The point of Dickies is that it’s for everyone: skaters in New Orleans and New York, low riders in LA and ranchers all over. Its roots branch out from West Texas, where the hard-wearing clothing served its original purpose. It was (and still is) built to last, with the workwear sector still the brand's primary focus.
But times change, and work changes. There are fewer farmers, way less rail workers and less welders and leather workers than ever. (Though they definitely still exist, and they wear Dickies.) As a result, the Dickies's lifestyle designs are their biggest avenue for growth — which is why parent company VF Corporation, owner of Vans, Supreme and The North Face — bought the brand in 2017. But even these more casual lines are still based on Dickies's original icons: the 874 Pant, Eisenhower Jacket, Work Shirt, Bib Overalls and the classic Coveralls.
These serve as blank canvases for each season, affording designers the opportunity to dye them different colors, swap out cotton or twill for corduroy or ripstop and use them as fuel for collaboration with outside brands. The resulting releases don't deviate too much from Dickies's foundation — workwear — but appeal to a broader array of customers, including a core comprising skateboarders and mechanics.
But Dickies’ legacy, what it began as exactly a century ago, lives on in the form of Dickies 1922, a line workwear-inspired garments still produced in America, unlike many of Dickies other offerings, which have moved abroad. That legacy is maintained by one woman, Ann Richardson, who’s been with the brand since 1970. The company's longest tenured employee, she started as an Assistant Stylist, eventually working her way into a broader merchandising role and then becoming both a brand archivist along with colleague Corinna Wright, and General Manager of the 1922 heritage line.
As part of her job, she sources fabrics from factories located thousands of miles from her Fort Worth office, where four women sew buttons on prototype shirts and pants, which will eventually be constructed from fine Japanese fabrics, rolls of printed ripstop or the final few feet of Richardson’s personal supply of selvedge Cone Denim at a Chicago factory she trusts will do things the right, old-fashioned way.
"It's really her own one woman operation," Rachel Courts, Dickies's Director of Global Connections, says, and that means products must meet her standards.
"I could swap [any of] these for a less expensive cotton twill," Richardson says of the lines she maintains, "but it's just not the same. It's got to be that, and the people that buy this, they recognize the quality. I don't want to put something out there that's just so-so... You have to put products out there that you like, that you think, 'Oh, that's really beautiful.'"
Dickies 1922, a reference to the year the brand was founded, aims to balance both new and old, making archival styles with updates fits. And it's Richardson's job to see to it that this happens. The pieces operate almost in contrast to the brand’s larger mission, which is increasingly focused on lifestyle items, a roster of colorful classics, streetwear collaborations and high fashion fusions, despite the continued presence of classic workwear in the mix.
1922 is, by all accounts, Dickies’ premium sub-label, an attempt at doing things in the spirit of yesterday — and for select audiences with a willingness to spend a little extra. General release 874s, for example, are $30. Coveralls? $45. The iconic Ike Jacket? $60 max.
The entry fee for Dickies 1922 is $118 at minimum. The jackets sell for $200+. The pants are $280. Richardson feels they could sell the stuff for even more, if she wanted to, but the stuff sells out as is, and she knows the ones buying it appreciate what they've brought to market: American-made, workwear-inspired items that often overlap with items in Dickies's archive.
Some of the pieces aren't exact replicas, but originals inspired by designs other brands, even the military, put out at that time. Richardson is as much a student of menswear at large as she is of Dickies's doings. She appreciates things that are made well, and often slowly, using traditional techniques, methodologies and machines. And even in the face of rising prices for raw materials, labor shortages and shipping delays, she stays diligent about doing it her way and committed to materials she feels match the quality of Dickies's past.
"It's hard to do," she says, "but I know there are people that appreciate it, especially the retailers and the factories that we're working with."
She's 10 years into her experiment, which has expanded from a two item catalog (a khaki shirt and matching pants) into a robust, ever-growing, collection. Now, 1922 comprises two dozen styles, with inventory that ebbs and flows as the supply of materials fluctuates.
There's currently a six month lead time on most of her orders, which is up from a few weeks max, to maybe three months at most. That forces her to be creative, and her product team to be patient. There are easier routes, of course, like those taken to produce Dickies's standard issue stuff. But Richardson is married to the brand's founding pillars: to be American-made, an "entree into the brand" and of the highest quality possible, no matter the cost.
It's not just her fabrics, expensive and scarce; the budget for labor is also limited. So, she often does steps herself, or trusts a small team of Fort Worth, Texas women in their 60s to do some work, too. Not only to keep costs down, but also to preserve a level of control for what is ultimately very high-touch work. "It's borderline scary to add somebody else," she says.
She stamps the hang tags herself; she commissions custom buttons based on ones found in open fields and on old, thrifted garments; she liaisons with stockists, explaining the processes and justifying the pricing.
"I keep asking myself, 'How much can you do?' You know? I gave one of our ladies 346 tags the other day, and I'd hand-stamped every damn one of 'em. But that's a lot of stamps," she laughs.
The work is worth it, though, because store owners are never a hard sell. "I'll take it," she says, recalling her first cold call to a store in California. "'Are you sure?' I asked, and I tried explaining it again. 'I'll take it. I'll take it,' they kept saying."
Then, the khaki shirt had tight armholes; the pants had a high waist; and both the tops and bottoms were terribly rigid. They were too true to the era, Richardson admits. Since then, she's learned, both about what the customer wants and what Dickies was actually doing at the time. Found Dickies garments are famously soft, often faded, too, because people really wore them, day over day, year over year, until the item was rendered unwearable. Then they'd re-up, restarting the cycle. 1922 sells pieces Richardson hopes folks wear just as religiously, with a shortened break-in period, of course, and details — like a dedicated watch pocket with a sealed point of entry — that were removed from mainline Dickies workwear years ago.
The pieces are vintage-looking and archive-referencing, but at-home in a wardrobe filled with fine leather boots, classic canvas sneakers, chunky knit wool sweaters, raw denim jeans and loopwheel T-shirts. Sure, the brand might've celebrated its 100th birthday this year, but its designs feel new, even now, and that's thanks in no small part to Richardson, who serves as both a preservationist and a motive force propelling the brand forward, back into the past.