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.
In the European market, though, Lee has an entirely different identity.
In the United States, Lee markets jeans worthy of mockery on Saturday Night Live. But in Europe, its products are considered stylish and high-end.
"Why are Lee jeans totally terrible here and yet totally excellent in Europe?" she wondered. "We thought Lee was as American as apple pie, etc. Apparently they are as American as extremely awkward-looking high-waisted jeans."
Accompanying the write-up were screen shots of the jeans from Lee's American and European Web sites. The American photos showed denim-clad models from the waist down, while the European site had full-body shots of its models in cool-looking poses. (Lee in Europe sells tops in addition to pants.) The U.S. site looked stodgy compared to its European counterpart.
Vadino wrote that she might not have noticed the difference between the U.S. and European versions except that her favorite pair of jeans, Lees that she had bought in London, were beginning to fall apart. When she began shopping for a new pair, she discovered a "sort of bizarre transatlantic rift."
In an e-mail from Bali, Vadino tells The Pitch that her Lee jeans, which she bought at an Urban Outfitters in 2004, are still her go-to jeans. She can't remember how much she paid for them, but she thinks it was less than $100. "They're the perfect jeans: a bit of stretch, slightly boot-cut, narrow through the leg but not skinny, a low waist that's not obscene."
The 33-year-old Vadino, who has written for magazines such as McSweeney's, Marie Claire and NYLON, says the Lee store on Carnaby Street in London draws a crowd that's similar to Abercrombie & Fitch's in the United States. The European Lee styles are "sleek and inspiring," she says.
"My American heart breaks just a bit when I see the difference — the chasm — between the U.S. Lee and the E.U. Lee," she says. "Lee is such an amazing brand, and I don't care what anyone says about Japanese denim — Americans do jeans better than anyone."
Angela Primavera, a project manager for Lee's misses denim, speculates that the European jeans, which are for boutique shoppers, sell for around $150. That means the design team in Brussels can put more into the fabric, the wash treatment and the fabrication. In addition to the European division in Belgium, Lee operates an Asian division in Hong Kong; both branches are separate from the Merriam operation in terms of design and sales.
"Everyone in America can buy and afford our products," Primavera says. "We definitely have our core base product that, as someone would say here, they pay the light bills."
"We don't want to mess with them," Moley says of the mom jeans.
It takes a unique balancing act to incorporate the latest trends while keeping prices down.
On the second floor of Lee headquarters near Interstate 35 and 67th Street, in large rooms filled with natural light and low-walled cubes, design teams come up with clothes for men, women, boys and girls — everything from a children's size 4 and up. The Merriam office employs 123 people, and another 19 work around the country in regional sales offices.
The company's iconic history is housed in Heritage Hall, a room that displays all sorts of Lee paraphernalia.
The company started in 1889 in Salina, Kansas. Henry David Lee moved to Kansas, with money that he made selling knitting machines and wholesale kerosene in Ohio, to open the H.D. Lee Mercantile Company.
Lee started out selling wholesale groceries. The company branched out into clothing in 1911, when it manufactured workwear. Besides overalls and dungarees, one best-seller was the Union-All, a one-piece protective jumpsuit worn over regular clothing. Spurred by the popularity of the clothes and the success of the grocery division, the company moved to Kansas City in 1917 and set up shop at a new plant and office building at 20th Street and Wyandotte.
From its new Kansas City home, Lee started making and selling jeans. At first, these "Cowboy Pants" catered to ranchers and rodeo riders. At the end of the 1940s, the company ventured into the women's market with Lady Lee Riders.
In the 1950s, jeans went mainstream. According to American History: Lee 101, a booklet detailing the company's history, James Dean and Marlon Brando helped shift the public's perception of jeans when the actors appeared in East of Eden and The Wild Ones, respectively. By 1954, the booklet reads, "The transformation of denim from workwear to pop culture had begun."
From that point on, Lee became more fashion-conscious. Over the next several decades, it embraced bell-bottoms, acid wash (named "Frosted Riders"), and a line of kids and teen jeans inspired by skateboarders and BMX bikers (named "Lee Pipes").
Lee invented leisure suits.
And in 1984, Bruce Springsteen appeared in a Lee denim jacket on the cover of Rolling Stone. That same year, on Run-DMC's debut album, Rev Run rhymed about Lee on my legs, sneakers on my feet.
Fashion watchers would be wrong to conclude that Lee hasn't evolved since the '80s.
In 2003, Lee introduced One True Fit, which was more stylish thanks to its lower rise. Lee and its parent company, VF Corp., marketed them to soccer moms. "Lee Jeans touts its One True Fit jean the choice of Hot Moms," proclaimed a 2005 press release.
But over the past several years, Lee's customers have changed. Thanks to an Oprah episode about jeans and to shows such as What Not to Wear, women have become more savvy about what sorts of jeans look best on their bodies. This has affected how Lee operates, too.
Facing relentless competition in the denim market, Lee has introduced products such as a discreet band of elastic that is sewn inside the waistband of a pair of pants or jeans to prevent gapping. The company is also working on what it calls "ultra-slimming" technology, such as a panel of fabric that is sewn from seam to seam across the stomach to help hold it in. It also offers a Slender Secret jean with 49 percent stretch in the fabric. (Most jeans have an 18 percent stretch factor.)
The challenge for Lee is translating all the latest trends into something that works for its mid-tier customers. That's where Moley comes in.
On a cloudy, slightly humid day in August, Moley, 37, has gathered Lee designers in the conference room. They're gearing up to work on the clothes for fall 2009; for inspiration, Moley is going to show them the forecasted looks for that season.
Part of Moley's job is figuring out whether the timing is right for some styles. "It's saying, is our customer ready for a skinny jean? Is our customer going to wear a wide-leg trouser? So that's the key to my job. All these things are out there, but what is right for our customer?"
Moley grew up in Lawrence, where her parents owned a kids' clothing store called Before and After. "Being in a clothing store influenced me a lot, knowing that clothing was a business — not only could you sell it, but someone had to design it," she says.
After graduating from Lawrence High School, she headed to the University of Kansas, where she studied industrial design. During her second year, she saw that the seniors had to design a vacuum cleaner for a class project. That's when she realized that she didn't want to design electronic equipment. She applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and switched to apparel design, with an emphasis in children's wear.
At FIT, she learned how to make a garment from scratch, from sketching the design to making the pattern and knowing what fabric to use. "When you get out of school, you know how to make a three-piece tailored suit," she says.
She graduated at the top of her class, then moved to Los Angeles to design clothes for a small line for children called Uh-Oh Clothing. From there, she moved to Guess Boys, Bugle Boy, and a newly resurgent Ocean Pacific where she designed swimwear, board shorts and woven shorts for men.
The frenetic pace of Los Angeles eventually got to her, though. "I wanted a family. I had Midwestern family values, and living in L.A. was a little hard for me," she says. She returned to Kansas in 2000 and looked into working at Lee. The company wasn't hiring — people there tended to stay — so she got into the advertising business. Six years later, something finally opened up at Lee. Since then, she has been the eyes and ears of the design team.
At the beginning of a season, she looks at the high-end collections to see the new trends, which trickle down to the Lee customer about a year to 18 months later. She peruses industry publications and fashion magazines, and she shops and travels to find new ideas. For one recent project, she went to stores and took about 200 pictures of pockets.
After the design teams in Kansas come up with an idea, they'll make a prototype in-house. Then they put the jeans through wet processing, washing the denim to alter its texture and color. After that, they test the jeans on an array of models to make sure that they fit well on different body types. If the prototypes look good, they're sent to the manufacturing plants. Most of Lee's clothes are made in Mexico, but the company also uses plants in China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua.
From there, the jeans go to distribution centers around the United States, and then to stores.
A couple of hours before the Denim Day lunch, Angela Primavera unwraps a sample shipment of jeans for the fall 2009 line that just arrived from a factory in Hong Kong. Primavera inspects how some of the designs came out. She and her assistant, Jennifer (who asked that her last name not be used), look at the prototypes for the trendier One True Fit.
"Here's the purple wash. It looks incredible," Primavera says to Jennifer, pulling out a cool-looking pair of jeans with a faint purple tint.
"Oh, my gosh. That looks good," Jennifer replies.
Both women carefully inspect the stitching of another pair of jeans. Primavera takes a close look at the sideways-S insignia on the back pockets.
Wholesale buyers will base their purchase orders off these samples, which Lee then produces in mass quantities. "I'm looking at everything to a 16th of an inch on this stitch," Primavera says. "It gets very detailed; I make sure all the stitching and embroidery are correct."
Next is a dark, gray-black pair that the women praise. "It looks like a $100 pair of jeans," Primavera says.
Jennifer sometimes refers to a pair of jeans as "him." She eyes a pair with an aqualike tinge. "He's a bluey bluerson," she says. Then she unwraps a tightfitting, dark-gray pair that's about midcalf-length and decorated with square graphite-colored studs. "Yeah! I love him."
With One True Fit, details such as the stitching on a pocket, the shape of the pocket, color and fabric make the jeans more stylish than Lee's other lines.
The 33-year-old Primavera grew up near Sioux City, Iowa, where she and her sisters immersed themselves in fashion magazines. "We'd just read cover to cover — we started out with Seventeen and moved into Vogue and InStyle," she says. They also sewed a lot of their clothes, and they experimented with bleaching and acid-washing their jeans.
"To translate that into a career — I never thought it was possible," she says.
Primavera went to Iowa State University, where she studied international business with an emphasis on retail. After graduation, she moved to Lawrence to work as a buyer for Topeka-based Payless ShoeSource. A couple of years later, she realized that she missed the creative side of fashion, so she moved to Lee to work in product development.
She knows her product's reputation.
"We've been here since 1889, so we're not one of those new brands that is out with the latest and greatest," she says. "We definitely stood the test of time. I think we stand for quality, and we're also the brand that fits."
Back at the designers' meeting, Moley stands at the podium on the stage and starts a PowerPoint presentation. A barrage of runway-show photos flashes on a screen behind her. She passes out packets with photos and color suggestions to evoke different trends, like "folk tales," "country life" and "majorette" (think band jackets and epaulettes).
Her audience is made up of 10 young, stylish women. Small piles of candy — Dove Squares, little boxes of Lemonheads — dot the tables in front of them. A couple of the women kick off their shoes and curl their legs up under themselves.
As the pictures flash on the screen, Moley suggests ways to distill some of the high-end looks into something they can use. One set of photos shows patterned tops. "That's a good place to get inspiration for pocket linings," she says. Then, there are photos of supple leather pants, which Moley says could be translated into tights or black-twill skinny pants.
"I think Express just launched thin skinny leather. Or pleather? Whatever, it's in stores," Primavera says.
"I saw some on a recent trip to L.A. I was shocked; I was like, for real?" Moley adds.
Another woman volunteers that she spotted a vinyl version at American Apparel. In the meantime, two other women whisper to each other about the trend.
"Are they pants or tights?" one asks.
"Pights," the other responds.
The trend cycle is relentless, and Moley is already onto the next thing.
"Bleach and destruction" have hit the stores — lighter-colored jeans with holes. Retailers such as American Eagle and Aéropostale — the juniors market, which Moley watches as an indicator of when a trend might go mainstream — have some version of these jeans. The pricey denim market is also onto it; on its Web site, local boutique Standard Style sells a tight, skinny-leg pair by Twenty8Twelve for $320.
Later, in her spacious cubicle, Moley takes a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch jeans from a clothes rack that's filled with jeans and pants. She points out some white flecks on the denim.
"This is in all the stores already. Sometimes they add paint flecks, which is so '80s. It's so funny," she says.
This sudden shift from dark- to light-colored jeans "is something that kind of caught me off-guard," Moley says. "It happened so quickly."
She thinks the bleach is a response to all the dark-midnight indigo that has been around. For her, it has been the biggest challenge to distill, because she doesn't think her customers want to pay money for jeans riddled with holes.
Right now, Lee is testing a toned-down version of these jeans. Instead of holes, Moley calls them nicks (small scrapes), and there probably will be just two of them on the front. If they test well, Lee will consider adding the look to One True Fit.
Fortunately, Moley doesn't have to worry about getting it on the market immediately. That's one benefit of Lee's lower position on the fashion chain.
"We're volume," she says. "We will sell lots of it if we get the trend right."
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