- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2003

FORT WORTH, Texas - Al Rios is a college student and aspiring journalist, but he favors a timeless blue-collar look to his clothing, down to his Dickies work pants.

Mr. Rios says it has something to do with his love of punk music: “Originally, most punkers were working-class kids, and they made it part of their identity.”

After 80 years of making coveralls, shirts and uniforms for roughnecks, plumbers and construction workers, Dickies has become trendy, developing a following among teenagers and young adults who have adopted the work-wear look.

The company has become hot without even marketing itself to younger consumers. After three years of rapid growth, those young customers now account for 20 percent to 25 percent of sales at the Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co., although the privately held firm won’t discuss revenue figures.

On a recent day, the Dickies outlet store in a run-down section of Fort Worth was about evenly divided between older men looking for clothes for the job and younger customers. Mr. Rios, a student from Denton, was looking for something comfortable to go with his red high-top Converse sneakers and black T-shirt.

Company officials say they have done almost nothing to encourage the youth movement for fear of alienating older buyers who are the core of their business. Dickies has resisted the temptation to go after the youth market with new designs or lines, turning its back on potential new sales.

Even as it saw more girls buying its clothes, Dickies decided not to make girls’ apparel, although it licensed a California company that makes Dickies Girl. A few years ago, Dickies considered a line of “urban street wear,” but rejected the idea.

“The quickest way we could lose that customer is to go straight at them,” said Jon Ragsdale, Dickies vice president for marketing. “You couldn’t plan for this kind of success.”

Dickies first made inroads among young skateboarders and musicians. Members of rock bands Limp Bizkit and Alien Ant Farm and rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs wore Dickies. Singer Madonna performed at the Grammy Awards in rhinestone-enhanced Dickies work pants. Pro athletes have been seen sporting the brand.

“It was serendipitous for them to be there when the whole work-wear trend came along,” said Sharon Lee, co-president of Look Look, a Hollywood, Calif., marketing and magazine company that tracks youth culture.

“It just kind of happened to them,” Miss Lee said. “They were adopted by younger audiences, which like the look of classical clothing.”

Dickies isn’t the only brand benefiting from the work-wear trend. Young consumers also have favored brands such as venerable clothier Carhart Inc., heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc. and boot-maker Dr. Martens.

Wendy Liebmann, a retail analyst at WSL Strategic Retail, said it was precisely Dickies’ apparent lack of concern for fashion that made it fashionable.

“Dickies appeals to the essence of the American workingman at a time when kids are looking for designs that are retro and have some sort of heritage and integrity,” Miss Liebmann said. “Being one of the workermen is trendy.”

Dickies designers say that when they go into brainstorming meetings, they think of clothes for electricians and plumbers, not skateboarders.

The company has made some concessions to trends. It added cell-phone pockets at the knees of some long pants. It began to sell work shorts with a 13-inch inseam after younger buyers snubbed the traditional 9-inch and 10-inch-inseam models that still do well at Wal-Mart.

Dickies supplies retailers such as Pacific Sunwear that appeal more to students than laborers. Still, the brand’s recent converts believe they are rebelling against prevailing teen fashions.

“I don’t like to follow all the trends, like hip huggers and [bare-]midriff shirts,” said Jaclyn Ray, 19, of Fort Worth, who liked the clothes so much that she got a job in the Dickies outlet store. “This gets you away from the mall styles.”


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