Lee Jeans: 100 Years of Innovation and Fashion in KC
All of us have a favorite pair of jeans. There’s just something about wearing denim that makes your day better. From slim fit to boot cut, jeans are your wardrobe’s happy place, and chances are that the jeans you love the most are Lee’s.
In fact, Lee’s jeans have probably been a part of your family’s history. Your great-great grandfather might have worn the Lee Union All to go work in the factory, and your grandfather could have been “styling” in a Lee denim suit in the 1970s. The one thing every piece of Lee clothing has in common is that for more than a century it has come from Kansas City, all thanks to the genius of H.D. Lee.
H.D. Lee was a Salina, Kan., businessman who began his career as a hotel clerk, moved up to real estate investments, bought an oil company and owned the largest food distributor between Kansas City and Denver. He had a keen eye for seizing opportunities and seeing what he didn't like and improving upon it.
In the early 1900s, unhappy with the quality and unreliable delivery of the workwear he was ordering for his store, H.D. Lee Mercantile, the tenacious businessman decided that his company could do a much better job. In a matter of months, a factory was opened, and Lee overalls and jackets were being manufactured.
Just a mere year later, the Union All work jumpsuit was born, and Lee became a household name. In 1917, the growing company moved to Kansas City, and it didn’t take long before Lee became the definitive trendsetter in all things denim. One of the company’s major breakthroughs was introducing the zipper fly in pants and overalls. It was a game-changer in the clothing business.
Chris Waldeck, president of Lee, calls this kind of ingenuity classic H.D. Lee.
“The company has always been at the forefront of understanding consumer needs and then combining purposeful craftsmanship with innovation,” he says.
Lee was unparalleled in thinking about how people lived in their clothing. Kim Yates, vice president of marketing, says the company’s founder had a gift for relevant design. She uses the example of the classic Lee overall.
“It has two pockets,” she says. “No big deal, right? Until you realize that Lee created one pocket to hold a full-size pencil and the second pocket was for a half-size pencil, thus ensuring that your pencil never fell out or got lost in the pocket. Then there’s the original Lee cowboy jacket. It was slanted to reflect the posture of a cowboy on a horse.”
Yates adds that none of H.D. Lee’s ideas would have been realized without a century of talented Kansas City designers transforming how we wear denim.
Lee’s marriage of fashion and function continues today. The company was on the forefront of introducing stretch denim and slimming features to jeans and have taken denim and reimagined it as part of the athleisure lifestyle.
—Chris Waldeck, President of Lee.
Lee’s – A Centennial in Denim
1889: HENRY DAVID LEE traveled to Salina, Kan. to establish the H.D. Lee Mercantile company
1913: Lee introduced the UNION-ALL workwear jumpsuit, spurring the opening of manufacturing plants around the country.
1917: Lee headquarters moved to KANSAS CITY.
1921: Lee begins manufacturing the BUDDY LEE doll.
1927: Lee develops the 'ZIPPER FLY' and calls it the Lee 'WHIZIT'.
1949: Lee introduces LADY LEE RIDERS.
1972: Lee is first to introduce the polyester 'LEESURE' SUIT.
1987: Lee creates a new line of chemically stonewashed jeans, FROSTED RIDERS — one of the first 'acid-washed' jeans.
1991: MEN'S, WOMEN'S AND YOUTH — Lee is the only jeans brand to have major share in all three consumer markets.
2015: Lee launches the patent-pending DREAM JEAN – feels like a yoga pant. Looks like a stylish jean.
2016: Lee introduces the EXTREME MOTION JEAN, featuring all over stretch, to rave reviews.
2017: Lee celebrates 100 YEARS of heritage in KANSAS CITY.
Kansas City Proud for 100 Years!
Lee has called Kansas City home for 100 years. Waldeck says the reason Lee stays in KC is because of the people.
“This is where our heritage is,” he says. “This is where the Lee work ethic was born. We want to protect that for our brand and our customers. Lee is built on hardworking employees serving hardworking people.”
What is your favorite thing about working for Lee Jeans?
—Kathy Farkas, Product Development, 21 years
What do Lee Jeans and Kansas City have in common?
—Debbie Kobe, Product and Technical Services, 40 years
What makes you proud to work at Lee Jeans KC Headquarters?
—Tina Bischler, Sales, 24 years
Today and Beyond
“We’re putting a stake in the ground with our Move Your Lee campaign. We feel strongly about living up to Lee’s rich heritage to ensure that our brand is as relevant as our products are," says Kim Yates, vice president of marketing
If you want to know what the future of Lee looks like, Waldeck says it’s all about staying true to the brand’s history. “The company was founded on answering unmet consumer needs,” he says. “We listen to our customers and try to be there for them. H.D. Lee wanted to help can-do people do more, and we’re all about inspiring life in motion for people today.”
The Dream Jean is one of the best examples of this. It’s a hybrid of yoga pant and skinny jean and is perfect for today’s athleisure lifestyle. “The jean is designed to look like a skinny jean outside and feel like a yoga pant inside,” Yates says. “The patent-pending Dream Jean wraps you in softness with a T-shirt-like lining and a stretchy, skinny fit that will ensure you never want to take them off.”
Lee was one of the first brands to embrace stretch and introduce it to men’s clothing. It took the perfect design to get guys to try a new kind of denim. Even just a few years ago, men would avoid denim with the word “stretch.” Today, thanks in part to Lee’s Extreme Motion jean, the opposite is true.
The jeans have a unique non-binding flex waistband that moves with you. Continuing the Lee’s innovation legacy, the Extreme Motion jeans have more stretch than any men’s denim they’ve ever designed. This ensures that men have the modern look they want without losing the ability to move freely.
Extreme Motion is just another example of Lee’s legacy of creating clothing designed for current lifestyles.
"We know people are living a life in motion and need clothing that moves with them — stylishly, comfortably and easily," Yates says.
– Chris Waldeck, President of Lee