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Donald Trump swept into the presidency rallying against companies whose goods are made in foreign countries, going as far as to toy with the idea of punishing companies that don’t move production to the US with high tariffs. During his inauguration, he said, “We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.” (It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the president’s branded clothing line, and his daughter Ivanka Trump’s line, is made in China, Indonesia, and elsewhere.)
But it’s uncertain how that will affect production of established brands’ clothing, or how companies with factories abroad will fit into the political discussion during the next four years.
So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that Dickies, the largest workwear manufacturer in the world, which has factories in Mexico and elsewhere, wasn’t interested in being featured for this story.
There were back and forth emails pre- and post-inauguration until a rejection showed up in my inbox: “Unfortunately at this time, Dickies will not be able to participate in the interview or factory tour for the piece you were interested in working on.” To be fair, there could have been a hundred other reasons why they said no.
I had always been interested in the brand; its parent company, Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company, is even based in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. Dickies’ social media pages are full of motorcyclists, mechanics, construction workers — the kinds of jobs I knew about through my own construction-worker father. Made for the blue-collar American worker, Dickies seemed like the epitome of what it means to be a pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps American.
But it isn’t exactly “Made in the USA.” Dickies is just one of six brands under Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company. Its other brands include Kodiak, a maker of industrial boots and shoes, and Walls, the newest brand acquired by the manufacturer that produces “industrial safety, active workwear and sporting goods apparel,” according to its website. The manufacturer has a worldwide presence of 7,000 employees, and its Dickies operations include facilities in Mexico, Japan, China, the Middle East, and Netherlands.
Next to Williamson-Dickie’s Fort Worth corporate headquarters, located south of downtown separated by a highway, stands a Dickies Outlet Store. It’s one of five standalone company-owned Dickies retail stores. The store is huge and sells everything from men’s work overalls to children’s school uniforms and medical scrubs. On its walls, iconic images share bits of the brand’s history, while displays along clothes racks note that the store is having a 20% off sale.
Dickies’ history goes back to 1918, when cousins C.N. Williamson and E.E. "Colonel" Dickie began an overall company with a few friends in Bryan, Texas.
In 1922, C.N. Williamson’s brother, C. Don Williamson, and his family bought 100 percent of the bib overall company, renaming it Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Company.
“How long has this outlet store been here?” I asked an employee. I’ve lived nearby nearly my whole life and never walked in.
“1922. This used to be their garage.” He pointed to an image on the wall near the entrance. “That’s Colonel Dickie.”
When Williamson and Dickie first started their company in the early 20th century, overalls were synonymous with rural, working men, especially farmers and railroad workers of the south and midwest. Painters, farmers, factory workers, carpenters, and other laborers would soon take to the garment.
Made of denim, often with riveted pockets, they were made to last and endure grueling work conditions.
The brand withstood and grew even during the Great Depression and World War II, when it produced nine million military uniforms.
“Since its beginnings in 1922, every piece of Dickies workwear has stood for the quality, toughness, and pride that embodies the spirit of the American worker,” states the Dickies website.
It became an international company in the 1950s, expanding into the European and Middle Eastern market. Legend has it Texas oilmen introduced Dickies to Middle Eastern oil fields.
In the ‘80s, the brand began to move into the lifestyle apparel space, producing stretch jeans for the first time and other clothes for everyday consumers. Its advertising focused on colorful and creative images reminiscent of the times. The brand took another turn in the ‘90s in pop culture, as the likes of Gwen Stefani and Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst were regularly seen wearing Dickies’ pants.
The Dickies brand is one of only a handful of companies dedicated to Americans who work tough jobs. Now, in 2017, Dickies stands as the largest workwear manufacturer in the world and a tried-and-true workwear company.
At the Fort Worth outlet store, the labels on clothing tell a different, though not contradictory, story. Men’s pants, selling for about $30-$40, are made in Mexico. 100 percent cotton classic overalls, $39.99, are made in China. Boy’s shirts, made in Pakistan and Cambodia. Boy’s jeans, made in Mexico.
My cousin's wife, Yaneth Lopez, 34, sews the pockets for boy’s pants just like the ones I saw at the outlet store. She told me about her job this month when I went on a short trip to Mexico with my parents.
Lopez has worked at the Dickies factory in Zaragoza, a town just 40 minutes south of the Texas border in the Mexican state of Coahuila, where my parents were born, for 12 years.
With a team of 17 workers, she helps make 1,235 pairs of pants a day, or about 135 per hour. "Someone else sews the pockets in, another person sews the zipper," she explains. This particular factory doesn't make shirts — just boys' and men's pants of a variety of styles. Occasionally, they will ship some of them for Mexican retail to Guadalajara; the rest go across the border.
Working nine-hour days, she makes about 780 pesos each week and an extra 500 pesos if they meet their quota (they usually do, she said). That's about $67 per week based on the current exchange rate. “It's not bad pay,” Lopez said. "What we get paid, other factory workers get with overtime." Mexico’s minimum wage is now 80 pesos, or $4, a day.
The factory is two blocks from her home on a dusty road on the western side of town. They employ about 500 people, she said. In the town of about 12,000 people, it's pretty easy to know someone who works at Dickies.
As I drove by during our trip, my dad spotted a familiar face. "Pechugo!" he yelled. Dad got out of his truck, and Pechugo came over to shake his hand. Wearing a floral button-down, a leather belt, and a US Border Patrol camouflage hat, he told us the factory opened in 1993, and he was hired as a security guard one year later. Pechugo and my father have known each other since they were kids.
Like many other small towns in Mexico, Zaragoza’s residents have a long history with factories.
At one point in the ‘70s, my mom worked at a factory making 500 transistors a day for TVs that were shipped to the US, and my dad worked at a broom factory, cutting and putting together the bristles that were then sewed together. He made 25 pesos a day. My mom's brothers also worked for that factory, picking the corn bristles at a farm.
Lopez said there’s one other factory in Zaragoza, a company called Industrias M.C.M., which makes trophies and sports-related items.
Lopez says the higher-ups from Dickies’ US office visit the factory about five times a year. "They take [the workers] aside, ask about how they treat us, if we've had any issues at work, stuff like that," she said. She told me the conditions are better than they used to be; the factory is now cleaner, and workers are provided with safety glasses and have safer equipment.
Having studied costureria (sewing and garment-making), Lopez said she likes her job, but it can be tiring. The production line at her factory uses standing sewing machines.
According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, 97.3 percent of clothes and 98.4 percent of shoes sold in the United States are imported.
As a whole, the clothing industry has close ties to Mexico; it’s not uncommon for American companies to send textiles to Mexico to be sewn and then sent back to the US, duty-free, to be sold.
A recent article in CNBC outlined the practice, stating that because apparel construction is fairly labor-intensive and requires a certain skill set, companies find production costs to be cheaper in Mexico and Central America (and other places like India and Indonesia).
While the US has great textile mills for making fabrics, yarns, and other inputs, Mexico is better at cutting and sewing, according to the AAFA.
Levi Strauss & Co. produces its clothes in 25 countries, including Mexico, and VF Corp., which owns Wrangler, Lee, and Rock & Republic, also has factories in Mexico and around the world. Mexico is the largest supplier of boy's and men's jeans to the US, responsible for 40 percent of those sold in the country, according to a CNBC source.
If Trump follows through on his proposals for a border tax or a renegotiation or termination of the North American Free Trade Agreement, this side of the retail industry could be significantly affected — whether through higher prices or otherwise. Some retailers have come out against the border tax, while others, like Dickies, are remaining silent.
When I asked if she's worried the current administration will impact the Dickies factory and her livelihood, Lopez said no. If they were to close at all, she said, it's because there's not enough workers. Not too long ago, some of her coworkers quit because they felt the rules at the factory were too strict with their production quota. "But they always come back," she said.
Online, the company has been promoting #DickiesWorkwear, a social media campaign designed to feature Dickies clothing in the real world. It shows bikers, brewers, fishermen, and homebuilders wearing the brand.
It regularly retweets images and testimonials shared by customers: “I traveled thru Iceland & wore only your waterproof steeltoe WorkBoots the entire trip through rain, glacier ice & lava rock #tough.”
In early February, the company announced a new partnership on Facebook with “four-time world champion freestyle kayaker, professional fisherman and founder of Jackson Kayak, Eric Jackson. He has an honest, hardworking approach to life both on the water and at the factory, making him a great fit for our team."
It has also partnered with Richard Rawlings of Discovery Channel’s Fast N’ Loud, becoming the official apparel of Rawlings’ auto shop, Gas Monkey Garage, and SEMA, a large automotive specialty products trade event, becoming its official apparel sponsor in 2015.
But for all the effort the brand dedicates to maintaining its authenticity in dressing blue-collar Americans, Dickies is also evolving. To understand why, look at work and business trends. The US has lost about five million manufacturing jobs since 2000, thanks largely to technological advances.
If that’s the case, where does a brand like Dickies fit in? I would have liked to ask Dickies.
From what I can tell, though, the brand isn’t getting left behind.
Since it began pushing its casual wear in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the brand has grown to attract younger audiences. It also was co-opted among various subcultures, including Latino street culture, skaters, and young celebrities. You might remember it is a thing people wore in the ‘90s.
There are signs the company is still evolving with fashion trends and branding itself to attract younger, and new, audiences. It’s not just turning to produce clothes that can be worn on and off the job, but it’s embracing that side of its brand.
To launch a denim collection in 2015, Dickies partnered with country music star Canaan Smith. A press release stated, “As one of Nashville’s most gifted and compelling storytellers, Smith will help shape a new evolution for Dickies. Serving as brand ambassador, Smith will be featured in an upcoming advertising campaign for the reengineered denim line that offers modern fits, washes, and details for today’s man who requires style versatility both on and off the job.” That collection was sold online and in Dickies stores, on Amazon, at J.C. Penney, and other retailers.
And just this fall, a new line of clothing for women inspired by men’s classics debuted as a collaboration between Dickies and Urban Outfitters. The 11-piece collection includes high-waisted twill pants, logo T-shirts, crewneck sweatshirts, bib overalls, and mini skirts. The partnership has drawn attention in the unlikeliest of places: women’s magazines. The “Team Work” campaign, which focuses on a diverse set of 16 young women in creative fields, was written about in both V magazine and on Who What Wear. (There’s also an offshot of the brand, Dickies Girl, aimed at a younger female audience and owned by another manufacturer.)
Its classic pieces were reminiscent of the wear worn by the Dickies Skate Team. But prices for this collection were a bit higher than average for Dickies, but much of the Team Work collaboration is now on sale at Urban Outfitters for $10-$60, with prices originally ranging from $25 to $110. The description of the collection on the site still harkens back to its brand ethos: “Today, they're the largest workwear company in the world but still embody the pride + durability of the American working class.”
Is it a household name yet? Maybe not, but in keeping true to its origins, it’s definitely still got a certain appeal. Lopez said many of the factory workers also wear Dickies, particularly the mechanics and some of the supervisors — only they have to cross the border to buy them; Dickies isn’t sold in Zaragoza.