Duck Head Takes Flight

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Last week was market week here in New York, and by far the highlight of the MR show at Javits Center was the booth of recently relaunched heritage brand Duck Head. The owners thought very highly of their presentation, which included a truck and trailer, and they had reason to be: no one else had rolled in any prop vehicles.

Christopher Sharp first reported on the brand’s resurgence last May. But we were clearly long overdue for a follow-up, as the brand’s plans are much more ambitious than I thought. I had a long chat with John K. Hudson and Thomas Nolan, leaders of Prospect Brands, the name of the holding company that purchased the rights to Duck Head. Turns out they’re both longtime Ralph Lauren alums, along with about four others on the core team. They called working at RL like going to Harvard for menswear.

And just as Ralph Lauren has collections for all categories from Savile Row-inspired Purple Label to preppy Polo and rugged RRL, not to mention the modern high-tech sports collection RLX, Duck Head is working to become a lifestyle brand for everything from lounging in Palm Beach to actually shooting ducks. “Who doesn’t like a duck?” they said. I thought of Daffy and Donald’s status as global icons, and perhaps they’re on to something.

Top image is a pink candy-striped oxford. Below, a pink saddle-shouldered lambswool sweater that was especially handsome. There were also some yak wool sweaters nearby.

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There were also plenty of colorful trousers and polos:

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There were a lot of cable-knit crewnecks floating about with colors and cables that were just right:

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Inside the trailer, preppy yellow shorts juxtaposed to camo shooting vest:

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The founders all moved to Greensboro, North Carolina to set up the brand’s headquarters. Below, houndstooth, bourbon and ducks:

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And here was a big surprise: Prospect Brands recently acquired Kentucky-based Crittenden, founded by Critt Rawlings (yet another Ralph Lauren alum, along with stints at Norman Hilton and as president of Oxxford). Here’s a linen tartan jacket from Critt:

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And that’s him in the left background in seersucker suit, inside Duck Head’s expansive presentation.

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So watch out: Duck Head is taking wing and likely landing in a retailer — and closet — near you. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

46 Comments on "Duck Head Takes Flight"

  1. This is exciting. I had been keeping my eye on Duck Head for awhile and eventually decided to give their O’Brian chinos a shot. I was very apprehensive about the $135 price tag and finished hem, but I’m actually very happy with my purchase. The fabric has a hefty, almost canvas-like quality and are extremely well-made. Uber-trads gripe about the lower rise and more casual styling (these are SEC tailgate party khakis, not cuff-and-crease “dress” khakis), but they’re perfect for weekend wear and you could dress them up in a pinch if you needed to. I still think Jack Donnelly is the best bang for your buck, but the Duck Heads fills a nice little niche in my rotation that I didn’t even know existed until I bought them. Hopefully I’ll have a similar experience with their future offerings. Looking forward to a long commercial relationship with the boys in Greensboro.

  2. Looks like pretty nice stuff. When are they anticipating their product roll out?

  3. I like the looks of all of it, and will eagerly anticipate the shirts and sweaters.

    I’ve got two pair of their current chinos, and I agree with AJC that they’re very well-made. They don’t fit exactly like the late-80s-era version that we all remember, but neither are they “gigolo pants”. They have a shorter rise, but my wife says they make me look like I actually have a butt.

    I also have one of their gingham buttondowns: very nice, although somewhat shorter than a traditionally-cut shirt. In perhaps another nod to modernity (men wearing their shirttails out), the tail comes un-tucked a bit too easily for my taste. Still, love the quality of the shirt.

  4. Since the post was a peek at their future collection, I was toying with “Peeking Duck” as a headline. Eventually shot it down.

  5. CC,

    Any other brands/businesses inspire interest?

    Did Southwick reps make the trek to the city?

  6. A bunch of photos were live-tweeted from the show, so you’ll need to follow me on Twitter to see those. I took some other shots with my regular camera. Likely going to our Facebook page.

  7. This made my day.

  8. I love Duck Head! Tom and his team are the perfect group to bring back the historic brand!

  9. I cannot believe there are people who continue to believe there’s additional space in this market for this kind of stuff. No one needs another option for high priced (colored) khakis, sweaters or oxfords. I see nothing unique here at all and the styling/branding is a carbon copy of at least 10 other labels…..

  10. Nostalgia, AEV. Powerful stuff. After food, water, rest, security, lust, ambition, and hubris, it drives more of what we do then we’d like to admit. The Ivy/Trad/Preppy enterprise is heavily reliant upon it. Well, the commercialization of it, that is. Maslov would probably place it under the need to belong. Sounds right.

    All that said, an 8.2 oz. Cramerton cloth will last for decades. Kudos to the DuckHead team for keeping it in the States.

  11. And yet, AEV, there is: something unique about Duck Heads; and space for them in the menswear market.

    Speaking for myself, it comes down to two factors that no other look-how-super-duper-preppy-I-am label can touch: first, everything Duck Head sells is made in America, and that counts; second, they are a “legacy” label with both a long-term history and story, and perhaps more importantly, a nostalgia factor that’s catnip for those of us in our 40s.

  12. What I don’t understand is why companies insist on putting their garish logos on everything. Who in their right mind wants to walk around as a billboard for some brand with whom they have no affiliation? What does that say about the buyer?

  13. It looks like they heard the cries regarding the color of the labels on the chinos at least…

  14. Bags' Groove | July 28, 2015 at 9:57 am |

    @ S.E.
    When you get to my age nostalgia becomes your #1, oh yeah baby, particularly in today’s turbulent (I very nearly said crappy) world.

  15. Thank you all for the mostly positive comments, it means a lot to all of us here at Duck Head. As I mentioned the first time Christian was nice enough to post about Duck Head on here, we are always listening. To those who don’t Believe in what we’re doing, I think that separates us from many other brands. We do indeed care with the customer wants and thinks, so we’ll always be listening to them and their needs before our own. I don’t think we are just “another brand” either, this is pure American history. This brand was started in 1865, outside Abercrombie and Brooks, I can’t think of many more authentic than Duck Head. Michael, to your point about our “garish logo”; While working at other brands, we too felt the need to find items without a logo on it. If you spent a little time looking @ our brand, you’d notice that most of our tops do not have a logo on the left chest in fact, but rather on the sweep or hem. Our yellow label is iconic, and we’ll never hide that on bottoms. However, believe it or not, some people actually like our logo and feel a part of it, because they know we care about them, so they want to show it off. We’re grateful for that and thankful for it and for them. For those who want to show off our logo, we have knits with our logo on it. That is a polarizing topic. We spend an inordinate amount of time scrutinizing the size, color, etc of logos to make sure they’re done the “right” way.

    We are all so proud of this brand, and what it stands for. We will keep listening to everyone on great sites like this, and thankful to the folks at Ivy Style for the look and interest in what we’re doing. We take great pride in what we do and how we do it. We will keep doing our best to deliver to the customer the best brand in the business. One that is “Made To Be Worn”, one that stands for something and won’t ever try too hard.

    thanks

    tom

  16. Charlottesville | July 28, 2015 at 10:51 am |

    The Duck Head line looks fine, more or less, especially the pink sweater and the U-stripe OCBD. I certainly was a fan of the original khakis when I was in school. I note, however, that I was drawn primarily to the reasonable price for well-made pants (roughly half the price of the “dress” khakis available in the local college shops). Duck Heads came pre-hemmed, so I bought them several inches too long and had them shortened and finished with cuffs. I also removed the exterior labels, which I generally dislike. At $135 a pair, the new line would not be worthwhile for me today, nor would it have attracted my penurious younger self, so I’ll probably stick with Bill’s M2 model, at least until Christian’s high-rise and tapered version comes out. Nevertheless, I wish the resurrected brand well.

  17. Considering that the brand hasn’t been well established for more than 20 years (trading hands various times between defunct/failing/bankrupt holding companies since around 1989), I have a hard time buying the “tradition” argument. Sure, the name alone has existed since 1865, but the branding, quality, and product line has lacked any semblance of consistency for decades.

    Yes, the stuff is made in the USA. That can be good; it can also mean next to nothing. I’m guessing they don’t have their own manufacturing facilities (Tom?), meaning that any oxfords, polos, or shorts/pants you can buy from Duck Head at a mark up can be purchased from other retailers or suppliers (e.g. New England Shirt Co., Galey & Lord, etc. – ?) for the same or less.

    Yes, heavy cotton material is great….lots of folks make pants and shorts from similar “duck”/Cramerton material, from Patagonia, Orvis and Mountain Khakis to smaller companies like Ball and Buck and All American Khakis…..it’s not a unique offering in the slightest….especially at $135.00+.

  18. AEV,

    People buy brands and what they believe in. This brand isn’t for everyone and we’re ok with that. We don’t try to be everything to everyone, we just try to be who we are. To those people who care about being themselves, not trying to hard and getting behind a brand they can associate with, this is a good choice for them. I get its not for everyone, and that’s why we don’t all wear uniforms, its great to have choices. No two brands are the same, and the cuts are not the same. I don’t know what NE Shirt company, or others do but we have a specific fit that we work on to make sure its comfortable and wearable. We spend a lot of time on fit, i don’t know what other companies you mention do, or how they fit. Our products fit very well. We don’t just make “heavy” cotton. We do use a Cramerton cloth for ONE model which is 8.2oz, but we’ve also got 6 oz cloth used, etc. I am not sure if you’ve ever worn any of our new gear? Hard to say until you do what’s good or not really. Would love your feedback on our product once you’ve tried it. Thanks.

  19. Re: “garish labels”, maybe I’m a sucker but if you were a teenager/20-something in the late-80s, that yellow Duck Head label means nearly everything, nostalgia-wise. That they’re now attached to a well/made American product is even better.

    Although, ironically, the 2 pair of khakis I bought have a white label, which the webpage said was more historically accurate for the brand, but which now has been changed *back* to yellow, presumably to capitalize on the above-discussed nostalgia.

    I’ll resurrect a previous question: are my 2 pair, made during the new company’s brief “white label” window, now collectors’ items? And if I buy a third pair to get the yellow label, am I beyond help?

  20. Tom –

    Fair enough. If I run across your line in my travels, I’ll happily make a purchase to give it a first hand try. I don’t wish you a lack of success….just offering my honest reaction.

  21. Jesus, how many relaunches does a brand need? This is the 3rd or 4th, right? I can’t keep count.

  22. Paul, yes, I think fair to say the white label is now “vintage” :).

    We heard so much from folks about doing the Yellow label, it was deafening. The white is indeed more historically accurate, but the yellow as it turns out is more iconic. Its rare any company has a memorable color, and ours is yellow. One of the coolest things about this brand is that the history is written, so we don’t have to make any of it up, just do our best to live up to it!

    AEV, love the feedback it all helps us thank you for it! keep it coming, it makes us better.

    NWAHS, I haven’t been keeping count of the re-launches. I only care about what we’re doing, not what anyone else has done in the past. Just hope we are making something that people can relate to and the O’Bryan Brothers would be proud of.

    thanks!

  23. William Richardson | July 28, 2015 at 3:16 pm |

    I was in my early twenties in the 80’s in Virginia Beach. Ronald Reagan was in the white house. The country was strong and well respected and, dare I suggest, feared by our enemies. I had a full head of thick brown hair and used to spend days and nights with friends and great looking girls at the north end of Virginia Beach smoking Dunhill Superior Mild cigarettes, drinking Heineken from red solo cups and generally having the time of my life. I wore OCBD shirts, rep ties (sometimes worn as a belt) sockless Sperry’s and Ray Ban aviators. My trousers were Duck Head with heavy starch, flat fronts and cuffed. I no longer smoke (I run marathons now) and I have switched to gin and tonics and am married to a wonderful woman, but my way of dressing remains the same (except the rep ties as belts). I look forward to the re-release of the Duck Head line. Maybe it is a sign the world may soon make sense again.

    Will

  24. Anonymous | July 28, 2015 at 4:00 pm |

    The display looks very good. This re-launch of Duck Head is clearly better thought out and financed than some of the prior attempts. The switch to the yellow logo and the introduction of the pink shetland shows they are listening to the requests of the trad community.

    I bought a pair of one of the recent incarnations (which had a much lower price point), and I was very pleased with the cut and quality.

  25. Glad to hear Greensboro’s own. Just stumbled into your Greensboro Store in the Mill and was astonished that I had not heard of you before this but now I understand it is a relaunch. Do you make pocket squares and bowties. Very interested in these two items.

  26. There’s no doubt that a lot of what made old Duckheads appealing was the price. They were decently made but inexpensive. I remember the outlets, where they were further discounted. I get what AEV’s after here–the branding stuff. It’s been out of hand for a while. But since we can’t expect the gator and the whale to follow the polo pony as he gallops off the shirt chest, branding (and related mark-ups) is here to stay. Bill Thomas deserves words of praise for not submitting to the silliness.

  27. While I realize (and remember first-hand) that Corbin and others made fairly tight pants, I have always thought that tight-fitting clothes weren’t consistent with the spirit of traditional clothing. [Take note, Bills] As for the newly sprouted preppy labels, I’d rather their shirts were cut like Brooks’ and their sweaters like McGeorge. Where does the Duck Head head stand on that one?

  28. Emsworth, to your question fit is a very polarizing thing. We made sure that our pants fit everyone “well”. Now “well” is defined by us, but our tagline is “Made To Be Worn”. It was something the company came up with in the 1920’s and I thought it was perfect to describe our brand. So our fit is very comfortable, but also looks good on guys w/ skinny legs and thunder thighs. Its something we spend a lot of time on. Same goes for our knits and wovens. We want people to be comfortable in our product all the time.

    There seems to be a lot of talk about logo’s, etc. I understand this is a very polarizing thing, and its something we think about a lot. Our logo isn’t something we’re trying to put into anyone’s face, or on all our products. However, its special to us and hopefully to the people who love our brand, its got a story and its who we are. The Duck Head brand is 150 years old, it was founded by two brothers who fought together in America’s Civil War. In 1865 the O’Bryan Brothers made overalls and chore coats and a Duck Head logo was used…. In the 20’s before any of the other brands were even a thought, when the company made overalls, a Duck Head logo was used… When the company made uniforms for the troops in WWI & WWII a Duck Head logo was used…. In 1949 the when the company signed Hank Williams, a Duck Head logo was used… In 1978 when we were the first brand on a college Campus at Ole Miss, a Duck Head logo was used… and when I saw them for the first time at Fordham University in the 90’s a Duck Head logo was used… So while many other brands keep trying to create themselves, show everyone how different they are by the unique logo they have, we’ll just keep using that same old one that’s been used for the last 150 years… a Duck Head. Thanks!

  29. I think it’s great that Tom is available and listening on this website.

    I also really like, one, the cut of the crewneck sweater, and, two, bringing in Crittenden. The next question is availability. Where are these goods going to be sold? I can always use another pair of khakis.

  30. I use to wear the Duck Head Brand many years ago to the point that my friends and family use to call me Duck Head! I loved the brand and was sorry when it was no longer being made! I look forward to seeing it again and I will definitely purchase this brand again! Keep us posted!

  31. For better or worse (I’ll argue for better), anybody committed to “keeping it in the USA” will need to engage the complex world of venture capital and private equity.

    Wholesalers and manufacturers backed by private equity firms can (and, we hope, will) keep at least a few remaining “mom-and-pop” businesses going–the local men’s store that employs 7 to 10 people, for instance. I’m guessing at least half of the brands stocked by a typical men’s store (retail clothier) are backed by mid-market-focused equity firms.

    The looming question is whether or not investors understand the brands, and, beyond that, can reinvigorate a business that’s suffered from poor management…while, at the same time, maintaining a competitive price. I applaud the interest in this particular brand’s history (“heritage”) and how it connects with the future.

    I forget when J. Press began relying so heavily upon Coppley. The latter has been bought and sold. Now owned by IAG, right? Do you (still) have a Gitman, Oxford, H. Freeman, or Corbin without IAG? Good question.

    http://authenticbrandsgroup.com/our-brands/

    http://www.iagapparel.com/brands/

    Didn’t a private equity firm buy Allen Edmonds, which was already owned by another private equity firm?

    Ah, capitalism…

  32. RJG, our products are available on our website 24/7, and the brand is sold at the finest men’s specialty shops across the country. A list of them is also on our website. The products seen on Ivy-Style from the NYC show are from Spring, which will start shipping to wholesale customers and our website in January of 2016. Thanks!

    t

  33. S.E.,

    I enjoyed your last comment. It seems like our minds work in a similar manner.

  34. What did you think of Barbour’s offerings? I heard very mixed comments, mostly bad, from the show.

  35. Mitchell S. | July 29, 2015 at 11:50 am |

    @S.E. You are correct, sir. A quick Google search returns “An affiliate of Brentwood Associates will take over the company from Minneapolis-based Goldner Hawn Johnson & Morrison, which bought Allen Edmonds in 2006.” Suitors (no pun intended) included Men’s Wearhouse.

    Allen Edmonds manufactures shoes for Joseph Abboud (owned by Men’s Wearhouse), certain specialty retailers, and Polo.

  36. I like what I see here, and wouldn’t feel uncomfortable in any of it — and that’s a rarity nowadays. Nice clothes, indeed. Best of luck.

  37. Danny Baseheart | July 30, 2015 at 3:33 pm |

    I’m glad to see Christian is keeping the new encarnation of Duck Head alive through Ivy Style..it’s a pleasure to keep up with.

    Just as Levi Strauss made workwear clothing from cotton duck tent material starting in 1853, the O’bryan Brothers catered to the same working class audience in the south starting 12 years later in 1865. This workwear focus dominated Duck head until the advent of the American Made Duck Head yellow label khaki pant in 1978. This is the year Duck Head moved into the preppy market, and by the early 1980s, the company strictly manufactured preppy clothing. So the total rebirth (and salvation) of the brand really happened in the late 70s-early 80s.

    If one desires to see exactly what Duck Head was prior to my father creating the DH khaki pant for the Southern market and fundamentally changing the entire direction of the company, simply look at Round House http://www.round-house.com OR better yet, check out our old friends in Bristol Tennessee L.C. King with the Pointer brand https://www.pointerbrand.com This my friends is the closest thing to what Duck Head and O’bryan Brothers was until the very early 80s. I remember the painter pants, overalls & work jackets still being manufactured there in Nashville when I was really young, but by about 1982 or so, it was all Khaki! On an important note, the original DH khaki was a “pant” construction not a “jean” construction as the new ones are a jean construction. I do prefer a jean constructed pant for run around comfort although not for my khakis.

    I will say when I first heard about the new group purchasing the brand a couple years back I was very excited as I understood they had a sincere interest in the pre preppy history of the brand going back to the O’bryan Brothers post Civil War origins as a work wear clothing company. I was hopeful to see awesome denim dungarees, work/barn jackets, work shirts, and maybe even some denim or hickory striped overalls, etc. Perhaps there are things in the works for this type of rollout…It would certainly be cool.

    Just to set the historical record straight, if one was to find a “Southern Gentleman” wearing Duck Head clothing on any college campus in the South from the early 1900s until the late 1970s, I promise you he would have been a campus gardner, plumber, maintenance person, painter, grounds keeper, or maybe an electrician etc. as Duck Head was solidly a work wear clothing manufacturer.

    I did notice the Duck Head website has misprinted the the mention of Duck Head from Eileen Glanton who wrote in Forbes “For a preppy southern college guy in the 1980s, Duck Head Apparel khakis were as indispensable as a pair of worn Topsiders and a pink Polo shirt.” “1980’s” being the item left out..I guess it might leave an impression on the unknowing..

    AEV, I unfortunately agree with your post below, and I certainly wish things had been different for the Ole Duck Head. It should have never left Nashville.

    AEV | July 28, 2015 at 11:29 am |Considering that the brand hasn’t been well established for more than 20 years (trading hands various times between defunct/failing/bankrupt holding companies since around 1989), I have a hard time buying the “tradition” argument. Sure, the name alone has existed since 1865, but the branding, quality, and product line has lacked any semblance of consistency for decades.

  38. Danny Baseheart | July 30, 2015 at 5:08 pm |

    BTW, I do appreciate the new group has recognized the cultural & historical significance of the yellow label..that label’s impact on Southern fashion is unmatched, and it’s not a DH khaki pant without a yellow label period.

    My father came up with the idea to use the bright yellow label simply to bring people’s attention to the Duck Head logo….That is a true story.

    Be well, and thanks for this platform!

  39. I grew up wearing DH khakis and polos from Parisian’s in Birmingham, and I’m happy to see the brand revived. Prior to this current incarnation, a lower-end department store down the street had a huge supply of DH tees, and I regret not buying a handful to wear on beer runs and farmer’s market trips.

    In any event, I hope the clothes continue to be competitive with other brands at similar price points – can’t wait to pull the trigger on that pink shetland.

  40. Also – when the grievance mob comes after DH for using Southern imagery in something other than a pejorative fashion, hold fast.

  41. Danny Baseheart | August 1, 2015 at 12:08 pm |

    Christopher,

    I wanted to let you know that you successfully articulated the exact reasons why Duck Head khakis were so successful..You nailed it and I appreciate your insight. Your quote that I’ve cut and pasted is 100% accurate, and the number 1 secret to the success of Duck Head and the khakis. There was no real “marketing budget” for Duck Head during the building of the khaki pants business as a Southern staple. Frankly, there simply wasn’t any money for that..there was no private equity money. It was good old fashioned hard work, one store at a time. Dad would give customers/buyers, or anyone that cared to listen a beautiful, genuine, authenitc oral history of the brand one store at a time. He didn’t have to design any flashy marketing to convince the buying public of some kind of identity. Duck Head khakis were simply a practical, well made clothing product, priced for folks on a budget. I really do appreciate your recognition of this fact, and I’m glad you published it…Back then, Duck Head certainly never tried to be more than what they were..brilliant.

    “He convinced a store in Oxford near the Ole Miss campus to buy 12 pairs, and they sold out in three days.

    Duck Head was quickly adopted at Southern colleges. Like another Southern staple, seersucker, Duck Heads were cheap. I recall once trying to explain the allure of Duck Heads to someone. I said Duck Heads became more then what they were because they never tried to be more then what they were. It was the wearers who gave Duck Head its campus élan.”

  42. @Danny -Thanks for the kind words.

  43. Well I just bought some new (with tags and everything) cable knit Duck Head sweaters for $5 from eBay so I’m not sure why people would be willing to pay over $100 for them.

  44. How can I contact prospect brands?

  45. I’m late to this party, but I have TERRIFIC memories of ordering DH shorts from a mail order house, back in the 80s…that was all I wore at St. Louis U…guys from the south introduced me to them, and they were a wardrobe staple. Having said that, they were also $15-20 a pair for tough cotton shorts.

    Looks like a cool revival, best to the guys at DH!

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