One day this fall, Mort Bishop III, Pendleton Woolen Mills’ president, sat in the menswear showroom in the company’s Old Town headquarters, a plaid shirt spread out before him like a specimen. At first glance, the shirt was just another sturdy Pendleton product, befitting the Northwest icon’s 147 years under the Bishop clan’s stewardship. But closer scrutiny revealed artful corduroy trim, sleek tailoring, and, inside, not one blue label, but two: Pendleton’s own, plus the mark of the Tokyo avant-garde design house Comme des Garçons. Grunge, we hardly knew ye.
“Comme des Garçons brought our shirts back to Japan and took them apart,” Bishop says. “Then they sewed them back together with all this amazing detail.” The steady Bishop seems to signal excitement with a raised eyebrow. “This jacket retails for $1,600 in Paris,” he says—eyebrow up.
The fashion world has gone crazy for “heritage,” a term encompassing all things grandfatherly and artisan-stitched. In Europe, luxe labels like Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana fill runways with underfed lumberjacks. The ancient Seattle field-and-stream outfitter Filson now clothes urbanites who hunt only at vintage stores.
Indeed, the trend’s Northwest roots are obvious: the New York Times T Magazine recently appropriated the word “Portlandia” to describe the phenomenon. The well-regarded style blog A Continuous Lean includes 23 Oregon companies on its list of “stylish … brands that make their goods in America,” ranging from Portland’s Welch Suspenders (est. 1967) to Eugene’s Archival Clothing (est. 2009).
Fashion may seem frivolous, but the heritage revival carries very real commercial implications, for enterprises large and small. J. Crew, a $1.6 billion public company, allied with hoary brands like Red Wing and Barbour to transform itself into a respected trendsetter (and boost sales). Danner—bootmaker to hikers, loggers, and cops, based in Portland since the ’30s—grew 8 to 10 percent annually over the past five years and recently opened a new 59,000-square-foot factory near the airport. Portland indie label Bridge and Burn sells ranch-ready wool and flannel shirts. The Woodlands, a new Old Town boutique, hangs Pendleton shirts alongside hand-axes and tawny leather accessories. Tanner Goods, the shop’s parent company, will spring a pop-up shop on New York this holiday season.
“Older people say, ‘I can’t believe this is back in style,’” says Jordan Sayler, owner of the Southeast Portland shop Winn Perry, a national leader of the heritage revival that stocks deathless man-brands like Portland’s Columbia Knitwear. “To my mind, it’s sad this quality ever went out of style.”
Pendleton—a company that has dressed everyone from Geronimo to the Beach Boys (originally “The Pendletones”) to Lady Gaga—offers perhaps the best case study of a soulful brand renaissance.
In 2009, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the young retail geniuses behind the trendsetting Opening Ceremony boutiques, spotted Pendleton on the streets of Tokyo. (“The Japanese have loved quality, history, and Americana for a long time,” Bishop notes.) Opening Ceremony proposed a collaboration, and then unleashed fantasia versions of Pendleton’s plaids and tribal prints. Soon Pendleton weaved new partnerships with the likes of the Nike-owned skate/surf brand Hurley, the exclusive denim company Edwin (300 Pendleton/Edwin shirts sold in Europe this summer), and, starting in November, Levi’s. Pendleton also reworked its main line, introducing slim “vintage fit” shirts to snag younger, more urban customers.
Fashion’s endless conversation between past and present veers from earnest (Bishop uses the word “locavore” to describe Pendleton’s Umatilla County wool) to ironic to nostalgic. The popularity of burly workwear certainly feels bittersweet after a “mancession” decimated construction and manufacturing jobs. But “heritage” also speaks to a real desire for something—anything—solid. Fashion is fleeting, but well-made things endure.
Today, even quality comes predesigned for obsolescence. (Exhibit A: your iPhone.) One afternoon, Winn Perry’s Sayler produced an antidote to this ill from a newly arrived UPS package: deerskin gloves made by Dents, a London company in business since 1777. “People can feel quality,” Sayler says with pride. “Feel that glove.”