Despite the many hurdles Kontoor Brands continued to face in the aftermath of 2020’s unprecedented challenges, it kicked off 2021 with a successful quarter and maintained that positive momentum for the months that followed.
In its most recent earnings report in November, the company, which owns heritage denim labels Lee and Wrangler, shared its recipe for succeeding in the most trying of times, with CEO Scott Baxter telling investors, “We are doing things with both the Wrangler and Lee brands that we’ve simply never done before.”
Strategies include boundary-pushing collaborations, innovations in sustainability and a sharp focus on expansion plans putting its brands in different geographies and in front of new consumers.
In November, Lee dropped a collaboration with Pendleton Woolen Mills featuring jeans incorporating some of the last remaining American selvedge denim from Cone Denim’s White Oak Mill, which closed in 2017. The workwear-inspired collection includes original Lee styles like the Lee 101 Jean, Union-Alls and Storm Rider jacket, as well as men’s and women’s shirts. Each garment was “remixed” with exclusively designed Pendleton patterns.
Its partnerships with streetwear label The Hundreds and Alife help premiumize the brand and reach a younger consumer. The Lee x Alife collection that dropped in August introduced an “artful interpretation” of Lee’s archival styles, renewed with colors inspired by New York City’s hip-hop culture of the ’80s. Meanwhile, its line with The Hundreds put a spotlight on workwear as seen through the streetwear brand’s unique lens.
On the Wrangler side, the brand debuted its Billabong collaboration in July and generated 1.7 million videos uploaded by TikTok users responding to a brand-led social media challenge.
Following that success, the brand collaborated with the Paramount show “Yellowstone,” which it developed after the show’s cast members were filmed wearing Wrangler denim. The brand has a track record of jumping on organic opportunities for consumer engagement. Previously, it partnered with The Cartoon Network’s “Rick and Morty” after the show made a reference to a “NX-5 Planet Remover” laser that destroyed everything on the planet except for jeans made by Wrangler.
The year 2021 marked some of the company’s greatest strides in sustainability, including its increasing focus on hemp. In April, Kontoor expanded its collaboration with Dallas-based Panda Biotech—an emerging leader in the industrial hemp fiber industry—bringing traceability and scale to the textile-grade cottonized hemp grown and processed in the U.S. Through the collaboration, which launched in 2019, Kontoor Brands plans to have U.S.-grown and processed hemp in market in its denim apparel by 2023.
In March, Kontoor updated its water-saving manufacturing program, Indigood, to include any water savings technology in apparel fabric production that uses at least 90 percent less water than conventional fabric production. Months later, it further expanded the program to include a certification element. Textile manufacturing facilities consuming 90 percent less freshwater versus conventional fabric production, using 2018 data as a baseline, may qualify for the certification. Indian denim mill Arvind Limited’s facility in Naroda is the first to achieve the certification, with more on the way. The certification marked a major step for Kontoor, which earlier this year recorded a total of 8 billion liters of water saved through its water stewardship initiatives.
In April, Wrangler launched the WeCare Wrangler sustainability platform outlining its sustainability commitments that run through 2030. The global platform offers a comprehensive understanding of its targets, which include attaining 100 percent preferred chemistry throughout its supply chain by 2023, 100 percent sustainable cotton in all of its collections by 2025, 100 percent renewable energy powering all owned and operated facilities by 2025, and 50 percent reduction in water usage by 2030. WeCare Wrangler maps out how it will achieve these targets, breaking them down into planet, product and people categories.
On the Lee side, a partnership with Pakistan-based vertically integrated denim manufacturer Artistic Milliners helped propel the brand into Cradle to Cradle (C2C)-certified territory. In August, the duo worked together to develop two styles of C2C-certified gold and bronze 12-ounce selvedge jeans. Both styles are 98 percent GOTS certified organic cotton and 2 percent Lycra.
Kontoor set its sights on expansion in 2021, both in terms of internal leadership and its retail stores. The company welcomed Karen Smith to the new role of executive vice president of supply chain, followed by Mame Annan-Brown as executive vice president of global communications and public affairs in July.
In Q2, as the outdoor market fueled the growth of its Wrangler ATG line, it introduced two new distribution partners: American sporting goods store chain Academy Sports and Swiss sporting goods retailer Intersport. The move helped put its outerwear collection in front of a dedicated audience.
In August, Kontoor opened Lee + Wrangler Hometown Studio, a new store in Greensboro, N.C. that offers products from its two heritage brands. The 4,000-square-foot storefront is located down the road from its global headquarters at 603 Elm Street, giving shoppers an experience that goes beyond the traditional retail offerings, including live entertainment and custom tailoring and laser imaging services. It also serves as a research environment for the company to test the popularity of certain colors and fits with local shoppers.
More recently, Wrangler unveiled its first standalone store in China, following through on the expansion plans it set out earlier this year. Located in the retail-heavy Nanjing Deji Plaza, the store marks an important step forward for the brand.
The store offers customers an engaging retail experience, with digital screens featuring Wrangler campaigns on loop, neon light displays and stations with detailed information on key products. One of the first collections to be featured in the store is Wrangler’s latest collaboration with Chinese apparel brand Sankuanz, a streetwear-inspired label founded by designer Shanguan Zhe in 2008.
While sister brand Lee has been in China for 25 years, Wrangler first debuted in the region in December 2020 through Tmall. That same quarter, the Wrangler and Lee businesses generated an 11 percent increase in revenue in China. In its Q3 2021 earnings call in November, the company reported a combined 22 percent increase in the market for both Wrangler and Lee, and projected more to come, as it devises new demand creation strategies for the future.