Dehen 1920 – Portland, Ore.
This October Dehen will introduce Dehen 1920, a line of reproduction cardigans, varsity jackets, car coats, and motorcycle sweaters based on original pieces they’ve made at their Portland knitting mills over the past 91 years. Dehen researched their own archival vintage pieces and reproduced the manufacturing methods. The garments are made with heavy old-school knit and throwback embroidery techniques, but they are not identical to their original counterparts, many of the lengths and patterns have been updated for a more contemporary fit. Dehen 1920 ships this October to 20 retail stores around the globe, including Woodlands Supply Co., Tanner Goods and Lizard Lounge in Portland.
Dehen is one of the few knitting mills left in the US, and they’ve watched as many of the garments they’ve made during the past century have come back into style. That’s where James Clark comes in. He started Dehen 1920 with Dehen owners Jim Artaiz, Mike Dehen, and Gary Hilde in order to open the company up to new markets. Dehen 1920 is the company’s first retail line in over 40 years. While some Dehen branded product can be found in college bookstores and places like that, the majority is private label for other brands or sold directly to institutions and cheer squads. They also have a direct line into the Japanese retail market through Sonny Okamota, who has set up a museum-style shop in Japan that currently showcases archival Dehen pieces to create a buzz for the upcoming release of the 1920 line. Sonny’s shops will be the first to sell Dehen 1920 on the retail floor.
I meet James at their knitting mill in NE Portland. Bright bolts of fabric and ancient machines fill the warehouse, and skylights overhead let in the evening’s light. After catching up on Dehen History, what I’m really here to learn is how these pieces are made and how they look, but what I’m struck by first is how they feel; the knit is truly heavy and thick.
How did you make the knit? How does it differ from what is normally made these days?
“No one had asked for a super heavy old-school knit in decades and our master knitter had to step back and think about whether it was still possible with the machinery we had. He played with different gauges of yarn and different numbers of yarn ‘ends’. These are the cones of yarn, the more you add the heavier the knit becomes. After trying a few things we figured it out. ”
“When we took the product out and showed it to people it was the knit that blew people away. Or rather, it blew away the vintage people and the apparel experts that are familiar with production and know what can be done domestically. At one show we had new product sitting next to dead stock vintage product, and people often got the two confused.”
“There are plenty of people that don’t get it or like it, but it’s definitely unique. We’re told that there are only a handful of companies that can still knit like this domestically, and even fewer than can both knit and sew the knit into finished goods. Most of the machinery went to Asia or Latin America. It’s hard to fake this, and we are one of the few who can do it. We’re going after the people who appreciate the older knitting style.”
“As for the embroidery, we had to work with our vendor to make the embroidery more primitive, like the old stuff. It’s still made with a computer and automated machinery but we helped them to understand how the embroidery would have been executed if done by hand, and they adjusted the process and pattern to make it look more ‘old’.”
What materials do you use?
“We’re using American Bison leather on our varsity jackets, and Pendleton Woolen Mills 24 ounce Melton on most of the jackets. We do everything except for the chenille and the embroidery, a company that spun off from Dehen does that.”
What kinds of styles are in this first line?
“We’re doing heavy woolen sweaters, varsity jackets and car coats, most of which are available in both decorated and non-decorated versions. The sweaters range from the traditional school product, like the varsity cardigan and V neck pullover, to 1930’s style motorcycle club sweaters to the longer shawl neck sweater coat. The shawl has been the biggest surprise, and has been booked the most by retail shops. It seems like everyone has a shawl these days. There is about 3 and half pounds of wool in our shawl, which in some cases translates into over $40 of yarn.
“On the jacket side we have the traditional wool/leather varsity jackets, along with an all wool cadet jacket. The cadet uses the same 24oz Pendleton wool except it’s washed, so it blooms and tightens up a little bit and gets a fleece-like effect. We also have a couple car coats – one that is the same as the car coats Dehen made in the 50’s, and another that is a bit modernized, with a zip front closure and a revised pattern.”
“This first line is all pretty related. There are about 10 styles and then about 50 or 60 colors and combinations of non-decorated and decorated with the ‘Dehen’ and ’1920′ logos. The decorated product is kinda a Japan thing, but surprisingly a lot of US accounts are taking decorated product.”
How has the line been received?
“The response has been great so far, although our distribution will be limited this fall. At this point it looks like we’ll be in about 20 accounts total, most in the US with a few in Europe, one in Korea and our Dehen store in Tokyo. Locally, we’ll be in Woodlands Supply Co, Tanner Goods and Lizard Lounge. In total, we’ve shown the line to about 30 accounts and managed to get placed in a lot of these doors.”
“Our accounts range from well know stores like Garbstore in London, to great local doors like AB Fits in San Francisco, to curated micro-accounts like Palmer Trading in New York. Our presence in Japan will start with our store in Tokyo, but should expand quickly in the coming seasons.”
Dehen 1920 doesn’t recreate what other company’s have done in the past, instead you are resurrecting the garments that Dehen has been making during the past 91 years. Give me an idea of how Dehen’s history has prepared them for this line.
“Dehen has been around since 1920. It’s been through the ringer, through every change that’s rocked the apparel industry. Dehen use to be in a full block in the Pearl in a facility that was 3 times bigger than this one. They did all their hand chenille, embroidery, all kinds of knitting – pretty much everything was done in house. They’ve done everything from socks to swimsuits to sweaters to jackets. For a long time they just did what anybody needed. Then during the 1940′s and 50′s they were making school sweaters. During that time, every kid had a school cardigan and Dehen was one of the bigger manufacturers in the country for those sweaters, all right here in Portland.”
“Toward the late 70′s they started to increase their capabilities into cotton and acrylic. They rode the rugby shirt boom. And they dramatically expanded their capacity right at the wrong time, just as cheap Asian imports began to compete in their markets. There were 120 employees, but now it’s about 30 or so and it’s largely seasonal. Like every American manufacturer they’ve contracted, but the trend seems to be shifting, and we’re receiving more and more inquiries from well known brands looking for US manufacturing.”
Dehen 1920 will be available this October at Woodlands Supply Co., Tanner Goods and Lizard Lounge.
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