A Q&A With Bill Thomas, Founder of PennBilt

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Mitchell for this Q&A. PennBilt has been featured on the site, we welcome them now as an advertiser. Please click through and check out the next step in khakis, and some badass gloves.

Recently, I called PennBilt customer service with a question about khakis never expecting to have Bill Thomas pick up the phone. Yes, THE legend, Mr. Bill Thomas himself, the king of khaki.

Bill Thomas is a man who needs no introduction: the genius behind Bills Khakis, the Duck Head revival, and his latest project, PennBilt.

Mr. Thomas’ work has been featured in GQ, Esquire, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Cigar Aficionado, Robb Report (the bible of the nouveau riche,) and Ivy Style.

Without any further ado, five questions for THE LEGEND,  some new, some previously asked during our 16 minute conversation:


First, Mr. Thomas, thank you for your gracious patience in answering a call from a lowly menswear geek such as myself.

I know you must get this question a lot, but to what do you attribute the phenomenal success of Bills Khakis: from a trunk-of-the-car startup to a multimillion dollar enterprise? Timing, luck, skill, or a combination?

Thank you Mitchell, I appreciate the acknowledgement. Bills Khakis (no apostrophe) was a blend of timing, effort and execution. The white space was to build a premium brand in a commodity category behind an “authentic” story. Bills Khakis was never about tan pants to me. It was more about what it represented. 


PennBilt is your latest venture. All of the khaki models featured on the website are plain-front and uncuffed. I understand you’re not a fan of cuffed trousers. Are pleated, cuffed trousers a cardinal sin in your book?

I’m not against cuffs or pleats. It’s a matter of personal preference. I have a few stores who are hemming PennBilt with thick, two inch cuffs. As for pleats, they are coming back in a fashion sense, but personally, I’ve never worn pleats myself. The only thing I am not a big fan of is visible exterior labels.


Another style question for you: I know you’ve touched on this earlier, but during our conversation you said words to the effect that khakis are not “precious” and that frayed hems, patches, and rips make khakis look better. Would you elaborate?

Babies are precious, but your point is a good one. Your old favorite anything does get more valuable and therefore precious with age. Frays, rips and tears can look cool and are marks of experience, a scorecard of sorts. But wearing those old duds can make you look insanely cheap and borderline crazy. If you know how to pull that look off, go for it. If you don’t, keep that stuff stored in Chappy. 


Southeastern Pennsylvania is a hotbed of quality menswear with a worldwide cult following: Camber USA (Norristown, PA), Buck Mason (Mohnton, PA), and now PennBilt in Unionville, Pennsylvania.

Can you talk a little about the pride attached to the “Made in the USA” label: garments not just manufactured domestically, but to quality standards that are the envy of the world?

I have always believed in Made in U.S.A. on multiple levels and which is why I produce two PennBilt styles here. It’s important for the jobs it creates. Making things is also important to the human experience. I don’t believe the product we make in the U.S.A. is the envy of the world in terms of nuance and detail. I do believe Americans like buying USA made if they are willing to support the labor costs with their dollars. It’s why people pay more for farm to table food. There is value to being more closely connected to the products you consume. This is where “quality” becomes a feeling.

There are also limitations to what you can make in the U.S.A. which is why I am making two styles in Peru as well.


Finally, would you talk about the goals (and also some of the challenges) for PennBilt?

Ivy style and 90s-style relaxed fit trousers are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance this year. Do you foresee  a trajectory for PennBilt similar to Bills Khakis?

I’ll try to answer Q5 in two parts. 1) The goal with PennBilt is less about a number than successfully addressing the market opportunity that exists for a “New Authentic”. If the product is right and I execute well, the rest will take care of itself. So when you talk of trajectory, there’s only one way to go when you start at zero.

2) I don’t see what fashion editors choose to write about each season as overly important to the success of PennBilt. The form PennBilt products take are the result of being immersed in the khaki category for over 30 years. As an example, our 100% cotton “Authentic” is a more relaxed fit than our 97/3% stretch twill “American” because the fit is what’s right for each fabric. The variable in this conversation is the customer – fit is very personal, so what’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another.

I’ve used the following analogy before – If Bills Khakis was a WILLYS Jeep, PennBilt is a new Ford Bronco. As a brand owner, it’s an exciting challenge to faithfully evolve an original. Tradition is important to who we are. Hang onto the good stuff and keep an open mind to new things. I find good energy in that process. Having kids in college has been a big help to me in that regard.

8 Comments on "A Q&A With Bill Thomas, Founder of PennBilt"

  1. Just visited the site and was surprised to find that fabrics contain “3% stretch”, which is a non-starter. As a long-time Bills customer with more than 20 years of M1 and M2 twill and corduroy pairs in various states of distress hanging in the closet (some cuffed, some pleated, some both), all in rotation, the only pair I don’t wear is the corduroy trousers with “stretch’ that I ordered without catching that change. I love my M1 cords from ~2000, but the stretch version is just not on. Fabric looks and feels unnatural, and I am aware of how it moves during wear, and I don’t want to be aware of how my clothing fits during the day. One opinion, and I’ll keep an eye on the brand, but won’t buy until a 100% cotton model is on offer.

  2. First we had Lands’ End with a misplaced apostrophe, then Bills Khakis with a missing apostrophe.
    Why do I bother to teach punctuation to my students?

    • No apostrophe. That’s a minute of my life I won’t get back.

      • Hi John,

        Thank you to Mr. Thomas, and also to you for giving me the opportunity to write for the great Ivy Style.

        Mr. Thomas is very clever at branding. The “…Bilt” at the end of PennBilt stands for Bil(l) t(homas).

        Oh, noes! More typos! Even though I had coffee this morning I think my head will explode.

    • Hello Greg – Funny you should bring this up. When I founded Bills Khakis, I omitted the apostrophe because I felt the history I was drawing from was public domain, therefore not mine to put my name on. I also felt the Buffalo Bills cave me permission to do so, grammatically speaking.

  3. Peter Guillam | September 15, 2023 at 11:21 pm |

    Mea culpa. Thank you Bill and Chuck for pointing out the ‘authentic’; I’m sorry I missed them, and I stand corrected. 100% cotton @ 8.5 weight is perfect, and I’ll try a pair. Appreciate the detail on the fit as well.

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