Lee Jeans' biggest day of the year was finally here.
On the first Friday in October, Lee spearheaded the annual Lee National Denim Day. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of employees at various companies paid $5 to wear jeans to work, raising about $5 million for breast-cancer research and women's cancer programs.
At Lee's headquarters, about a hundred staffers, clad in varying shades of pink, filtered into a conference room for a special lunch. They lined up for a buffet catered by Garozzo's, filling pink-plastic plates with lasagna, pasta, meatballs and salad. The conference room had been transformed into a pastel wonderland. Large round tables were covered with pink tablecloths. Centerpieces were pink-wrapped, faux gift boxes with pink-and-green-plaid bows, along with oversized $5 bills folded into heart shapes and mounted on pink stands.
Along a row of windows overlooking a parking lot, poster-sized photos of past Denim Day celebrity spokespeople leaned against the glass. The mood was relaxed as the mostly female crowd chatted and ate. Two women walked up to the windows. As one posed next to photos of this year's celebrity ambassadors — Chandra Wilson from Grey's Anatomy and Tim Daly from Private Practice — her friend, sporting pink-plaid flannel pants with a small Chiefs logo near the hip and pink Crocs with socks, snapped her picture with a yellow disposable camera.
Lee President Joe Dzialo stepped onstage to start a raffle for his employees. The 54-year-old wore a black blazer over a black collarless shirt and jeans.
"I want to warn everyone: I bought a lot of tickets and I'm feeling lucky!" Dzialo joked.
Soon, cheers and excited applause filled the room as Dzialo and Marketing and Communications Vice President Liz Cahill doled out $25 Gap gift cards, a Food Network gift basket, a brown leather purse from sister company 7 For All Mankind, and two wheeled suitcases. Then came the bigger prizes: a weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks, a chance to race in the Richard Petty Driving Experience, and a trip to Los Angeles for the Screen Actors Guild Awards. After the winner of the L.A. trip stopped screaming, the employees took a short break before the day's official ceremony.
A roving videographer cased the room for people to interview. He stopped at a table and asked two women to say "Happy Denim Day!" He found a foursome to mug cheerfully for the camera. Two of the women said, "Show me your denim!" then turned around and comically stuck out their butts.
Soon, black shades began automatically lowering to cover the windows. The guests of honor sat at a table in front — Daly, along with representatives from the National Breast Cancer Coalition and the Entertainment Industry Foundation and a research scientist from the University of Chicago. Local news crews set up cameras to the side and started filming. The atmosphere turned solemn.
Dzialo stepped up to the podium. "Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to beautiful, sunny Merriam, Kansas."
Lee calls itself "the brand that fits." It's not easy making jeans that fit American women, but the company keeps ideas flowing in a suburban office building near Antioch Park.
Its best-selling women's jeans in the United States are those in a line called Relaxed Fit. The traditional style, which incorporates a high-rise waistline, an elastic waistband and a lighter color of denim, appeals to Lee's most conservative customer.
"Everyone calls them mom jeans," acknowledges Rachelle Moley, the trend manager for Lee's women's and girls' lines.
The company prides itself on making basic, high-quality jeans that sell for around $40 and fit well, thanks to frequent fit tests on women with a variety of body shapes. Lee is considered mid-tier, which means its products are sold at stores such as Kohl's, J.C. Penney and Sears. Nancy White, manager of marketing services, says that in the U.S. market, Lee's misses jeans rank within the top five, saleswise, for its tier distribution — right behind Levi's and private labels (house brands for department stores). On the men's side, Lee is ranked third.