Wrangler creative director: “Under Kontoor we can increase investments like never before”

With a history dating back to 1897, Wrangler’s past achievements are well known: in 1996, one out of every five pairs of jeans sold in the United States was a Wrangler. The brand has also secured a spot among the best selling denim brands in the world. But what does the future hold for the American label, now that it is under a new parent company?

One year ago, VF Corporation, Wrangler’s owner since 1986, decided to spin off its denim brands Wrangler and Lee, creating a separate, publicly traded business called Kontoor Brands. Although VF announced the split as good news, saying the “exciting new step” would “mean that both VF and the new company will have the resources, management focus and financial flexibility to thrive in a dynamic marketplace, creating an even brighter future for both organizations”, analysts were quick to say the two denim brands were struggling to compete with athleisure.

Declaring leggings are the new jeans is a hasty conclusion, however. Although leggings do outpace denim in terms of growth, denim’s market share is still twice as big as that of leggings. In addition, mass retailers in the UK and the US went back to increasing the number of denim styles in their assortment after a dip in 2015 and 2016.

Also working to Wrangler’s advantage is the nostalgia trend catapulting heritage brads back to hype status. During the last Kingpins trade show in Amsterdam, experts Amy Leverton and Sam Trotman, from trend forecasting company Denim Dudes, predicted the demand for American iconography from the 1980s and 1990s to increase even more as a result from mounting frustrations about the current economy and politics. “Millennials are literally buying back their youth,” said Leverton. Many of them are turning to secondhand shops to find original pieces from those decades. As a result, brands which were popular in that period are actively going through their archives for inspiration on new designs, or even re-launching iconic pieces exactly the way they were. Wrangler is no different: in February, the label released its first global collection, Icons, featuring six restyled cult items from the past.

Considering denim is one of the most polluting segments of the fashion industry, the future of Wrangler’s designs inescapably involves addressing the issue of sustainability. The brand is starting to take its first steps in that regard: earlier this year, Wrangler launched its first collection using 100 percent sustainable cotton in the United States. Another line made with a new technology, which is said to eliminate almost 100 percent of the water typically used in the dyeing process, hit European stores in June.

FashionUnited spoke with Sean Gormley, Creative Director for Wrangler EMEA, to learn more about these developments.

Wrangler creative director: “Under Kontoor we can increase investments like never before”

Let’s start by talking a little bit about yourself. How did you enter the denim industry and how did you become Wrangler's creative director?

I was studying fashion design at Central Saint Martins in London, and I had an opportunity to intern at Fake London Genius, a cult luxury brand. They were designing premium jeans and casualwear in Wapping, an area of east London that had attracted fashion designers, artists and other creatives. It was during this year that my appreciation for denim grew and I returned to Saint Martins with clear ideas about how I would design my final collection. At that time I was one of only a few student designers using denim, which was probably helpful for getting me my first break.

What tips would you give to someone aspiring to work as a denim designer?

Do your homework on the history of denim, from a design perspective. Research the various eras of denim history – from the earliest American utility workwear to Sixties style, Eighties silhouettes and washes, and the Nineties grunge look and more – because elements of these all come around again and again, and influence current and future trends.

From a practical perspective, I’d advise an aspiring designer to really think about the type of brand or product that you would love to work on, research them and target those brands or designers. Make contact, show your work and show determination. It really helps.

How has the separation of Wrangler from VF Corporation affected you creatively? Does Kontoor Brands have any special plans for Wrangler?

As a part of Kontoor Brands, Wrangler is sharpening its focus on becoming a unified global brand with products that reflect today’s style, fit and finish expectations. This global approach influences how we think about design and creativity – we want to ensure we are bringing Wrangler’s western heritage to the forefront with products that excite consumers globally.

You see evidence of this approach in recent collection launches like Wrangler Icons, which was a global launch. The concept came out of Europe, and we collaborated with our regional counterparts to finetune and launch it globally. Under Kontoor, we are able to leverage and increase brand investments like never before in design, creativity and innovation.

Wrangler creative director: “Under Kontoor we can increase investments like never before”

Nostalgia is a big trend these days, especially in the denim scene. Wrangler has recently relaunched classic styles from its archive with the 'Icons collection'. How was it to go through the archives and redesign these styles?

I love working with Wrangler’s unbelievably rich product and marketing archives. As a heritage brand, we have decades of inspiring material. We’ve picked up rare denim treasures and curious oddities from the 100-year history of Wrangler and its predecessor brand Blue Bell, that inspires us constantly. The recently-launched Icons range came out of a clothing rail of amazing vintage garments that was wheeled around the office for a month or two, being discussed and edited down. One of the most important criteria we used to decide which styles to reissue in the Icons range was popularity. Brands don’t get to call products iconic, consumers do. A product only becomes iconic through its staying power in the test of time.

Some people say leggings are threatening the denim market. What do you think about that? What is the future of denim, for you?

I think denim and jeans will always be an important way to dress. The fabric and style has been interwoven with popular culture for decades. Denim will remain a symbol of youth, durability, freedom and self-expression -- and I can quite confidently say that the legging will never get close to that!

Wrangler is making an effort to be more sustainable. The brand unveiled its foam dyeing technique earlier this year. How is the strive to produce denim in a more sustainable way affecting the way you work?

As a designer today there is a great responsibility to demand better products for the environment at every level, from the production of the yard, to dyeing, to how people wash their denim at home. I’m proud of the way our product creation teams have embraced a culture of responsibility, and that the company as a whole has set its sights on becoming a global leader in sustainable manufacturing.

What are you most proud of in your work for Wrangler?

I’m most proud of the amazing team we have in Antwerp. It’s a small yet highly productive office with passionate people who love the brand and believe, like me, in the massive potential of Wrangler. Our recent Indigood launch of sustainably-dyed denim was the culmination of 18 months of collaboration with fantastic partners such as textile experts Tejidos Royo and Hilaturas Ferre. That was a big career highlight, and it feels great to work on genuine breakthrough innovation that will hopefully lead a revolution in the way denim is dyed.

Pictures: courtesy of Wrangler





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