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Devil-Dog Dungarees Updates Heritage Denim With Modern Performance

Devil-Dog Dungarees, the vintage-inspired men’s denim brand that relaunched over the summer, was originally born in 1948 out of the myth and mystique surrounding the mighty Marines and their clash with German forces in June of 1918 in the Battle of Belleau Wood.

As the legend goes, German troops assailed goggles-wearing Marines with bombardments of mustard gas as the Marines battled their way up a steep hill, sometimes on all fours.

“The Marines fought so tenaciously,” General Sportwear president Jeff Rosenstock said of the American forces whose “eyes were bloodshot and were foaming at the mouth due to the gas,” that the Germans called the Marines “Teufel Hunden,” or the German equivalent of “dogs from hell.”

History now casts doubt on who exactly coined the Marine moniker—whether it was indeed the Germans or perhaps the Americans themselves seeking to inflate their battlefield aura and accomplishments—but regardless, the name stuck. And when Rosenstock’s “patriotic” patriarch grandfather, Louis Rosenstock, who served in the U.S. Army in 1917-1918, was gearing up to launch a line of jeans in 1948, branding the collection Devil-Dog Dungarees was his way of honoring veterans of the war.

The Devil-Dog name, Rosenstock said, has always played an outsize role in the history of parent company General Sportwear. A neon sign bearing the Devil-Dog Dungarees name still hangs on its Zebulon, N.C., distribution center, and factories scattered across the Carolinas in the 1950s through the ’90s bore the Devil-Dog Manufacturing name as well. But the brand’s heyday came and went in the 1960s as General Sportwear pivoted to creating private labels for major retailers, and today produces 7 million pairs of jeans a year.

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The brand relaunched in July with 16 jeans styles for men and nine T-shirts, thanks to what Rosenstock deems “perfect timing.” The recent resurgence in vintage and nostalgic fashion, and its yen for the heritage design of times past updated with modern performance in mind, has helped Devil-Dog Dungarees carve out a niche in a market chock full of premium denim options.

Rosenstock said General Sportwear pulled inspiration from the original 1950s Devil-Dog Dungarees brand when planning for its 2019 reboot. While the old fits and finishes that marked Devil-Dog Dungarees at mid-century would miss the mark with today’s style-savvy male shopper, the apparel firm instead took design cues from their original “trim, hardware and labels,” Rosenstock explained at the Ideation conference, hosted by apparel and footwear solutions firm Gerber Technology in New York City last month.

“We weren’t going to do the big, fancy back pockets and heavy stitching with embroidery,” Rosenstock noted. “We wanted a really classic, five-pocket jean with vintage washing.”

That nod to a timeless look meant staying away from destruction, he added, though the line has everything else: hand sanding, whiskers, grinding, 3D elements and even a hint of nicking on one particular style.

Finding the right denim to build these vintage-meets-modern jeans was the next hurdle. “We felt that performance denim was going to be the most important element that we wanted,” Rosenstock said, noting how stretch properties have rapidly infiltrated men’s denim, beyond trendy skinny fits, over the past three years.

“I think anyone who’s buying jeans now is buying stretch jeans and can’t even imagine going back,” he said of the comfort and wearability consumers expect from their denim today.

Rosenstock knew that designing with stretch denim, which can create problems if not patterned properly, requires treading carefully. It’s not uncommon for denim constructed with elastic to fit well for a few weeks and then wear out as “they don’t have the recovery,” he noted. “As for me, I still want it to feel like heavier weight denim, but I want the comfort of stretch.”

The brand worked with some of the western hemisphere’s top mills —including Twin Dragon, Tavex, Cone Denim, and Kaltex—and eventually selected three fabrics for its launch with “really great stretch performance properties,” some with up to 30 percent elasticity, Rosenstock said. Pieces in the initial collection also feature Unifi’s Sorbtek moisture-wicking enhancement and eco-conscious Repreve fibers that divert plastic bottles from a dead end in the waste stream.

With fabric choices locked in, the Devil-Dog team got to work on concepting fits and washes, leaning on Gerber’s YuniqePLM platform to communicate with its cut-and-sew factory in Nicaragua and their pattern makers and laundry and finishing facility in Honduras. Rosenstock explained. “Everything’s in real time and everything’s flowing,” he said, adding, “the days of emails and Excel spreadsheets are long gone.”

Managing product development through cloud-based YuniquePLM not only accelerates the process, according to Rosenstock, but also ensures no detail slips through the cracks.

“Now development has its own unique identifying number. It’s all stored in the cloud, and not just the imagery and the measurements and the patterns, but all the communication and everything that went into it,” he said. “Everything we learned through that development of the process and even the wash formulas are easily accessible.”

Pattern making in 3D is something General Sportwear “has started to play around with” and is seen as helping pattern makers eliminate some of the resubmits that can slow down the sampling process. “I don’t see it yet, in our world of denim, as replacing a physical sample as everyone still wants to see and feel the denim finishes and amount of stretch in person,” Rosenstock noted.

Though Devil-Dog Dungarees was first reborn as a direct-to-consumer business over the summer, the brand plans to conquer each and every wholesale channel that can reach its target shopper. For now, though, DTC is the “most important piece” of the retail equation because “that’s your marketing” and feedback loop “as we know exactly what the customer is responding to and what they would like to see going forward from us,” Rosenstock explained.

“This knowledge will allow us to better serve all our retail partners and ultimately all our customers,” he added.

Store channel serve an important role in serving customers. “I hate to say it,” Rosenstock admitted, adding, “I make jeans and we sell jeans online, and I use to never buy jeans online because I like to go in and actually try them on, feel them, touch them, see them.”

The brand’s e-commerce site enhances the online shopping experience with fit guides, size finder technology, and a policy of free returns and exchanges, he added.

Rosenstock sees customization becoming a big movement within fashion, and something that will make sense one day for the Devil-Dog Dungarees brand because it makes all the production in its company owned and operated factories. On demand customization, in particular to odd sizes, will make sense down the road, he added, and be a smarter play than stocking piles of inventory in different inseam lengths that might not all sell well.

“A big part of the problem in our industry besides waste on a sustainable side is having the wrong sizes, leading to too much excess inventory,” Rosenstock said, “so if you can start to eliminate excess inventory and reduce that, then savings for the entire supply chain will come as well.”.