The Lee Jeans Story: How A Grocery Business Became A Big Clothing Brand

The Lee Jeans Story: How A Grocery Business Became A Big Clothing Brand


From starting as a grocery business to becoming a major international clothing brand, get to know how Lee Jeans made it to the top for 130 years.

Owning a successful business has never just been about glitz and glam. In effect, you only experience that because you’re reaping your rewards, which we must admit, there’s nothing bad about. If you’ll actually look at it closely, starting up a business has its own challenges—from conception, getting your product visible in the market to having thousands of dollars worth of setbacks. In fact, one of the many companies that share the same struggles is the world-renowned denim company, Lee Jeans.

Photo from @leejeans on Facebook

Founded in 1889 by Henry David Lee together with his business associates in Kansas, the story of the innovative and dynamic brand we know of today comes with a trove of interesting facets. As a teenage hotel clerk in a small Ohio town, Lee saved his earnings and started investing his money until he was able to take over the Central Oil Company. However, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, he needed to sell the company to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company.

After selling his company, he and his associates ventured to acquire a five-year charter from the state to run a wholesale grocery business. They sold fine food products under various names such as Mother’s Style, Cadet, and Summer Girl. Soon, the company’s start-up rapidly prospered.

The Million Dollar Frustration

Several years after they kick-started their grocery business, Henry David Lee also ventured into selling school supplies, furnishings, and sewing materials. However, the most significant move to the business happened in 1911. 

Lee became frustrated by the inconsistent deliveries of work clothes from a manufacturer in the east. So, as he realized that he can produce the clothes he needed, supported by the growing economy of the United States, he decided to launch a garment factory.

Two years later, Lee began manufacturing the item that would make the company famous: jackets, overalls, and dungarees. And they became famous for its “Lee Union-All,” which was a denim ensemble consisting of a jacket and pants sewn together. This was a popular choice for the majority as it proved practical for farm and factory workers.

Then in 1917, Lee’s clothing business boosted its sales as the company became the first in the apparel industry to do a nationwide advertising campaign. In addition to that, as the US military entered the second world war, Lee was also tasked to produce as many Union-Alls as possible.

The Countless Collaborations

As the company was doing very well on its own, it needed to start engaging more with the consumers. Perhaps that’s why Lee saw it fitting to finally launch its first promotional campaign: a ceramic doll named, Buddy Lee. Then as time passed, Lee slowly and surely veered away from its grocery business and just put its focus on being a clothing brand.

As of today, Lee is still known for creating such exquisite denim pieces, and it has successfully introduced new fabrics and techniques for designing clothes. And given its undeniable long history, Lee became a heritage denim brand on a global scale. As a matter of fact, if you fast-forward to the 21st century, Lee has done countless collaborations already.

From Alife, Weekday, REEF, Self-Portrait, Cushnie, to Smiley, it sure looks like that any brand wouldn’t say no to doing a collaborative capsule with the denim label. And you can see just that as Lee Jeans recently celebrated its 130th anniversary. Several celebrities and personalities attended the official launch of Lee x Smiley. Furthermore, you can see it in everyone’s eyes that they’re excited to snag an item from its latest collection. Come to think of it, who wouldn’t want an item from a venerable clothing brand such as Lee.

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