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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.