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American Denim Heritage Brand Lee VP Chris Waldek On The Company’s 130 Years

How do icons evolve? With a significant milestone under their belt, Lee Jeans is shaping its future under the leadership of Chris Waldek, VP, and Global Brand President, in a world dramatically different than when it began in 1889. The Kansas-based denim-company is now under parent company Kontoor Brands KTB since celebrating its 130th anniversary in 2019, providing significant investment to achieve sustainable long-term growth. Waldek aims to build upon its rich archives, innovative history, and core values to re-establish its progressive place in a global market reeling from the Coronavirus pandemic, social unrest, and sustainability concerns, especially in the world of blue jeans.

Waldek’s steerage includes reviving the Nineties’ creative heritage, ramping up its distribution points to expand the audience by age and location, and hyper-focused marketing efforts using targeted digital influencers all the while by retaining the brand’s core customer.

Betty Madden, the Global Head of Design for Lee, is plucking styles from its’ 90s archives for a collection aimed at Millennials and Gen Z. Think high-waisted jeans and skater-style tees for women, and the layering of flannels, hoodies, and denim for men. The brand launched just in time for BTS and brought the brand mascot Buddy Lee out of retirement to appear on T-shirts and sweatshirts appealing to both sexes. While the brand is quick to refrain from calling it dual-gender, the collection marks the first time in decades to approach both collections from cohesive and similar POV.

It’s also the first time the brand launched a collection digitally with a debut on Amazon AMZN and Lee.com. “We thought about how to introduce this capsule, it was important to meet the consumer where they were, not ask them to come to us, ” Waldek said in an interview, “So we partnered with a group of young content creators to bring the collection to life through their lens.”  

These increased marketing efforts, such as amplified social media channels and the partnerships with creators, have resulted in unexpected, charming content, especially in commercial videos with an editorial approach. Nano Influencers such as Daniel David (@dvnieldavid), Mo Moreno (@m0babyyy), and Joe O’Connor (@willie.joe) personal style reflect Lee’s new collection mood via Instagram feeds. The digital content lives on platforms such as Lee.com, Kohls.com, Amazon, Tmall, and Facebook. “Through this comprehensive ecosystem, we can share all our content and have an ongoing conversation with our consumers,” Waldek asserted.

Marketing is a worldwide affair too. “Lee is a global brand – nearly 60 percent of our revenue comes from outside the US,” explains Waldek, “We’re driving to deliver a globally consistent consumer experience which you’ll see more of moving into 2021.” A key market is China, where Lee has distributed for over 25 years and via Tmall for five years. The CEO goal is to expand to Chinese cities outside the major hubs to places such as Yanchen, Jiangyin, and Yangzhou. Demonstrating Lee’s powerful reach, the brand enlisted popular Chinese influencers online streamers Viya and Austin Li, and superstar celebrity Eddie Peng for recent live streaming events centered on new product introductions and critical storytelling moments.  

But online, historically, Amazon has been the brand’s mainstay, having sold brand staples such as the Active Stretch collection for men, Shape Illusions for women along with core and fashion denim such as the 575 collections for men and women. Shorts are also an essential brand product with mass appeal, and styles such as the men’s Extreme Comfort shorts and women’s Flex To Go short styles led online sales during the pandemic height. A recent earnings call for Q2 2020 reported revenue of 349 million dollars with a reported gross margin of 10 bps to 38.5 percents compared to the previous year with an inventory decline of 20 percent valued at 105 million dollars as compared to the previous year.

The new 90s inspired collection bridges the gap between mainstay mass customers and younger (18-30) fashion-forward customers who view styles and trends through less gender bias. In other words, Gen Z has no qualms about buying pieces based on the look and fit – think tees, sweatshirts, and flannels – regardless if it sits in the women’s or men’s section of retail and E-comm.

This Gen Z attitude makes the collection ideal to expand to Lee’s premium retailers, such as Nordstrom JWN , Shopbop, Free People, and Buckle, and precisely the plan in the coming months, further legitimizing the collection. Under Waldek’s direction, the premium outlet distribution has grown extensively for Lee 101, Vintage Modern, and Alife X Lee collaboration from the New York streetwear and culture brand. Free People introduced a limited distribution in 2018 but increased significantly in 2019 and 2020 while Shopbop picked the premium product up in 2019. Nordstrom started carrying the elevated collections at the beginning of this year, and despite Coronavirus setbacks, it is expanding offerings this fall.

US-based corporations didn’t just have the Coronavirus to contend with but also a wave of social unrest due to continued acts of police brutality at levels not seen since the Civil Rights movement compounded by the economic crisis at hand. Lee Jeans is clear on its position. “The systemic racism in our country, aimed at the Black community, is disheartening and abhorrent,” stated Waldek reinforcing the company values of inclusion and diversity while promising further steps. “The events of the last few months has made work in this area even more important and increased our focus to address inequities and injustice in whatever ways we can.”

Aside from listening to the employees and Employee Resource Groups whose input helps shape what the future will look like at Lee, Kontoor brands announced a new Inclusion and Diversity strategy. Leadership teams from both Lee and Kontoor will work with the talent managers, Employee Resource Groups, and soon to be formed I&D councils to increase diverse representation across staff and offer inclusivity training to employees globally. “We know that as a global brand, we have a platform and a responsibility to use it to create change.” To survive another 130-years, the CEO knows that innovation is a priority. Lee continues to lead in stretch and fit innovation, such as the Extreme Motion collection. 

But sustainability is what excites Waldek most. 3D design to make production more efficient and Indigood foam-dying, which has saved 1 billion liters of water since 2008, are commonplace practices. In early 2020 the denim brand launched its goal-focused global sustainability platform, ​For a World That WorksTM, focused on sustainable solutions for apparel development and production.

Waldek is well aware of the legacy he has guardianship over and is “laser-focused on delivering strategic priorities,” he said, adding, “We have a powerful emotional connection around the world. It’s amazing to think about how the brand has been present for many important moments of our consumers’ lives. “

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