Pendleton re-acquires its outerwear license from Item House
After re-acquiring its outerwear license from Item House, Inc. of Tacoma, Washington, woolen blanket maker, Pendleton, is forming its own Outerwear Division, making more coats and rainwear.
Officially known as Pendleton Woolen Mills, the Pendleton brand means different things in indifferent places. In California, it is known for the plaid shirts ($135) favored by surfers and the Beach Boys (who first called themselves the Pendletones, until they were told to cease and desist) as well as L.A. influencers such as Snoop Dogg.
On the East Coast, Pendleton is known for women's career dressing. After World War II, men's small size Pendleton shirts started selling rapidly. The company realized that women liked them as work jackets. They extended into a line of pantsuits for the white-collar crowd, although that business has been in decline for two decades.
In the Pacific Northwest, the brand is primarily known for its heavy woolen blankets ($300), the first product it made on its founding in 1863, and also for men's sweaters (think The Big Lebowski).
The brand now aims to be relatable to Gen Xers and Millennials. They've put product on singers Justin Timberlake, Post Malone, Ryan Heard and Maren Morris. Pendleton Dry Goods is their take on workwear, competing again with the sudden fashionability of brands such as Carhartt, Dickies and Wrangler.
But Pendleton has also been selling nylon puffa jackets and Gore-Tex style rainwear for almost two decades. The garments were designed and manufactured under license by Item House at their factory in Tacoma since 1999.
The core Item House team, about 10 employees, will remain in Tacoma, Washington, as a Pendleton Woolen Mills satellite office.
Pendleton has a flagship store downtown near Nordstrom, an outlet store (mostly fabric by the yard) on 99 East near Milwaukie, and a homewares store in Old Town on Northwest Broadway, above which is its office with 200 staff.
Every brand needs a story; whether it's Nike's waffle iron beginnings or Jordan's airborne super-heroics, the consumer needs some way to bond with the commodity in the shopping cart. Pendleton's Portland office houses executives, sales staff and designers and includes a mini-museum of the brand. It was here in a conference room, one wall lined with samples on display to retail buyers who fly in from around the world, that Bob Christnacht, the EVP of Sales and Marketing, laid out an origin myth of Pendleton that would rival Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel."
"When Pendleton got started, it was...really focused on the Native American community market where a blanket is a sign of honoring and protection of warmth, and blankets have been part of the culture trading since Europeans came over here," said Christnacht.
The natives found three things that were far superior to their own goods when trading with European settlers.
"One was the iron knife because it kept a blade sharper than a stone tool. The second was the iron cooking pot because you now could boil water and make a stew, which really gave the women who were preparing meals hours of freedom to do other things. And the third was the wool trade blanket because wool will keep you warm when it's wet, and when it dries, it doesn't dry stiff like buckskin. So, the wool blanket became part of the Native American culture from the late 1500s all the way up through today."
Pendleton flourished by selling wool blankets to the Native American customers,
who kept or traded the blankets. Pendleton created new patterns based on the color and design preferences of Native Americans.
The company now works with many Native American designers each year and contributes to Native charities such as the American Indian College Fund. However, its initial success came from creating thick blankets that function more as robes and shawls and are still the high watermark of stylish cabin or Airbnb.
"I tell our (sales) team, we're storytellers first and product people second. The story's got to be authentic. Everyone wants authenticity. And that's been us for the last hundred years."
Christnacht pointed out that Pendleton has been in the apparel business since 1924 when they made their first shirts. They only got into "technical" outerwear in 1999 with the Item House deal.
Having two lines confused the market. The Portland-based products were sportswear based on fabrics from the mill, while Item House stuff was outerwear driven. This made it hard for women to coordinate items, which became a sales problem.
They were also expanding into breathable, waterproof fabrics (wool with a membrane), which made it more important to take back the licenses and design the outerwear themselves.
Pendleton makes pea coats, wool dusters, driving coats, and all-season raincoats. "We're in the Pacific Northwest, so we've got to 'own' rain," he added.
They also make product out of cotton and even fleece. He says they also wanted to see how the fabrics Item House were using, especially coated ones, could work in other products such as accessories. Pendleton sells a lot of accessories, such as bags, scarves and mugs, to people who want to show off the brand without the full commitment of a wool garment.
"I really felt it was important to look at other applications within other parts of our business. Some of these fabrics work with our accessories. Should we be making bags with these fabrics and find some efficiencies?"
Item house mastered the technical aspects like waterproof zippers and the down jacket. Bringing that in-house will be a chance to grow the sector.
In a statement, John Bishop, president and chief executive officer of Pendleton, wrote, "This is an investment in an important product category. We're looking forward to leveraging the expertise that our new team members have in technical fabrics and sourcing across other Pendleton lines. Our teams have been working together for years, and our cultures mesh nicely."
"Everything that happens with our brand, whether it's through ourselves or through our licensees, is all vetted: The marketing, the coordination, the same brand message," said Christnacht.
Without that control, it can become a game of Telephone, with two or three people involved. "There's been a lot of challenges and time involved in making sure it stays right. So, we think that's going to be a real efficiency saver for us."
The fabrics are made in Oregon and Washington but are sent to Latin America, where labor is cheaper, to be cut and sewn into garments.
Forty-five percent of the wool they use comes from the Americas, primarily the Pacific Northwest down into California, and is used in men's wool shirts and some outerwear pieces. The balance comes from Australia and New Zealand.
The raw wool goes straight to the mills in Pendleton and Washougal and is made into cloth with no outside help.
"We're vertical: We spin, we dye, we weave it, we finish it, we cut and fold the blankets or we roll the fabric," he said.
Seven years ago, they did a deal with Levi's. A contractor bought rolls of fabric and sewed into the back of a Levi's jean jacket as an accent.
"Most of our collaborations work like that, where we either supply our fabric or our IP (Intellectual property) to a client, and they work on it. But even in those situations, we control the finished product as far as styling, marketing and branding goes. So, everything has to run back up through our filters to make sure it's who we want to be."
Because native pattern blankets are respected items — they are given as honorary gifts — Pendleton lawyers and designers protect the designs.
"Maybe they buried their mother in that blanket? There's a real relationship with that pattern in our native community that we're very respectful of. We're not going to allow somebody to use our fabric to make padded seat covers up for toilets, or cars, right? We really can't."
Christnacht says Pendleton also has people who spend all day online on sites such as Etsy looking for trademark infringements. It can be illegally copied patterns or the improper use of the fabric. For example, a designer can add patches to a jean jacket and say they are "using Pendleton fabric," but they can't say "this is a Pendleton jacket."
He stresses they also police their supply chain to maintain high standards of workmanship and sustainability.
"That's a key component in our world in these days, especially with all the trade, the challenges of sourcing with China, the tariffs and the unknown quality of what's going to happen down the road."
To Christnacht, sustainability includes quality.
"When you go to the antique store, you see tremendous amounts of Pendleton shirts. There's a huge market for collectability. They pass on for generations. When you talk about sustainable, it's not a 99 cent T-shirt that you bought at one of the fast fashion stores. There's a real lifespan to our products that is different than a lot of other consumer products."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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