From its European headquarters in Antwerp, Kontoor Brands, owner of heritage brands Lee and Wrangler, is seeking to build a denim empire.
Chocolate box houses with gabled roofs sit side by side with ultra-modern glass design palaces and the occasional paddling goose: not what you would expect to see en route to the European headquarters of one of the biggest names in the denim industry. Yet on the fringes of Antwerp’s charm lie the office of Kontoor brands – owner of denim powerhouses Wrangler and Lee.
Between them, Lee and Wrangler – founded in 1889 and 1947 respectively – boast more than 200 years of heritage. However, the group that binds them is brand new. In August 2018, VF Corporation, owner of Timberland, The North Face and Vans, announced plans to spin off its denim division. Kontoor Brands, comprising Lee and Wrangler, became a company in its own right in May 2019.
Kontoor’s global headquarters are in Greensboro, North Carolina. In the US, it also sells premium denim brand Rock & Republic. Of the company’s 15,000 employees, just over 200 are based in Antwerp. There are 23 nationalities in the building.
In June last year, Simon Fisher was appointed as managing director of EMEA, overseeing the Antwerp office, and all Lee and Wrangler’s activities in the territory.
Fisher has an strong denim heritage of his own: “I’m going into my 32nd year in the industry in 2020. I started out working in an H&M store when I was 15. I felt like I really had a connection with fashion. That’s when I found I had an affinity with denim – I started out folding denim for the stores. Since then I’ve been denim through and through for my whole career.”
He was a general manager at Global Brands Group, looking after the sportswear brand Spyder from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he spent more than 10 years at VF Corporation: joining in 2008 as UK managing director of Lee, and working his way up to vice-president of sales for EMEA.
Last year, Scott Baxter, the US-based CEO called Fisher to ask him to run the European side of the newly formed Kontoor.
“When you get that call you just don’t say no,” says Fisher. “I was working in sports, but I was missing my family – I call this business my family. I missed the industry and the denim: it’s where my heart is.”
Fisher describes his entrance into the business as “a flying start” thanks to his prior experience working under VF. “I know the brands, I know the industry, a lot of the customers and the markets,” he says.
His career includes stints at Swedish casualwear brand J Lindeberg and Scandi womenswear label Bruuns Bazaar, a sojourn into the music industry with EMI in the early 2000s and time working for what he refers to as “the other denim brand that begins with an ‘L’”.
Fisher says he has one Scandinavian parent and one Irish. Striding through the offices on an impromptu tour, he brims with Irish charm and chats warmly with employees from across the business.
Part of the appeal of the role for Fisher was a pure denim focus. In Europe, Kontoor comprises Lee and Wrangler. In the US, it also includes premium denim line Rock and Republic, which does not sell outside of North America.
In January last year, Kontoor moved out of VF’s former home, close to the tiny northern Belgian town of Bornem, to the swish new offices in Antwerp.
Fisher says the spin-off from VF Corporation has allowed both labels to focus on their distinct brand identities: “VF Corp was built from Lee and Wrangler – with the money they made from those brands they could purchase Vans and The North Face. But this spin-off was important because it was about focus.
“We have now an entrepreneurial business with 200 years of denim expertise: all this heritage, history and passion for denim.
“In VF, with all the other brands in the business, it wasn’t fully 360. You were focusing on so many things. [At Kontoor], we talk about denim all the time – everything is related to denim and that’s super exciting. You get that opportunity once in a lifetime.”
Fisher will need this entrepreneurial mindset as Kontoor tackles a rapidly shifting denim industry. For 12 months to 28 December 2019, group revenues fell 8% to $2.55bn (£1.94bn) year on year, partially because of exposure to the struggling US department store sector. Group adjusted EBITDA for the year was $341m (£259.3m) down 12% on the previous year.
The business does not disclose individual market revenues, but international (non-US) was down 10% on a constant-currency basis to $639m (£485.9m) for the year.
Fisher stresses that his priorities at Kontoor are investing in people – and focusing on building a strong company culture, innovation – particularly relating to sustainability and product to drive growth.
An early signifier of this was the business’s move to Antwerp, which was in part geared to attract more talent to the business, by being based in a more cosmopolitan city that has a strong connection to the fashion industry.
Details are under wraps but Fisher says investment in digital, refining back-end operations and sustainability projects are key focuses: “This car is going to go fast. So, we have to have all the great things in place that can make it do that.”
He gives the example of computer operations: the 500 systems that were previously used across business functions at VF are being shifted to just one at Kontoor to speed up processes and improve efficiency. The business does not split out the percentage of sales that come from wholesale, digital and stores – but Fisher says online sales are “significant” in their impact across the brands.
“We have a good [web] platform but that’s one of the things we’re going to look at. How we can supercharge [the brand websites] for them to become even better?” he says. “With ecommerce you can drive sales, you can drive communication, you can drive brand heat. You’re talking to the consumers directly and that helps everyone.”
He sees online as the best medium to share the brands’ key asset: heritage. Improving brand communication, online and offline, is key: “We have great marketing material and great point-of-sale kits, but I’m a big believer in the fact that the product should be talking to the end consumer. At the end of the day that’s what we are judged on.
“Communicating the brand DNA goes through everything: how we are developing the product, how we’re showing it to buyers and customers, how the showrooms look, how the sales team are. We have a big job to do there. We need to drive a lot of brand heat and ensure that we are top of mind for consumers.”
Early results show that online wholesale is growing strongly. For example, while it does not disclose exact figures, owned digital revenue – from Kontoor’s own direct to consumer channels – in Europe grew by 8% in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Lee and Wrangler have stockists in 50 countries globally – as well as stores – again, he will not say how many – in a combination of owned retail and partnership models.
Fisher is enthusiastic about the British high street, despite the current challenges: “I love the UK market. What’s interesting about is that you have everything: from the big chains – the giants like John Lewis, Selfridges, Topshop and then places with much smaller shops, it’s so diverse.
”When you go out of London there are so many cool stores that have a lot of heritage: places owned by parents and now run by the kids. So many people go to the UK and London to get inspiration.”
While he does not reveal any concrete targets for UK growth, the market is a priority for Fisher. There are no immediate plans to open more stores in the UK, but Kontoor as a whole says it is focusing on growing direct-to-consumer for both brands – with online sales a particular priority, rather than a focus on rapid store expansion.
Ross Wilson, director of buying for menswear and men’s accessories at Debenhams, says the brands’ heritage is a key selling point: “Wrangler and Lee have driven success through timeless appeal to multiple generations. They are attractive for a broad spectrum of our customers, young and old, as they continue to adapt to be relevant in the evolving and emerging market while maintaining key products for our core customers.”
“Wrangler, along with Lee and Levi’s, are undoubtedly the cornerstones of American denim,” agrees Doug Gunn, managing director of fashion archive The Vintage Showroom. “Compared with Lee, Wrangler is something of a newcomer. It feels younger and fresher to a degree as a result. I always think of Wrangler as having the western influence – it started very much aimed at the cowboy and rodeo fan market.”
Green and blue
As well as communicating the brands’ heritage, Fisher is focused on sustainability.
“We need to talk more about our projects and sustainability is a part of our future. Everything we do, we need to think sustainable,” says Fisher. “We know what has happened in the past with fashion and its impact, but [fashion] is one of the fastest industries to look into this – to dive into sustainability and really explore it. Sustainability is part of innovation for us.”
Alongside company-wide focuses on water reduction, responsible sourcing and community engagement, both Lee and Wrangler are introducing new, sustainable and innovative products and techniques that are bringing conversations around sustainability into the mainstream.
In their spring 20 collections, both Lee and Wrangler have introduced a new foam-dying technique dubbed “Indigood”, which uses no water, 89% fewer chemicals and 65% less energy than traditional dyeing processes.
At CIFF trade show in Copenhagen this January, Lee launched its “For a World That Works” initiative, which is part of a project to define and share Lee’s plans in the sustainability space, including trialling new products, materials and innovations.
Lee is working up sustainability goals to be announced later this year, but has already achieved zero-waste status in its North American distribution centres. In 2019, the brand celebrated more than 1 billion litres of water saved during the finishing process. It is also creating a sustainability “score card” to help all staff analyse the environmental impact of products and practices.
Wrangler has been working on four key projects. By 2020 it aims to use 100% preferred [eco-friendly] chemistry throughout its supply chain and save 5.5 billion litres of water. By 2025 it will use 100% BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) cotton, and power all its owned and operated facilities with 100% renewable energy. Fisher says it is “on track” to meet its targets – several of which will be reported on later this year
Fisher has a dynamic view of the future, stemming from his goal for Kontoor to be an entrepreneurial business. He is hesitant to commit to concrete goals on distribution, preferring instead to target a flexible approach underpinned by the strength of the Lee and Wrangler brands.
“We’re strong and one thing is for sure we’re going after our consumers in the right way,” he says. “I don’t want to say that we’ll have more stores or more of something else instead– because we don’t know. We’re willing to invest where the end consumer wants to find us and where we find the end consumer.”
There’s no doubt that Fisher talks the talk. He is denim – and Kontoor – through and through. Framed on the wall of his office is a pair of jeans. On closer inspection, they are a fusion of one pair of Lee and one pair of Wrangler jeans – “joined together in a K for Kontoor” jokes Fisher.
However, with slipping global revenues and a challenging, uncertain market backdrop, he will have to quickly find a balance between heritage and innovation in order to power the business through into the next phase of growth.
With sustainable principles at heart, if the innovative, passionate and entrepreneurial approach pays off, then Wrangler and Lee could be set to lead the next wave of denim innovation from its Antwerp home.