature “Z” Stitch Inside Fly
  • Luggage Stitched Leather Patch
  • Fully Constructed Alterable Waist Band
  • Machine wash cold & tumble dry low

$189…for beige pants? Try a pair on and you’ll stop asking. These really are a nod to the good old days of American clothing manufacturing, from the more substantial fabric to all the premium doo-dads that Bill and company have included. The cut is the same as the Gold Schools, but the feel is much more premium (and if you’re a quirky size, these you can have altered).

If you’re one of those denimheads that only has one pair of non-jeans, this should be your pair (they’ll make you want to burn your Dickies).


Duck Head 1865 Five-Pocket


Duck Head 1865 Five-Pocket


Duck Head 1865 Five-Pocket


Duck Head 1865 Five-Pocket

Lastly, there’s the 1865 Five-Pocket in Pinpoint Canvas for $98.50:

  • 1 oz. Stretch Canvas
  • 97% Cotton, 3% Spandex
  • Enzyme Washed
  • Classic Fit (Not Full, Not Slim)
  • Iconic Duck Head Gold Tab Label
  • Nubuck Leather Tab
  • Antique Brass Rivet Button
  • YKK Zipper
  • Triple Stitched Seams
  • Drill Cloth Pocketing
  • Signature “Z” Stitch Inside Fly
  • Imported
  • Machine wash cold & tumble dry low

These are essentially chinos trapped in the body of your favorite pair of 501-stye jeans. The cut is instantly familiar, and these were initially my favorite of the three pairs I tried (again, stretch is so nice).

And while I still love and wear them often (they fit like jeans while looking more…presentable), the luxe appeal of the Gold Glories has me spending most of my time in them. It was news to me that this 5-pocket approach to the chino was a decade-old trend, but I didn’t have an avocado until I was 40, so sometimes I’m late to the party.


In my 20s and early 30s, I lived in J. Crew chinos and couldn’t imagine it any other way. Then I met Bill Thomas and graduated into his namesake khakis and knew I had arrived, unable to imagine life any other way. Then I fell in love with selvedge—sue me, I’m fickle—and pretty much only dabbled in non-jeans until this recent return to my old sartorial ways, still in Bill Thomas-approved chinos but now bearing one of the great apparel brand logos of all time.

And I’ll say it once agin—it’s now hard to imagine wearing any other khakis, so unless Bill goes back into business for himself, I’m a loyal customer…a Yankee in southern duds, but feeling oh so very at home.