Sales: $200 million (2003 est.)
NAIC: 313210 Broadwoven Fabric Mills; 314129 Other Household Textile Product Mills; 315225 Men's and Boys' Cut and Sew Work Clothing Manufacturing; 315228 Men's and Boys' Cut and Sew Other Outerwear Manufacturing
Woolrich Inc. calls itself "The Original Outdoor Clothing Company." The wool hat and red-and-black plaid hunting coat that one associates with New England hunters have been staples at Woolrich since the 19th century. The company is headquartered in the small village of the same name in Clinton County, Pennsylvania. As the oldest vertically integrated woolen mill in the United States, Woolrich handles manufacturing "from sheep to shirt." However, it has followed the lead of other outerwear manufacturers in becoming more of a marketing operation; many of its products are produced overseas from U.S.-spun cloth or simply bought finished from other manufacturers. With a history dating back to 1830, Woolrich is one of the most venerable brands in the United States. In the last half of the 1990s, the company began licensing its trademark in earnest, extending the brand into hosiery, boys' clothing, footwear, home furnishings, and other areas.
The company's first mill was founded in 1830 in Plum Run, Pennsylvania, by English immigrants John Rich and Daniel McCormick. They sold woolen yarn and fabric to families of loggers and trappers. Rich bought out his partner in 1845, when the operation was expanded and moved to the town that would become known as Woolrich. Rich took one of his sons into the business seven years later.
Woolrich made army blankets during the Civil War. (It later offered reproductions of these and fabric for making uniforms to Civil War reenactors and film production companies.) Other Rich family members bought and sold shares in the business. By 1888, when it became a partnership of three brothers, the town surrounding the mill was known as Woolrich, rather than Richville, according to an account in Shooting Industry.
The company spun off into leisure wear in the late 1920s, producing woolen bathing suits and golf pants. In 1939, the company outfitted Admiral Byrd's expedition to Antarctica.
The company grew in the 1950s, though at the end of the decade its product line remained exclusively wool-based. Woolrich benefited from the 1960s and 1970s boom in camping and focused on capturing general recreational users rather than sportsmen. Roswell Brayton, Sr. was company president from 1968 to 1985, when he became chairman, a post he held for another eleven years. Woolrich began marketing a line of boys' wear called Prep Sizes in the 1960s but dropped it in the early 1980s to focus on the rapidly expanding adult business.
Down in the 1970s
Woolrich established a down-filled garment operation in Alliance, Nebraska in 1971. In 1974, the company acquired Down Products Corp. of Denver. Down Products had been established five years earlier by former Eddie Bauer production manager Bob Lamphere.
Employment peaked at 3,000 in 1988, when revenues approached $200 million. The company had ten plants in the United States and opened one near Montreal in 1989. By this time, Woolrich had begun marketing synthetic fabrics such as Endurich Cloth, a fast-drying safety orange fabric. Having acquired the Malone brand, which dated back to the 1890s, Woolrich incorporated a machine washable wool fabric in its Malone Hunting Pants. The company was already selling integrated outwear systems featuring weatherproof shells with zipin, insulated jackets.
Marketing-Driven in the 1990s
Woolrich laid off about 1,500 of its 2,600-strong workforce in October 1990 due to a shortage of orders. According to company president S. Wade Judy, the company was falling by the wayside in the outdoor clothing market, which was becoming crowded with brands.
Woolrich then operated ten plants, half of them in Pennsylvania, the others in Georgia, Colorado, and Nebraska. Woolrich's factories in north central Pennsylvania accounted for more than three-quarters of its domestic production. Customers included catalog retailers such as L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), Eastern Mountain Sports, and Land's End.
The Down Products Division of the company produced down coats and vests in Broomfield, Colorado, and Alliance, Nebraska. Employment in this division increased to 500 workers in 1989, and the company invested in state-of-the-art equipment to increase capacity. The Denver plants were shut down in August 1991. Their production was shifted to the Nebraska site, and in 1993 employment there jumped from 90 workers to 150. However, the Nebraska plant, too, closed in July 1995.
Company officials scrapped a plan to build an outlet mall in 1993 when village residents objected over quality-of-life issues. Woolrich then focused on boosting wool production, expanding two of its Clinton County, Pennsylvania mills. Also in 1993, H. Varnell Moore, a former Wrangler executive, came out of retirement to take the position of president at Woolrich. Moore was responsible for introducing tags proclaiming the Woolrich brand on the outside of its garments. He also endeavored to make the company less dependent on the fall season by introducing more warm weather garments. During this time, Woolrich was expanding its distribution beyond traditional sporting goods stores to department store chains.
As more marketing-savvy companies like Columbia and Timberland began to source their products in Asia, Woolrich risked being priced out of the market. By 1995, the company had closed six of its plants in the United States. It shifted much assembly work to Mexico, while continuing to produce fabric and some finished items domestically.
The venerable firm's business was changing as it never had before. The company went from being manufacturing-oriented to being a marketer, distributor, and brand-builder. By the end of the decade, only 20 percent of its products were assembled by Woolrich from start to finish. Forty percent were produced entirely by other manufacturers, and the remaining 40 percent were produced abroad. Revenues were between $150 million and $200 million a year. Roswell Brayton, Jr. a sixth-generation descendant of company founder John Rich, became company president in May 1996 (he had first started working for Woolrich in 1977).
Licensing in the Late 1990s and Beyond
In 1996, Woolrich was licensing Seneca Knitting Mills to produce hosiery and a Japanese company to produce camping gear for that market. Woolrich was also strong in Italy. The Canadian market was a natural one for the company, due to its emphasis on cold weather apparel.
With the help of IMG, the agency known for promoting sports figures and other celebrities, Woolrich aggressively extended its brand. According to the trade journal DNR, it signed licensing deals with F&M Hat Company, L.B. Evans (slippers), A.V. Sportswear (children's clothing), Rocking Horse (gloves), Stagg Industries (belts), and Chadwick Footwear. The company also licensed Italy's W.P. Lavori to produce sportswear for the European market under the Woolrich brand.
Though well-known to older users, Woolrich needed to attract 20-to 30-year-olds, reported the Pittsburgh Gazette. Woolrich produced its first television advertising in 1997. The $2 million campaign emphasized the company's heritage as the "Original Outdoor Clothing Company." It was also promoting its wholesale woolen fabrics line, particularly to men's wear manufacturers.
Besides pitching its products on cable TV stations such as the Discovery Channel, Woolrich acquired print advertising space in outdoors publications such as Outside and Men's Journal. Prominent product placement in Robert Redford's feature film The Horse Whisperer gave the brand a dose of Hollywood hipness. Woolrich provided producers more than 300 articles of women's outdoor clothing, which happened to be a very fast-growing segment at the time.
Woolrich was updating its styles, incorporating the increasingly ubiquitous Polartec polyester fleece in its performance-oriented jackets. The company's venerable Arctic parka remained a best seller and was particularly popular in Italy and Germany. A blanket division was organized in 1997, and Babyrich clothing for infants and toddlers debuted. A line of golf clothing was introduced a few years later.
Woolrich ended 1998 with 1,400 employees. It was profitable again, reported the Associated Press, after several years of losses. However, it continued to downsize in the United States. The sewing plant in Macon, Georgia, which had 115 employees, closed in 1999. Most of its capacity was outsourced abroad.
The Original Outdoor Clothing Company—Since 1830, Woolrich is the Authentic American brand that embraces the outdoor lifestyle. Trusted by generations of loyal consumers, Woolrich continues a tradition of offering products of quality and value.
Taking a page from its competitors, Woolrich began producing a catalog for the first time in 2000. Advertising spread to general interest magazines like People and Self in 2000. Woolrich had developed a new fabric, called TechnoWool, with different versions emphasizing different properties, such as breathability and insulation; one type was washable. New technologies for spinning yarn more finely than had been possible in the past allowed for the creation of this fabric.
Woolrich continued to sign licensing deals, including two aimed at sportsmen. Clothing lines were developed for the National Wild Turkey Federation in 1997 and Ducks Unlimited in 2000. Woolrich also contracted Badger Sportswear to produce corporate and promotional apparel under the Woolrich brand.
After a 20-year absence, Woolrich reentered the boys' wear market in 2001 by licensing production to Rays Apparel, Inc. of Costa Mesa, California. (Ray's also manufactured boys' clothing under the Op brand.) Towards the end of the year, Woolrich announced Tandy Brands Accessories would be producing Woolrich-branded luggage and handbags.
In 2002, Woolrich licensed Elan-Polo of St. Louis to produce a wide range of footwear under the Woolrich brand. At the same time, Nester Hosiery was contracted to produce outdoor socks under license. Finally, Woolrich teamed with the Discovery Channel to develop a line of co-branded apparel for the spring 2003 season.
Home after 2000
In the opening years of the 21st century, Woolrich's began devoting a great deal of attention to home furnishings. The company opened a 2,500-square-foot home store towards the end of 2001. Woolrich soon partnered with Target Stores to produce a line of bedding. The company aimed to bring an outdoor feeling inside, and its rustic furnishings were often decorated with animal motifs. In the fall of 2003, Woolrich licensed lighting production to Shady Lady, furniture to Lexington Home Brands, soft goods to Fallani and Cohn and Southern Textiles, and area rugs to Oriental Weavers of America.
Woolcan Inc. (Canada).
- John Rich and Daniel McCormick establish a woolen mill in Clinton County, Pennsylvania.
- Rich buys out McCormick.
- The business becomes known as John Rich & Son.
- The company outfits Admiral Byrd's Antarctic expedition.
- A down garment operation is opened in Nebraska.
- Denver's Down Products Corp. is acquired.
- Employment peaks at 3,000.
- The Denver Down Products plant is closed.
- The Pennsylvania plants are consolidated.
- The Nebraska plant is closed.
- The company achieves visible product placement in the feature film The Horse Whisperer.
- The company's first TV ads appear.
- Licensing deals continue to proliferate.
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——, "Woolrich Abandons Plan for Outlet Mall But Residents Still Wary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 20, 1993, p. B1.
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—Frederick C. Ingram