Lee Through the Years

Take a trip down Lee’s memory lane and witness over 100 years of jeans history.

Surprisingly, Lee didn’t begin by making clothing—or manufacturing anything at all for that matter. Established in 1889 as a wholesale mercantile of groceries & goods to the West, The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company expanded gradually, and in 1912 began to manufacture work wear. Problem-solving designs earned Lee a reputation for quality, service and integrity. The success of Lee’s workwear business eventually transformed the company into a worldwide leader in the apparel industry, known for superior comfort and stylish versatility.

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1889

The Beginning Henry David Lee

Henry David Lee and four business partners established The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company in Kansas. They sourced groceries and other staples from around the world and packaged them for distribution to dry good and grocery stores under the Lee brand.

As the region’s population grew, demand for goods that couldn’t be grown or made locally increased, and Lee expanded its offerings to meet consumer needs. Dry goods merchants could order nearly anything from The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company’s 1899 Notions Catalog—from air rifles, apple butter, baseball mitts, bib overalls, coffee grinders and fabric to maraschino cherries, stationary and school supplies, toilet paper, whistles and Worcestershire sauce. Between 1900 and 1909, Lee established The H.D. Lee Flour Mills Company, Lee Hardware Company, and Kansas Ice and Storage.

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1912

FIRST LEE GARMENTFACTORY OPENS

Recognizing the possibility of volume business in overalls, The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company opened its first garment factory in Salina, Kansas, to produce overalls and work jackets.

The success Lee experienced making quality work wear eventually changed the focus of the company from a wholesale grocery and dry goods distributor to an apparel manufacturing giant.

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1913

First one-piece Coverall Lee Union-Alls

Lee created the first one-piece coverall: the iconic Union-Alls are designed to protect clothing both below and above the waist.

Because cars were not as dependable as they are today, drivers doubled as auto mechanics. Crawling under automobile dirtied fine clothing both inside and out. When a mechanic delivering autos to a Salina dealership heard about Lee's new overall factory, he asked the factory superintentdent to sew a jacket to a pair of pants—akin to the popular one-piece “Union Suit” undergarment but for outerwear. The rest is history. The following year (1914), Lee registered the term, “Union-Alls” with the U.S. patent office and added them to its product line. Within two years, as Lee ads suggested, there was "a suit of Union-Alls under the seat of every auto."

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1917-1919

UNION-ALLSDRIVE EXPANSION

As a result of the Union-Alls popularity, The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company grew its manufacturing capabilities to keep up with demand.

The H.D. Lee mercantile Company looked beyond the small community of Salina, Kansas for a larger labor force. New factories opened in Kansas City, Missouri; South Bend Indiana; Trenton New Jersey and Minneaplois, Minnesota. From 1915-1919 all Lee factories focused on producing just Lee Union-Alls to meet demand.

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1917

NEW HEADQUARTERSKansas City

On March 17, 1917, The H.D. Lee Mercantile Company moved its headquarters from Salina, Kansas to Kansas City, Missouri.

Taking advantage of the metro's larger work force and better freight rates, the new 9-story headquarters opened at 20th & Wyandotte.

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1921

BUDDY LEEADVERTISING ICON

The Buddy Lee doll was introduced to promote Lee overalls. Over the next 40 years, he helped to introduce new products offered by Lee.

Becoming a promotional success at county fairs and in store windows, Buddy Lee dolls were first made of composition and later of molded plastic. When it became cost-prohibitive to manufacturer the doll, Buddy Lee was discontinued in 1960. Buddy Lee returned in 1998 to promote the company’s Can’t Bust ‘Em Dungarees line, aimed at 17- to 22-year-old males. Buddy Lee, "Man of Action" appeared in ads as a heroic figure who survived all kinds of certain doom, prompting his human co-stars to marvel at the durability of his jeans. Lee offically retired Buddy Lee in 2006.

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1925

COWBOY PANTSLEE 101

After consulting with working cowboys and champion rodeo riders, Lee introduced its cinch-back ‘Cowboy Waist Overalls' of 9 oz. denim for men (101) and boy’s (101B).

Lee established brand loyalty early with current and aspiring cowboys and rodeo champions, in part by improving fabric, fit and finishes to meet their specific needs. Copper rivets were replaced with "scratch-proof" stitching to reinforce back pockets, protecting saddles—the cowboy's most valued possession. Lee Cowboy Pants later became known as Lee Riders.

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1925

JELTBEST DENIM IN AMERICA

Working with Canton Mills of Canton, Georgia, Lee developed the strongest and bluest denim in the market for durable work and western wear.

Used exclusively by Lee, this new 11.5 oz. denim was made by twisting the yarn tighter than previously made and engineered to be harder to snag, tear or rip yet pliable and comfortable. In 1931, Lee changed the name to “Jelt Denim."

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1927

NEW TECHNOLOGY Zipper Fly

Lee was the first garment manufacturer to use a 'hookless fastener' in cowboy pants, overalls, coveralls and playsuits.

Lee held a national contest to name its new zip-front overalls, coveralls and playsuits. The winning name was 'Whizit,' based on the sound it makes. Advertisements using Babe Ruth and other well-known celebrities helped the Whizit gain immediate popularity. The proof was in the numbers. In a photo taken after the 1927 National Corn Huskers Contest, eight of the ten winners were wearing Lee Whizits.

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1930

BUILT AMERICALEE WORKWEAR

Lee made the workwear worn by America's work force.

"The Great Lee Success Story" advertisements celebrated workers wearing Lee products in manufacturing plants from coast-to-coast, ranging from steel and automotive to railroad and aviation. This led to Lee's slogan: The Jeans that Built America. In 1937, Lee became the nation's largest manufacturer of workwear with sales at $6.4 million.

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1939

BELIEVE IT OR NOT!LEE PROVES QUALITY & DURABILITY

Lee's Jelt denim survived Ripley's Believe It or Not! 26-mile crawl across untreated concrete.

To prove Lee's continued dedication to quality and durability, Ripley put Lee's Jelt Denim Overalls to the test. The buttons held their shape after being ironed with a 5-ton steamroller. The denim survived a 26- miles crawl across untreated concrete. One man stood in the pockets of overalls worn by another and the stitching stayed secure!

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1940

BIG SUPPLYLEE JOINS THE WAR EFFORT

During World War II, Lee supported the war effort, manufacturing shirts, pants and flight suits for the United States military.

Continuing to advertise through prosperity and depression, a full-page advertisements in LIFE Magazine for Lee workwear included the following notices: "War conditions make it impossible to meet the growing demand for Lee Work Clothes. Your Lee Dealer is receiving his fair share of all we are able to make after the needs of our men in the armed forces have been supplied. If your Dealer is out of the Lee you want please ask him to reserve one for you out of his next shipment."

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1946

LEERIDERS IS BORN

1946 ushered in the birth of the "twitch" label.

With the new 101 Lee Riders, Lee introduced their now famous “Lazy S” decorative stitching-still in use today on the back pockets and the “Twitch” leather label.

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1947

FOR THE LADIESLEE JEANS FOR WOMEN

Lady Lee Riders were introduced to the market.

In 1947, the untapped women's jeans market welcomed Lady Lee Riders, “Authentic Cowboy Pants, button-fly, Sanforized, 8 oz. coarse weave denim.”Made with the same button-front fly, 5-pocket construction as men's Riders, Lady Lee Riders came with the same guarantee to fit or your money back. The primary difference? Lady Lee Riders were made with a small dart in the yoke to create a more fitted waist for the female physique and with a fuller seat and hips than men’s Riders.

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1952

BIG TEXLEE GROWS ITS MARKETING

Lee outfited the 52-foot tall Big Tex at the 1952 Texas State Fair

In 1952, Lee took on 364 hours of work to sew a shirt and pants for Big Tex, the 52-foot tall symbol of the State Fair of Texas. The jeans alone, the largest authentic Lee Riders ever manufactured, required 100 yards of denim and 5,900 yards of thread.

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1954

LeeJEANS FOR ALL

Denim's shift from workwear to pop culture fashion began.

Worn by movie stars like Marlon Brando in 1953’s “The Wild One” and James Dean in 1955’s “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” jeans became a symbol of American youth, boosting sales dramatically.

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1958

DRESS UPLEE WESTERNERS

Lee offered a new slim and trim, authentic western cut with a "dressed up" feel.

Lee Westerners were the first dress-up jeans and jackets ideal for sports, hobbies, campus, on the job, or in the saddle. Made of Lee's trademarked Westweave fabric, this lines created a new concept in slim, trim, authentic western cuts pants and jackets. Rodeo champion Casey Tibbs served as Lee's spokesmodel. In 1960, Lee offered Lady Lee Westerners for "gals on the go."

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1962

GROOVYLEESURE'S FASHION SILHOUETTES

Fashion needs of high school and college students were met with national advertisements offering the new Leesure's trim, "skin tight" silhouettes.

Supporting the new tag line "The Clothes You Need for the Life You Lead," Lee added the promise of fashion to its longstanding quality guarantee—all at an exceptional price.

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1970

SIGN OF THE TIMESBELL BOTTOM JEANS & PAINTER JACKETS

Bell bottom jeans and painter jackets became popular on the college scene.

Unisex styles and new fads in overalls—from college girls wearing them as ski wear to girls wearing then cutting off at the knees—drove Lee to produce its first line of fashion overalls and a variety of bellbottom styles for men and women including, the reversible Gemini Jean set.

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1972

FIT FOR A KINGTHE LEISURE SUIT

Lee debuted the "Leesure" suit.

Pioneered by the knit five-pocket jean, the Lee "Leesure" Suit offered a sportier alternative to traditional office attire. Leesure Wear offered the consumer a well fitting, appropriately-styled garment made of the best possible fabric. Dry cleanable or machine washable, this garment was designed to give long and satisfactory service. The prices ranged from $4.95 to $7.95.

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1977

OVER THE RAINBOW

A Lee embroidered denim design became a fashion favorite.

Introduced as "Freeway Jeans" in a campaign featuring supermodel Shelly Hack, who later starred in Charlies Angels, the pants were often referred to as Lee's Rainbow Jean.

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1982

THE BRAND THAT FITS

Lee's new tagline "The Brand That Fits" was launched.

In the early 1980s, Lee released several new fits and fabrics for women, including the London Riders, which catered to women with fuller fits and a high-end stretch denim fabric. This positions the company to become the top-selling female jean manufacturer in the country.

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1984

COVER OF ROLLING STONE

A Lee jean jacket made the cover of the Rolling Stone magazine adorning rock star Bruce Springsteen. It doesn't get much better than that.

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1993

RIDERS

Riders became a separate brand of “easy-going, honest clothes” designed specifically for the mass market, available at Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

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1996

MAKING A DIFFERENCELEE NATIONAL DENIM DAY

Lee created its National Denim Day to create awareness for breast cancer research.

Lee National Denim Day was the result of an internal team effort to find a cause that was of concern to both Lee consumers and employees. After extensive research, the answer became clear: breast cancer. Lee hired a celebrity spokesperson to promote Lee National Denim Day and promote breast cancer awareness. Companies that chose to participate asked employees to donate $5 in exchange for wearing jeans to work. From 1996 to 2015, the campaign raised more than $98 million. Beneficiaries included Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, Women’s Cancer Programs of the Entertainment Industry Foundation andthe American Cancer Society.

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1996

New FrontierLee.com launches buy online

Consumers could now purchase their favorite jeans on Lee.com.

Coinciding with Lee's online debut are Fit Finder kiosks—computers equipped with tape measures that help consumers determine which styles will fit them best—introduced in select stores. Sales in those stores double.

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1997

LEE PIPES

Lee introduces Pipes—a fit and style revolution for 8-12-year-old boys enjoying the extreme sports lifestyle.

With very wide legs for ease of movement, deep pockets and contrast stitching, the exaggerated silhouettes gave Pipes a look that aligned with the counter-culture attitude.

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2016

STRETCH FOR MENEXTREME MOTION JEANS

Lee began promoting its stretch fabrication in men's denim.

Launched in 2016, stretch denim fabrication paired with an innovative, hidden elastic waistband quickly catapulted Lee Extreme Motion as the fastest-growing model by 2018.

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2017

THEN IS NOWTHE LAUNCH OF LEE VINTAGE MODERN

Capitalizing on the heritage brand trend, Lee introduces a specialty denim collection inspired from our archives yet made with modern styling.

The seven icons include: The S-curve resembles the longhorns of a steer or the shape "of the back of an occupied saddle."
The X-tack replaced copper rivets on Lee jeans back pockets by 1938.
The spade pocket worked wonders to give shape and definition to the posterior.
The logo rivet received the addition of Lee's brand name in the 30s.
The logo button replaced the Lee Cowboy waistband button by 1949.
The hip pocket label, a small logo woven with goldenrod - colored thread, appeared after World War II on Lee 101 jackets and jeans.
The Lee leather patch was first introduced in 1945.

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