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Brand Profile: H.D. Lee Mercantile Company

Lee is one of the world’s oldest and largest denim manufacturers with origins dating back to 1889. Like many contemporary companies, H.D. Lee Mercantile Company is named after its founder, the enterprising and ambitious Henry David Lee. Today most people know the company’s jeans, which among other things are characterized by its characteristic “lazy S” arcuate and branded patch. But before these features became parts of a global brand the company mainly manufactured and sold foods, including coffee, tea, cereal and canned food.

Some years before denim was included in Lee’s product portfolio, the company suffered from a devastating fire that destroyed goods and equipment worth a total of nearly half a million dollars – in 1903-currency. Yet Lee did not roll over, but instead the company used the accident to expand and strengthen it’s business.

The building stones for one of the world’s most recognized and innovative denim brands were first laid in 1911 when HD Lee, reportedly more than dissatisfied with the quality of work wear of the east-American manufacturers, decided to start his own production. Already two years later, in 1913, the company wrote denim history, when Lee’s personal chauffeur in frustration over constantly getting dirty when fixing the car invented the so-called Union-All, which could quickly be pulled over regular work wear and clothes. The popularity of the invention was immediate, but it was also helped along by the First World War, when Union-alls in 1917 became the official uniform of the American doughboys.

Below is a selection of classic Lee commercials from the early 20th century, all of which highlight the benefits and convenience of the Union-All, and other Lee products. It is clearly exemplified how marketing back then mainly focused on the functional benefits of the product.

But during the 50s and 60s, ads more increasingly began to appeal to consumers’ social and self-promoting needs, and the brand became more important than the product itself and it’s functionality.

Before Lee jeans became a fashion object, the company focused heavily on innovation and improvement of the quality of denim and the functional design of the jeans. Besides the invention of the Union-All, Lee was among the first to put zippers in jeans in 1926, and five years later they introduced the first tight-fitting denim jacket, Lee 101j (have a look at one by clicking the link).

In 1933, Lee presented one of its most iconic pieces, the Storm Rider jacket, which is basically a padded 101j. In 1944, the recognizable lazy-S arcuate became part of Lee’s identity. Until then Lee (as any other American denim manufacturer) used back pocket stitching designs identical to the famous Levi’s arcuate.

Lee reacted quickly to the conversion of denim from working to fashion pants in the 1950s. Helped along by Hollywood, jeans became a must-have for any teenager. One of the truly great iconic figures was the actor and racing driver James Dean (view more pictures of Dean by clicking the link). The picture below was taken in connection with the shooting of his greatest cinematic success, Rebel Without A Cause from 1955, in which Dean personifies an entire generation’s rebellion – of course wearing Lee jeans.

Dean holds the famous pose in one of the film’s opening scenes. Denim enthusiasts to this very day discuss whether Dean personally preferred Lee jeans – a discussion that will probably never come to a conclusive answer. It is nevertheless a fact that he was – and still is – a big driver for the popularity of jeans among teenagers around the world.

The pictures below are from his third and final film, Giant, which first premiered after his death. Dean was even the first to receive an Oscar posthumously. Also in Giant he wears denim.

Marilyn Monroe was another vehicle in bringing Lee denim to the hips of the youth. In John Huston’s film “The Misfits” from 1961, she appears wearing a Lee Storm Rider jacket starring with Montgomery Clift, who wore Lee Riders.

Already in 1952 Monroe wore denim on the big screen. In “Clash By Night” it is probably JC Penney’s “Prefer Most” model.

The legacy of many of Lee’s groundbreaking and iconic products live on today in the updated and current 101-series, which recently introduced the 101 Rider model.