Leisure wear is looking awfully work-like these days.
Consider Carhartt Inc., which has been outfitting plumbers, delivery people and farmers in shirts, jackets and bib overalls for 104 years.
The family-owned company unexpectedly found itself on fashion’s cutting edge two years ago when a small circle of rap singers took to wearing Carhartt jackets and overalls on stage. Work wear slowly became underground fashion, a phenomenon that went largely unnoticed at the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.
But sales mushroomed last year after rappers Kriss Kross, Dr. Dre and Snow appeared on MTV wearing Carhartt gear. Now, said Deb Ferraro, Carhartt’s product development manager, “you can’t turn on MTV without seeing the Carhartt label.”
The company’s distinctive label, a stylized “c,” also popped up on the American Music Awards this spring when youthful rappers Kriss Kross wore Carhartt bib overalls. Naughty By Nature will model Carhartt clothing in an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone. And, no less than Vogue magazine has branded Carhartt the “hottest label” in utilitarian garb.
The media exposure is fueling demand for Carhartt products among trendy Orange County consumers, said Jennifer Johnson, a buyer for Electric Chair, an ultra-trendy clothing and accessories shop on Main Street in Huntington Beach.
But many local consumers with a hankering for blue-collar threads are being disappointed, Ferraro said, because Carhartt’s production plant is “maxed out” and the company isn’t adding new sales accounts.
Because manufacturers are leery of adding new capacity, Orange County retail stores end up on “a real huge waiting list” for one of today’s most desirable work wear styles, said Pat Tenore, owner of Psyclone, a small store in Costa Mesa. “All of the street-wear stores want to carry them.”
Southern California’s demand also outstrips supply when it comes to San Francisco-based Ben Davis Manufacturing Co., which has outfitted Northern California’s blue-collar work force for nearly 60 years.
“I can’t keep Ben Davis on the shelf,” said Brian Williams, owner of the Williams Co., a Fullerton clothing and camping retailer. Williams added the line several years ago, but sales languished until the recent boom.
Even Southern California’s surf-wear makers are catching the blue-collar wave.
In the fall, Costa Mesa-based Quiksilver will introduce a “Working Class” line that includes oversized shirts, pants and jackets that feature heavier fabrics and stitching found in work wear.
“I think (work wear is) driven by value,” said Seth Ellison, vice president of merchandising at Quiksilver. “Customers are tired of the 1980s, when fashions constantly changed. They’re looking for something with value, or at least, perceived value.”
Workaday designs have enjoyed previous flirtations with fashion. Bib overall sales blossomed during the laid-back 1960s, and painter’s pants were a fashion statement during the 1970s.
Fashion sales are expected to push privately held Carhartt’s 1993 revenue up by 35% to $135 million, and executives predict the red-hot growth rate to continue throughout 1994. Fashion now drives about 20% of sales at privately held Ben Davis, which declined to state its revenue.
Manufacturers welcome the sales boom, but say they are amused by the attention because their products break a cardinal rule of youthful fashion: It’s totally uncool to dress like someone’s dad.
So who’s buying a clothing style that’s changed very little since the days of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton of “The Honeymooners”?
“Anybody who wants to look like a hip guy,” said Danny Eskenazi,owner of Seattle-based Jack Hammer Ltd., a retailer of new, used and vintage work clothing that also wholesales merchandise to other stores, including Electric Chair. “And, no, they don’t even know who Ralph Kramden is.”
Blue-collar gear’s most recent fashionable phase began in urban areas, in large part because the clothing is durable and relatively inexpensive, said Frank Davis, a co-owner of Ben Davis. The self-proclaimed “world’s toughest jeans” got a huge fashion boost after rappers took to wearing dramatically oversized Ben Davis designs.
Davis, 41, whose great-grandfather patented the metal rivets made famous by denim manufacturer Levi Strauss, said his company owes a lot to the Beastie Boys, who wear his company’s fashions in their music videos.
And musicians are not the only converts. The blue-collar look “appeals to lots of people, not just the rappers,” said Electric Chair’s Johnson.
The look builds upon the inherent boxiness of such clothing, which includes jackets that retail for $30 or more, blue jeans and twill pants that start at about $20 and a wide array of work shirts. In current youthful fashion, the bigger the garments, the better the look.
“Our clothes tend to be large and fashion (now) calls for large sizes,” Davis said. “Kids are purchasing size 60 pants and triple-extra-large shirts, which I guess is in with the ‘grunge’ look.”
A Women’s Wear Daily advertisement for a special high-fashion denim section featured a female model wearing work jeans, work boots, a bandanna and toting a heavy metal toolbox. The caption: “Don’t trust anyone not wearing denim.”
Few customers at the Wet Seal are “radical” enough to fully embrace work wear, said E. Lesly Martin, marketing director for the Irvine-based retail chain. But consumers are mixing and matching “cute little feminine” outfits with work-like boots and carpenters’ overalls in what Martin called “an ironic positioning of different types of clothing.”
Women are using overalls, boots and bandannas as “an anti-fashion thing,” said Carl Mehlman, a shoe buyer for Macy’s, which owns the Bullock’s department stores in California. “It’s a make-your-own-fashion thing.”
Work wear also is spreading from California to Europe, Japan and Australia.
“I was interviewed the other day buy a kid from a London (magazine) who wanted to talk about ‘West Coast work wear,’ ” Eskenazi said. “Work wear is going to go worldwide, according to this guy.”
Japanese consumers are also snapping up blue-collar clothing, including Prison Blues, a denim line manufactured by inmates at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton. While the gear is designed for no-nonsense loggers and construction workers, the institution reports solid sales in Japan, where the product is enhanced with huge orange “inmate” stencils.
Still, most blue-collar workers buy their clothing at national retailers, including K mart and Sears Roebuck & Co., and hundreds of traditional work-wear retail shops, including military surplus stores.
Plumbers, welders and deliverymen proved that most have no idea that their clothing is now fashionable. Or, “They think ‘well, these kids are finally getting smart’ . . . and realizing you don’t have to spend heavily to get a good, quality garment,” said Carhartt’s Ferraro.
Comfort and price--the cornerstones of work wear--also are important fashion elements.
And to younger consumers who viewed the 1980s as a decade of excess, blue-collar clothing has evolved into something of a philosophic statement, said Eric Sjobeck, an Orange County native and owner of a fashion company in downtown Los Angeles. Blue-collar styles suggest that younger Americans are rejecting the yuppies’ “frivolous” lifestyle, Sjobeck said.
But that doesn’t rule out paying a premium for just the right shade of blue jeans.
Shoppers at local Sears or K mart stores will find an assortment of Dickies: clothing from Fort Worth-based Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co., the nation’s leading work-wear company, with $400 million in annual sales.
While K mart offers Dickies work pants for about $17, similar styles go for more than $20 at Electric Chair in Huntington Beach. Customers are willing to spend more for their Dickies at Electric Chair because, unlike the giant chains, the small shop stocks burgundy, green and other trendy colors, Johnson said.
Increasingly, the popularity of blue-collar clothing translates into empty shelves at longtime work-wear retailers, said Bob Roemer, whose family-owned store has outfitted farmers and ranchers for 103 years in rural Santa Maria, midway between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.
Roemer cautioned Carhartt against forgetting its roots: “When you start selling big parts of your inventory to department and chain stores, you have to remember that they read the trends fastest . . . and they’ll dump you first. And all of a sudden, manufacturers will be back to the mom-and-pops like us begging for business.”
Manufacturers’ inability to meet the increased demand has led to “knock-offs,” unbranded products that borrow heavily from the most popular designs. But the knock-offs are for the most part a pale imitation for the most dedicated followers of fashion.
Orange County shoppers are especially taken by Jack Hammer Ltd.'s offerings, said Electric Chair’s Johnson. The Seattle-based retailer and wholesaler offers new clothing that looks like the real thing. But the company also retails and wholesales used and vintage work wear, including decades-old deliverymen jackets and industrial work shirts.
“We specialize in old stock, dead stock . . . old work shirts from the 1940s,” Eskenazi said. Jack Hammer cleans, patches and ships the clothing to stores, where older merchandise commands a premium.
Jack Hammer also travels the country looking for hidden storehouses of vintage work clothing. Eskenazi recently hit the jackpot when he uncovered a stash of “Ralph Kramden-type twill pants and jackets. . . . Some guy had them in storage for 50 years and they’re like brand new.”
Some leading Orange County apparel manufacturers have opted not to jump on the blue-collar bandwagon.
“When it comes to blue-collar clothing, I don’t go near it,” said Mossimo Giannulli, owner of Mossimo Inc., the high-flying apparel and accessories company in Irvine. “Carhartt and the other guys are the originals . . . they do it right.”
Despite its current popularity, retailers and manufacturers agree that blue-collar clothing eventually will go the way of other fashion trends. “You’ll see two more years, then (blue-collar) will go mainstream and level off,” Ferraro said.
“We’re talking a fashion cycle,” Eskenazi agreed. “And you know how fast things turn. I just bought 3,000 (pairs of) bell bottoms . . . and I don’t know if bell bottoms are already over or just about to happen.”