In the fashion world, there are hundreds of jeans lines. But in the Western world, there's only one
Look around Las Vegas during the 10 days of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and you get the impression that the city belongs to the rodeo and that the rodeo belongs to Wrangler. From the inside of the arena, where the competition takes place against a backdrop of nearly uninterrupted Wrangler signage, to the casino bars filled with the cowboys and buckle bunnies of the rodeo singles scene, there are thousands of backsides stitched with the Wrangler patch. Even the artificial volcano outside the Mirage hotel is tinted pink to match Wrangler’s Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign to benefit breast-cancer research. Although the corporate headquarters of this billion-dollar denim company are in Greensboro, N.C., this is Wrangler Town, and it appears once a year, a country-western Brigadoon.
Much of the company’s success is owed to the Cowboy Cut, a model often referred to by its style number, 13MWZ. Introduced in 1947 and to this day accounting for about 25 percent of the company’s sales annually, it was one of the original Wrangler products and the first truly functional cowboy jeans. The 13MWZ (MWZ stands for “men’s Western zipper”) was developed by Ben Lichenstein, a tailor from Philadelphia known as Rodeo Ben, for the Blue Bell Overall Company, a North Carolina-based work-apparel manufacturer looking to break into the Western cowboy market. Its design has remained unchanged for 60 years. Phil McAdams, president of Wrangler’s Western Wear division, knows these jeans inside and out. The pockets are positioned high in the back so that riders don’t sit on their wallets, and the belt loops are set a little wider in front to accommodate a championship buckle. They are made with flat rivets that do not scratch saddles and large zippers that riders can handle with gloves. The tapered legs fit tightly over boots so that they don’t drag like the flared “boot cut” jeans, which have little to do with practicing cowboys; and the inseam is four to six inches longer than the norm so that when a rider is in the saddle, the bottom of the jeans sits just so on the top of the foot.
Jim Shoulders, who is 79, is a rodeo pioneer who served as a “fit model” for the Cowboy Cut, and when he tells the story from behind a Vegas-size breakfast, he can make a climate-controlled casino restaurant practically feel like a campfire. “Wrangler decided they wanted to be in competition with Lee and came to the Madison Square Garden rodeo,” he recalls. (The two brands are now owned by the same company.) “They gave every contestant a pair of Wranglers and a black snap-button shirt with yellow letters that said “Wrangler,” and a Wrangler denim jacket. And then they gave you a questionnaire about what you liked and didn’t like about them, and if you filled that out they gave you another pair of Wranglers.” It’s a familiar brand strategy that continues to help build sportswear empires today. To see just how many rodeo cowboys wear Wranglers, you could easily assume that the company is still giving them away. But the fact is that loyalty to the brand is passed down through generations just as the championship buckles are. Wrangler even makes denim diaper covers. “I’ve never seen my father wear anything except for Wranglers in my whole life,” says Sherry Cervi, a barrel racer competing in her 11th National Finals Rodeo who is now sponsored by the brand.
The integrity of the 13MWZ is strictly monitored. When an extra zero was added to its tag as part of an internal Wrangler systems restructuring, the company got an earful from customers complaining that the jeans just weren’t the same, and the offending digit was removed. “It’s still the biggest jean that we sell in terms of volume,” says Karl Stressman, the director of special events and a weekend team roper, known throughout the company as Mr. Wrangler. “It’s the jean that Jim originally wore and still wears.”
Recently, Wrangler has started competing in the fashion arena as well. Marc Jacobs collaborated with Wrangler on a line of high-end denim for his spring 2007 collection. A pair of slim jeans with ruffled cuffs appeared on the runway last September, styled with a little jacket and a metallic handbag. Then there is Wrangler47, the company’s three-year-old premium brand, carried in stores like Barneys New York and Scoop; it includes fashionable items like micro-miniskirts and the ubiquitous superskinny hipster jeans. A public-relations firm known for cachet-laden clients like Balenciaga and Proenza Schouler was shrewdly hired to help position the venture. The line’s creative director, Monique Buzy-Pucheu, reinterprets pieces from the Wrangler archives, with particular attention paid to styles from the ’70s and ’80s. “There’s nothing that could turn on a denim-vintage person like myself more,” she says. “You want to work for the originals.” If a pair of traditional cowboy’s jeans are starched and creased to look as if they have never seen the seat of a saddle, a cleverly distressed pair of Wrangler47s looks as if they have just gotten off a bronc. Some models undergo five hours of harsh treatment in order to look un-self-consciously worn in; they might be sprayed with resin, baked at 350 degrees, hand-sanded and then processed again. Some models are stylishly high-waisted, others stylishly low. Occasionally you will find a big gold zipper or a gold bullion logo. “But you’re still seeing Wrangler,” Buzy-Pucheu says.
The Vegas championship that wears Wrangler’s name is the culmination of the grass-roots rodeos that take place throughout the country over the course of a year. The nonstop auctioneer-style banter of the announcers, who are celebrities in their own right, the pounding rock music, the potential for broken cowboy body parts and the unrelenting pace of rider after rider bursting out of the chutes can give you the feeling of being yanked around like show cattle being team-roped. There is pageantry, like the grand entry that opens the proceedings, and there are quiet rituals, like the group prayer on horseback in the warm-up tent before the athletes ride into the arena. If you’re lucky, you’ll have dirt kicked up on you by a fifth-generation award-winning bucking horse in seats so close that it’s almost easier just to watch the action on the overhead video screens. “We’re creating a reality for the 47s,” says Trevor Brazile, 2006’s champion all-around cowboy, his fourth all-around title, and a Wrangler endorsee who prefers the clean look of the conscientious cowboy. “It would be fiction if it wasn’t for this.”
The big fashion moment during this week is the annual wives luncheon, a benefit to raise money for professional rodeo athletes who have been injured in competition. This is when the first-time barrel racers and the wives of the first-time National Finals Rodeo competitors model Western wear in a banquet-hall runway show that may seem naïve by fashion standards, but it is their lifestyle that sets the tone for the Wrangler47 line and not the other way around. Fashion denim is not particularly relevant here. “I think we’re interested, but to a degree,” says Ashley Andrews, Miss Rodeo America 2007, who wore a custom full-length lime green lambskin dress to the luncheon, finishing it off with Justin boots dyed to match and big hair that she knows is big. “The trendy skinny jean doesn’t go with Miss Rodeo America or riding horses,” she says.
Phil McAdams is not entirely sure that you can even buy a pair of Cowboy Cut jeans in New York City. But after years of living with the strange fact that American industry is capable of conjuring almost anything — the outsize simulacra of the Vegas strip come to mind — there is a sustained desire among consumers for authenticity, for something that counts as real. And this holds true even for the urban cowboys and cowgirls. “It’s all about romancing the Western lifestyle,” McAdams says. “We believe it has a special meaning.”