Two models wearing clothing by the Lee Jeans and Brooklyn Circus collaboration.
Lee's brand collaboration with Brooklyn Circus, among others, aims to help the brand tap into new consumer groups and solidify its place in the contemporary consumer ecosystem. — Lee

Why it matters:

  • Name recognition is not enough to compete in today’s fast-moving apparel economy—young consumers are looking to connect with brands that tell a story and align with their values.
  • In an era of increased casualization, the denim economy is growing fast: According to Allied Market Research, the global jeans market size was worth $56.2 billion in 2020, and is projected to reach $88.1 billion by 2030.
  • Against that backdrop, Lee is tapping into niche collaborations and vintage appeal to grab Gen Z attention and denim market share from other heritage labels, fast-fashion retailers, and upstart brands.

In business since 1889, Lee has come a long way from producing dependable dungarees and jackets to workers on railroads and in mines. In the mid-20th century, the brand helped elevate blue jeans as a totem of youth culture, as denim eventually integrated into the everyday wardrobes of global consumers of all ages.

Lee is now owned by Greensboro, North Carolina-based Kontoor Brands (KTB), a publicly traded global apparel company that also owns fellow heritage denim brand Wrangler.

According to Jane Hali, CEO of retail research firm Jane Hali Associates, Wrangler makes up 64% of the business and Lee 26%.

“The challenge for us has really been reframing the lead brand [Lee] through a modern, more premium lens and reaching that new younger consumer,” Chris Waldeck, EVP, Co-COO and Global Brand President of Lee, told CO—. To do so, the brand has targeted Gen Z consumers on multiple fronts including capsule collaborations with indie designers, and an Archive collection inspired by vintage styles.

Kontoor remains a key player in the denim market, according to Allied Market Research, though it faces intensified competition from upstart brands and other legacy labels looking to reinvent for the next generation. However, “Both Wrangler and Lee are gaining momentum as the brands evolve and cater to consumer interest,” Hali said.

Balancing old and new: ‘When we think about the younger consumer today, what they're looking for is the story behind the product … we have the unique opportunity to tell some very rich stories’

Through generations, denim has remained deeply connected to global youth culture. However, not every generation of teens and young adults approach shopping for jeans in the same way.

Waldeck, who oversees all of Lee’s markets and channels around the world, believes digital natives’ access to information and new channels of communication often has outsize impact on their purchasing decisions.

“When we think about the younger consumer today, what they're looking for is the story behind the product,” he said, highlighting interest in brand history, how an item is made, and details of the brand’s commitment to sustainability.

The brand has targeted Gen Z consumers on multiple fronts including capsule collaborations with indie designers, and an Archive collection inspired by vintage styles.

“We have the unique opportunity to tell some very rich stories and to connect with younger consumers in ways that we haven't had before.”

Lee has leveraged different brand collaborations to help with this storytelling and to solidify its place in the contemporary consumer ecosystem.

“It's important that we're locally relevant, but globally consistent when we think about collaboration,” Waldeck explained. “There are plenty of potential collaborations that we pass on…It's really important that a collaboration has a true connection back to the Lee brand, and us to them.”

[Read: 4 Trend-Driven Ways Brands Are Tapping Personalization for Growth]

Collaborations big and small: A sustainable line with H&M to a collection from a Black-owned SMB that fetes African Americans in the West

According to Waldeck, Lee measures return on a collaboration or capsule collection in two ways. Some, such as its sustainable collection with fast-fashion giant H&M, are largely a revenue play, with a larger scale and reach. Others are measured in terms of how successfully they capture consumer interest in the Lee brand.

One particularly meaningful example of brand synergy is the partnership with Coca-Cola, released to the Asia-Pacific market. Lee had historically provided the uniforms for Coke delivery drivers and was able to tap into its archives to find correspondence and design inspiration dating back to the first half of the 20th century.

A collaboration with designer Ouigi Theodore and his luxury lifestyle shop Brooklyn Circus, on the other hand, was all about brand building. Brand marketing and the collection itself paid homage to the history of Black Americans in the American West.

“We got the right response from the right kind of consumer, including celebrities that called asking for products,” Waldeck said. “It's exactly what we were looking for.”

Further collaborations with brands including LA-based streetwear label The Hundreds and Japanese label Engineered Garments helped Lee expand into new and higher-end consumer niches.

[HED: How WOC-Owned Startups Are Tapping the Multitrillion-Dollar U.S. Women’s Market for Growth]

 Headshot of Chris Waldeck, EVP, Co-COO and Global Brand President of Lee.
Chris Waldeck, EVP, Co-COO and Global Brand President of Lee. — Lee

The value of vintage: Leaning into Gen Z’s love of secondhand fashion via the resale market

While Lee is not yet positioning resale as a major revenue channel, the brand is acutely aware of the power of the secondary market. Instead, Waldeck said, “it's an opportunity for us to tell stories about archives.”

Gen Z’s love of secondhand fashion is well documented, particularly their taste for vintage (or vintage-inspired) denim. For heritage labels like Lee, this turns the thrift store or digital resale platform into a form of free advertising, where young consumers can discover and build an affinity for the brand.

To capture this interest in vintage denim washes and silhouettes, Lee launched the Lee Archives, a capsule of classic, authenticated pieces from the 1960s and 1970s available exclusively on the brand’s site.

While the assortment is small and the price point higher than average for new Lee items, the Archives helps build credibility among a demographic that is well-versed in vintage style. Other vintage inspirations show up throughout the brand’s main collections for men and women.

“It’s harvesting that authenticity from our archives, but at the same time making sure we’re taking those heritage designs and silhouettes and giving them some new fashion-forward look and feel,” said Waldeck. At the same time, the brand is prioritizing materials innovation to achieve not only sustainability but better performing jeans.

“That's the balance you have to strike as a steward of a brand like this,” Waldeck added. “Making sure that you're being true to your roots and your identity, but also, at the same time, being on the forefront of trends.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Applications are open for the CO—100! Now is your chance to join an exclusive group of outstanding small businesses. Share your story with us — apply today.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

CO— Exclusives: Insider Strategies

How the buzziest brands and hottest startups are solving today's biggest business challenges. CO— brings you advice from startup founders and top executives for thriving in a new world.

Get recognized. Get rewarded. Get $25K.

Is your small business one of the best in America? Apply for our premier awards program for small businesses, the CO—100, today to get recognized and rewarded. One hundred businesses will be honored and one business will be awarded $25,000.