It's a tried and tested method in these straitened times, for brands to go back to their roots, to rediscover their DNA, and revisit just what it was that their customers bought into all those years ago. For world-renowned denim label Wrangler, that's quite a journey, given the brand's different identities across the globe. In America, it's the rootin', tootin' garb of cowboys and rodeo riders, where UK shoppers see a more fashionable side of the business.
For autumn/winter 2011, the label has fused the two in its Blue Bell "Made in the USA" collection, which pays homage to Wrangler's heritage as one of the oldest denim labels in existence, as well as one of the most commercially successful.
The journey begins in Greensboro, North Carolina, a town that nestles in the burnt-sienna hills and lush greenery of the southeast United States. This is outdoor country, where people wear jeans as hardy workwear rather than high fashion, and it's home to the Cone Mills White Oak Plant, which has been producing denim for more than a century and is one of the biggest denim manufacturers in existence.
"When it was built as Proximity Mills in 1897, the plant was the largest denim mill in the world," says production manager Ed Cox, who has worked there for more than 20 years. "We make very high-end denim, and it was where Wrangler's signature 'broken twill' was invented during the 1970s."
But their history in Greensboro starts long before then, founded by Charlie and Homer Hudson in 1904 as "Blue Bell", making denim workwear for railroad workers. The brand only became Wrangler in 1947, when the brothers began to target cowboys and farm workers, and made specialist jeans for them. The factory has in its archive several of these pieces, from the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, worn down and faded in idiosyncratic patches, according to regime and routine of their ghostly wearers.
This authenticity is something they try hard to recreate in their current offerings: at Cone Mills, between 3,000 and 7,000 yards of denim are produced in a week; looms and dye machines are manned by workers who have grown up next door to the plant. One woman we see as we traverse a turbine hall of threads stretched out like deconstructed spiderwebs is working a shuttle in full make-up and a towering, flame-red beehive. She has worked here for 50 years.
Cone Mills uses flash shuttle looms to make denim with a vintage feel; modern high-speed looms require smoother yarns, which means the resulting denim has less character to it. The Wrangler broken twill (that is, the weft does not run to the left, as with Lee, or to the right, as on Levi's, but has a more smattered aspect) is consistently inconsistent, making it easier to age jeans and jackets, to give them a vintage and lived-in look.
This may seem like geekery for pedants, but since its wholesale absorption into everyday wardrobes, denim has grown into something of a cult. There are some who say Swedish jeans are unrivalled, others who claim Japan makes the finest twill and selvage, but those at Cone Mills insist theirs is the original and the best.
Heritage is also key to the autumn/winter 2011 collection, with its tagline "mark your territory" laying strong emphasis on characteristic street-styling and individuality. This is part of the reason Wrangler has returned more of its operations to American soil for autumn.
It's also one of the reasons that the brand has partnered with scrap-metal sculptor David Buckingham as an inspirational figure behind the collection. The next leg of the journey through Wrangler's brand DNA takes us to his workshop in downtown LA, sweltering and covered in flecks and motes of soldered metal. Model Tony Ward "plays" Buckingham in the label's ad campaign, for which he had to man-handle a heavy chainsaw in the heat of the Mojave desert.
"You go far out of Los Angeles and there's tons of junk," Buckingham says of his magpie-esque work ethic. "Crazy people live out there – devil worshippers, Jesus freaks, child molesters, meth freaks, crackheads, survivalists, isolationists, wife-beaters... I go out to the desert with this crazy saw – I could cut down the Statue of Liberty with it in about 30 minutes."
Using reclaimed metal from old road signs, junked vehicles and oil drums, Buckingham recreates American iconography in bright and rusted glory. One series is devoted to the guns used by famous American assassins, from John Harvey Oswald to Mark David Chapman; another features famous Hollywood quips rendered in metal lettering, like burnished fridge magnets. "Someone came into the studio recently and said 'you should call it Industrial Expressionism, or IndEx for short'," he laughs.
Buckingham has several fans in the film industry already – only the day before we visit, Diane Keaton has been to browse. But more importantly, for Wrangler, he and his work represent an all-American outlook that is at once rooted in the country's conspicuously familiar pop-art history and also in the modern-day hipster revival of that irreverent counter-culture.
Which brings us to the final stage of the journey – to New York, where the autumn/winter collection is presented to press in the refurbished industrial and hip glamour of Manhattan's Ace Hotel. In it are the murky, rusty reds and oxbloods of Buckingham's work, as well as some of the aqua and green tones found in his reclaimed road signs. Alongside these are chunky knits and plaids that hark back to the solid all-American grunge of the label's no-nonsense roots. And at the heart of it are the jeans, of course, in all washes and levels of designer distress, and in four new fits – regular, slim, fitted and anti-fit. Each pair is also embellished with Wrangler's signature design features – felled seams, flat rivets, a watch pocket and "W" stitched pockets – to further reinforce the juxtaposed modernity and timelessness of the garments.
And you thought a pair of jeans was just a pair of jeans.