Weaving Past into Present: The Lineage of Pendleton
Weaving Past into Present: The Lineage of Pendleton
- Words Brenden Gallagher
- Date October 30, 2017
Maintaining a menswear brand can be difficult. High fashion credibility can turn on a dime. Decades of blue collar branding can wither away if a new generation of workers doesn’t see your clothing as reliable or authentic. Mass market retail tastes change with the seasons. Despite the ever-changing fashion landscape, Pendleton has managed to remain a brand that is all things to all menswear buyers. Its offerings are chic, widely available and maintain its connection to a rugged American spirit that has long made its clothes appealing. How did the brand get to this revered station in American fashion mythology? To understand that, you have to know where the brand has been.
Pendleton came by its rugged beauty authentically. English weaver Thomas Kay took over as manager of the second wool mill in Oregon in 1863 following a journey to America on a rough voyage that involved crossing the Isthmus of Panama by donkey. During this tumultuous time in American history, Oregon was not only America’s newest state, but it was also ideal for raising sheep thanks to the temperate Pacific Northwest climate. Kay found success, opening his own mill. His daughter Fannie would marry retailer C.P. Bishop, and the company known as Pendleton Woolen Mills was born. The company has remained in Bishop family hands ever since.
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By the early 1900s, Pendleton’s signature products began to emerge. The story behind its “Indian Trading Blanket” is especially interesting. The Bishop family studied the color and design preferences of local and Southwestern tribes, and designed blankets optimal for trading with the Nez Perce, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni nations. Famously, Apache leader Geronimo was a loyal Pendleton customer. The bold color and design choices they come up with while developing these blankets would become the enduring hallmark of the Pendleton style. It is also important to note that these origins have also led to accusations of cultural appropriation from some Native activists.
The company began manufacturing menswear in 1912, but the designs were rather drab and utilitarian. By 1924, C.M. Bishop realized that bolder patterns, like those employed in its blankets, could make its shirts more distinctive. His instinct led to increased profits and the Pendleton brand was starting to take shape. The evolving menswear line combined with the smash hit female “49er jacket” made Pendleton into a household name. Lucille Ball wore Pendleton on on an episode of I Love Lucy. The Beach Boys performed in matching Pendleton shirts (in fact, their original name was “The Pendletons”) forever tying the brand to surf culture. Pendleton still has a relationship with Hurley to this day. Pendleton was also founding tenant in Disney’s Frontierland, opening the brand up to a wider range of white (collar) Americans. By the 1960s Pendleton was woven into the American fabric.
Strategically, Pendleton found itself well-positioned as an all-American blue collar brand. It was able to ride this reputation through the end of the century. As seen in shows like Mad Men, the brand was a style staple throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Pendleton retail stores opened in the ‘80s. Cheryl Tiegs modeled for the brand. Jeff Bridges immortalized Pendleton sweaters in The Big Lebowski. The ‘90s and early 2000s saw steady, but muted interest in Pendleton. After the turn of the century, Pendleton got involved in several footwear collaborations with companies like Vans and Nike; some of these relationships continue to this day.
Like many legacy brands, the 2010s presented new opportunities to Pendleton. Along with traditionally blue collar brands like Carhartt and Dickies, Pendleton saw renewed interest as heritage menswear came back into vogue, and the millennial craving for authenticity extended to fashion. Not only was this true in the US, but also in Japan where the vintage brands were gaining new cache in the early 2000s. By 2008, this trend had arrived on American shores, and there was suddenly renewed interest in sturdy classic American workwear.
While some brands were clumsy or slow to integrate themselves into the world of high fashion and street style, Pendleton did so with aggressive grace. As Pendleton’s president said, “There is a whole new generation of consumers, 25 to 45, drawn to the authenticity of Pendleton … We don’t want to be on the sidelines.” The first phase of this aggressive marketing to a new generation was about partnerships and collaborations. Its partnership with Opening Ceremony, Comme Des Garcons and Junya Wantanabe, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Urban Outfitters have helped build Pendleton into a simultaneously boutique and blue collar brand.
Pendleton’s partnership with Opening Ceremony began in 2009, and though some fashion blogs expressed their reservations, the collection was very well received. The idea for the collection came from Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon who was inspired by Japan’s “American Heritage” trend that was so popular at the time. Leon’s idea for a collaboration happened to coincide with Pendleton’s 100th anniversary, making the move all the more marketable.
Around that same time, Comme des Garçons designer Junya Watanabe started altering classic Pendleton shirts with his personal touch. Watanabe added swatches of corduroy and leather to these garments, creating enduring signature American Heritage pieces. Demand was high for Watanabe’s pieces in the US and abroad. This led a number of more mainstream companies to look to Pendleton products for inspiration and collaboration in the following years. In 2010, Urban Outfitters began offering updated versions of Pendleton’s signature flannels in its stores alongside Pendleton branded home decor offerings.
The success of these endeavors led to 2011’s “Portland Collection”: the brand’s in-house attempt to capitalize on its newfound brand cache. As Pendleton President Mort Bishop III put it, the line was “more progressive in fashion. The fit is trimmer, for a younger customer—and it’s made in America.” To design the brand reboot, Pendleton tapped Nathan Crissman and Rachel Church from Portland brand church + state and John Blasioli who made a name for himself designing wardrobe for The Decemberists and as creator of the menswear line Broken Spoke.
With the success of the Portland Collection, Pendleton’s transformation into a legacy streetwear brand was complete. Simultaneously old and new, at once rugged and cosmopolitan, the brand is still in the midst of a cultural renaissance. Collaborations continue with brands as diverse as Canada Goose and Nike. You can find Pendleton for sale at outdoor outfitter shops in Sante Fe and boutiques in Greenwich Village. With its agile marketing and strong branding, Pendleton has managed to weather the twists and turns of the fashion world. As trends come and go, Pendleton remains a cornerstone legacy brand trusted all over America. Over a hundred years and numerous generations of Bishop family ownership, Pendleton has remained as one of the nation’s most emblematic labels, adding its part to the wider metaphorical quilt of American style.