Few labels stand the test of time. Even fewer can claim the distinction of being among the country’s most enduring heritage brands. Wrangler celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and in the seasons leading up to that milestone, the denim pioneer has been taking stock of its history, its community and its impact.
While one might assume that a brand built in 1947 might simply be focused on preservation in 2022, Wrangler wants to make progress. In a retail landscape now teeming with direct-to-consumer upstarts aiming to strike gold on Instagram, the company is focused on meeting consumers where they are instead of banking on continued loyalty.
“This is a brand that has never sat still,” said Holly Wheeler, Wrangler VP of global marketing. Championing innovation, whether it takes the form of new product lines, silhouettes, fabrications or marketing strategy, has been central to Wrangler’s staying power. What’s more, she said, the shifting values of modern consumers—who are eschewing fast fashion trends in favor of quality and function—are aligning more closely with the brand’s founding ethos than any time in recent history.
“Our brand was founded, basically, on meeting the needs of working cowboys,” she said, filling the need for a jean “that could withstand the rugged lifestyle of the West.” In today’s market, there’s a “growing curiosity” among young shoppers who are looking for “real, authentic, American workwear brands, not necessarily because they want to wear them to a job site, but because they’re enamored by the origin and the inspiration behind the product,” Wheeler said.
Vintage styling and secondhand shopping continue to influence Gen Z and millennials, and she believes that these consumption trends run deeper than an appreciation for the aesthetics of bygone eras. Consumers, now aware of the impact that their purchases have on people and planet, are seeing value in purchasing pieces that hold up to wear and tear, even changing hands over the years. The idea of a garment living multiple lives is not just a romantic notion—it’s becoming a new, sustainable reality, and one that can’t come fast enough. For Wrangler, “durability and value are things that have continued to propel the brand forward, even as times have changed, and fashion trends have come and gone,” Wheeler said.
“Cowboy cool” is having more than a moment, she said, pointing to cult TV hits such “Yellowstone”—which recently collaborated with Wrangler—or Beyonce’s Western-inspired Ivy Park athletic apparel collection. “There’s an aspirational quality to this space that’s translating to mainstream culture,” she said.
Wrangler is using the spotlight on Western fashion as an opportunity to broaden its appeal. According to Wheeler, the company’s focus “is really on making sure that we open the aperture for the brand” in the coming seasons. Wrangler will continue to champion the unique look and feel that has made it beloved over the years, while becoming more accessible to new consumer groups. “From a distribution standpoint, from a price point standpoint, from a geography standpoint, from a diversity standpoint, we want to make sure Wrangler is a brand [shoppers] can see themselves in,” she said.
Breaking gender barriers
That has meant broadening the range of women’s styles and infusing them with modern appeal. While Wrangler’s core consumer base was once decidedly male, that breakdown has shifted, mirroring society’s evolution. Offerings for both men and women have strengthened across all categories, Wheeler said, from workwear to everyday denim and other apparel staples. Still, the women’s line in some ways represents an opportunity not fully realized, and she hopes to see a fresh generation of consumers adopt the brand as their own.
“I think the evolution has been really exciting,” echoed Vivian Rivetti, the brand’s global vice president of design. “When I started here about five years ago, there was no women’s to be worn because we really didn’t have a women’s contemporary lifestyle brand.” The brand’s Western women’s offering complemented the men’s line, but Rivetti longed to expand beyond utility and capture a side of the market that was more playful. “It’s all about building out our lifestyle business and casting a wider net,” she said, “and we’re doing it through strategic designing.”
That doesn’t mean revamping the brand to be something it’s not—or creating a watered-down version of the styles for which Wrangler has become famous. In fact, broader trends in denim—like the movement away from skinny jeans, for example, have played into the brand’s hands, with many of its classic silhouettes being boot cuts and straight-leg silhouettes.
“I’m excited about looser fits both the women’s and men’s market,” Rivetti said. “A lot of the new fabrications that are being used don’t necessarily have that stretch,” she said, like many of the more form-fitting styles that have been waning in influence, especially amid a pandemic. “Wider fits are trending, and we’ll also see lighter-weight fabric,” she said. “If you have a looser leg, you can do a fabric without stretch.”
“Comfort is something that the consumer does not want to give up,” she added, “But, comfort doesn’t mean only that it has to have Lycra or spandex.”
In recent years, Wrangler has forged partnerships with retailers like Free People, Nordstrom, Shopbop and Billabong as a means of forging connections with young shoppers—especially women. Urban Outfitters also sells a curated line of vintage Wrangler favorites, from denim to flannel button-downs. “We have pretty heavy criteria for how we evaluate collaboration partners,” Wheeler said, saying that the brand looks for retailers with similar values, along with those with the right retail footprint, hitting regions where Wrangler can have the greatest sales impact. But, as evidenced by its more recent roster of distributors, Wrangler is not opposed to exploring “unexpected” relationships that can expose the brand to new audiences.
The brand has also doubled down on its All-Terrain Gear (ATG) assortment, which blends the durability of Wrangler workwear with outdoor styling and versatility. The line of men’s and women’s outerwear, leggings and pants, which launched about four years ago, is loaded with functional features and fabrications imbued with UV protection and water resistance. ATG has seen accelerated growth throughout the Covid crisis, Rivetti said, because shoppers have spent more time grounding themselves in nature. “You’ve got to take the temperature of the market and some of these leading indicators that are happening, and go for it,” she added.
While consumers may not have previously pegged Wrangler as a brand built on outdoor exploration, the brand’s focus on functionality and practical styling makes the category a natural fit. “I’m a big believer of giving the consumer what they never knew they wanted,” Rivetti said. “As long as you ground yourself in your DNA and your personality, you can a build upon it and push further towards that North star.”
Amid the pandemic, the brand’s e-commerce channel has also seen accelerated growth, bringing a brand once sold chiefly by independent retailers and small franchises to the world wide web. “There’s obviously a lot of focus there,” Wheeler said, as many shoppers are just beginning to venture back out to stores after two years of intermittent lockdowns and social distancing guidelines.
Wrangler, which worked with an agency to manage its web channel previously, brought the effort in house and built up its team of experts amid the global screen-time boom. The brand’s e-commerce aficionados have been working closely with its DTC team on “everything from content creation to launches, post-purchase consumer care and social,” Wheeler said. “Digital was a focus for us before, and we had started to put the pieces in place to make sure that we were building the right internal resources to be able to support a really robust strategy,” she added.
Alongside a burgeoning digital strategy, Wrangler is taking its first steps into the virtual realm. In February, the company announced the launch of its first NFT alongside musician and brand ambassador Leon Bridges, who also worked with the Wrangler on a collaborative collection as a kickoff to the brand’s 75the year in business. The limited-edition metaverse wearable, a denim suit designed for Bridges and dubbed “Mr. Wrangler,” wass available to just 75 Wrangler customers.
Throughout the year, Wrangler launched pieces from an anniversary capsule that includes about 15 pieces, including reissues of favorite heritage styles and storytelling pieces from pivotal moments in the company’s history.
“We were going through like some of the archived ads recently, and we really have been there for all of these incredible cultural moments,” Wheeler added, referencing soldiers returning from World War II and the subsequent rise of denim workwear, to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s impact on the fashion landscape. “There was the coining of the term ‘teenagers,’ and it became this phase of true personal expression,” she added. “When I look back, I really feel like the ‘70s was a fundamental time for the brand,” she added, noting its role in rock and roll music culture and its importance in bringing denim jeans to a female audience.
While 75 years marks a significant milestone for the brand, the focus is always on what’s next. “We’re taking from the past and colliding it with the future,” Rivetti said.