When Mark Korros was growing up in Kentucky, the unwritten youth dress code demanded Pendleton. “In the ’60s, man, your parents didn’t treat you right if you didn’t have a Pendleton board shirt,” recalls Korros, who became Pendleton’s chief executive officer earlier this year.
Not so long ago, fashionistas might have avoided clothing brands popular during the Johnson administration. But in recent years, consumers—sick of planned fashion obsolescence, perhaps—have returned to classic brands. Old (“heritage”) is the new new. For Pendleton, a company that dates back to 1863, the trend is a happy one.
And good news for Korros. Coming to Pendleton’s Old Town headquarters after running Seattle outdoor-apparel maker Filson, the rangy 61-year-old takes the helm of a ship he says is better than financially sound. Owned by the same family for six generations (its history is basically one Bishop after another), the company has generated both revenue and profit growth over the past four years, and added 50 employees in 2012. Production at its woolen mills in Pendleton and Washougal, Washington, is on the rise. Demand for its products is increasing not only in the United States, but also in global markets such as Japan.
“A legacy brand is very valuable at this point,” says Ilse Metchek, who heads the California Fashion Association. And while fashion will move on, Metchek says most Pendleton customers will stay true.
“The world is not made up of New York, San Francisco, LA, and Chicago,” she says. “The rest of the county doesn’t look at fashion magazines. They don’t care what is whirling around in our space.”
At the same time, Pendleton’s rich history presents its new CEO with his greatest challenge: riding the trend without alienating loyalists. The Portland Collection, a slim-fit, fashion-forward line Pendleton launched in 2011, offers Korros a model. The line let the company show young customers it could be cool, but distinct branding cordoned it off from Pendleton’s traditional offerings. The company followed a similar strategy this winter when it unveiled the Thomas Kay Collection, a line featuring a more tailored fit with nods to the British origins of Pendleton’s founder.
“Our existing customers expect us to show up the same way,” Korros says. “We don’t want someone to wake up tomorrow and say, ‘What did you do with my Pendleton?’ We want them to feel their Pendleton’s still here—but their Pendleton can also be more than how they’ve always seen it.”