Quack From The Dead: The Return Of The Duck Head Brand

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Some time later today, according to the timer counting down on its website, Duck Head will relaunch. The brand has its genesis in the postwar workwear market, and when I say postwar, I mean the War Between the States. “For a preppy Southern college guy in the 1980s,” writes Eileen Glanton in a November, 2000 Forbes article, “Duck Head Apparel khakis were as indispensable as a pair of worn Top-siders and a pink Polo shirt.”

Brothers and Civil War veterans George and Joe O’Bryan started Duck Head in 1865, buying army surplus duck canvas tenting material which they repurposed for work pants and shirts. The business would become known as O’Bryan Brothers Manufacturing Company, and operated out of Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1892 the brothers attempted to trademark the word “duck,” but it was already in common use, even among those who didn’t hunt. Undaunted, they took inspiration from their sporting roots and registered the trademark Duck Head in 1906. The company turned out hardy vests, coats, pants and overalls as they entered the new century.  The company would become a leading contract maker for the government during the Second World War, turning out over five million garments.  After the war Duck Head returned to the civilian workwear market. It embraced country music, becoming a sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry and hitching their wagon to Hank Williams’ rising star.

The question one might ask is how and why did Duck Head did became a preppy staple? “The duck is the most beloved of all totems,” writes Lisa Birnbach in “The Official Preppy Handbook,” and as true as that may be, Duck Head khakis were born of one’s man foresight.

obryan

In 1978 a textile mill operator was trying to unload 60,000 yards of unwanted cotton khaki material. The operator approached Dave Baseheart of O’Bryan Brothers with his problematic material. Baseheart said, “They offered me a price and I bought it. I did not know what I was going to do with it.” Baseheart’s solution was to use an old workwear pattern, run up some khakis and slap on the now iconic yellow mallard duck label. 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. I was a devotee of the brand from 1986-1992.  Initially Duck Head was certainly a Southern manifestation. I am reminded of this by a conversation I had with one of my college classmates, a transfer student from a Southern school, who noticed the yellow label on the back of my pants and asked how I had cracked the Hampden-Sydney dress code without ever being there.

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But as evidenced by this anecdote, even in the slow news traveling ’80s you could not keep a good pair of khakis secret forever. Northerners and even the Brits would get in on the action. At its zenith, Duck Head would be sold in outposts as foreign as Ithaca, New York and London, England.

Sales climbed from $1 million to $40 million by 1989, eventually reaching $130 million by 1992. But sales would slip to a net loss of $7.4 million by the year 2000 (Mr. Baseheart, incidentally, had sold his interest in 1985).

Over the years other parties would market Duck Head with mixed results. This article would be little more then a nostalgic field trip if I did not have the news to share that a new investor is reviving this brand that is long on heritage but lacking in recent performance.

Ivy Style recently spoke to Tom Nolan, President and CEO of Prospect Brands, who bought Duck Head in November of 2013. Nolan is an anomaly: a Yankee by birth who is a committed Dixiephile at heart, raising a family and building a business in the South.  He recalls that while growing up on Long Island, “Southern kids all wore Duck Heads, and they were cool.” His opinion would be reaffirmed by his future boss. “Ralph Lauren used to talk about Duck Head,” he remembers.

Duckhead2

Nolan considers himself the steward of a brand “with 149 years of legacy.” He recalled traveling to Tennessee and meeting folks once involved in making Duck Head. Nolan’s takeaway from the encounter was that the brand would have to be manufactured in the US. Moreover, he aspires “to make the best damn chinos, period!”

Nolan is working with another Polo alumnus, Spencer Bass, who will be Duck Head’s creative director. Products scheduled to be offered are khakis, polo shirts in pique and lisle, oxford and chambray shirts,  graphic t-shirts, and even pair of overalls. “We are looking back to look forward,” says Nolan. As word gets out, there be a lot of folks looking forward to seeing this duck’s return. — CHRISTOPHER SHARP

66 Comments on "Quack From The Dead: The Return Of The Duck Head Brand"

  1. In your interview with Tom Nolan, was there no mention of how Duck Head was re-launched in 2011 or 2012 (I can’t quite remember what year)? I would be interested to know how their strategy differs from the one used then.

  2. @Trip -Made in America

  3. As a Tennessean, I’m very excited. This is all I wore for church clothes growing up in the 90s.

  4. My uniform in college (1989-1993) and law school (1993-1996) was a pair of Duck Heads, a pair of tan bucks, and either a fraternity t-shirt or a white or blue ocbd. Not much has changed except my khakis are now from Brooks Brothers and my shoes are little more expensive (and aren’t stained with beer muck from bars).

  5. Mitchell S. | May 5, 2014 at 11:28 am |

    I think it would be great if Duck Heads had actual ducks embroidered on their pants and shorts, like these Mallard-embroidered shorts from Polo: http://www.ralphlauren.com/product/index.jsp?productId=32574056&view=99&origkw=mens+shorts&sr=1&parentPage=family

  6. I did a short post about the relaunch last week. Apparently they have already reset the count down clock which does not instill a lot of confidence in the venture, but this post helps a little.

  7. I, too, was disappointed to see that the “countdown clock” had re-set itself, as I am very excited to see the re-launch of this brand. A couple of new pairs of Duckhead khakis, and my time machine back to 1986 (complete with Steely Dan on the tape-deck in my car) will be almost complete!

  8. I hope that they remain consistent with the brand heritage and offer these at an affordable price. The market does not need another company offering $175 chinos.

  9. If they want to be “pure” in their re-creation, they’ll make them so they’re stiff-as-a-board when new, so that putting enough mileage on them to make them soft and comfy is a real badge of honor.

  10. David Wilder | May 5, 2014 at 4:15 pm |

    I remember my first and only pair bought at a campus store on Broadway at Yale, late 1980s. Terrific brand!

  11. B. Roberts | May 5, 2014 at 5:26 pm |

    Growing up in the South, Duck heads (what we called any and all khaki pants) most likely planted the seed of my love of trad clothing. as a young teen in the late 80’s, my older college aged cousins all wore duck heads with polos, fraternity t shirts or button-down, often paired with bass 4 eye mocs or penny loafers. It was the uniform of the group that I looked up to most. Very excited about the return. Have to order a few pairs early in the case they don’t make it.

  12. Well, that’s disappointing. The countdown clock reached zero at 8:00pm EST, and nothing happened. Same landing page, no content…

  13. Boss Tweed | May 5, 2014 at 8:20 pm |

    Nothing happened. Oh well, at least it’s not trying to sell me insurance.

  14. All hype, no bite. First impressions are the best….So I’ll just stick with my crummy “Made in China” Haggars. They’re dependable, long wearing, and cheap…good enough for LBJ, good enough for me:)

  15. Reactionary Trad | May 5, 2014 at 10:11 pm |

    I’ve been wearing trad clothing since the 60s and had never heard of Duck Head before reading this article.

  16. Prepare for new design with low rise crotch hugging cut.
    Dead Duck.

  17. @ Spinman,

    They call Alabama the Crimson Tide, call me Deacon Blues! 😉

  18. Taliesin | May 6, 2014 at 8:30 am |

    In the South in the 80s there was also the phenomenon of turning Duck Heads into Bermuda shorts, with a pair of scissors. The material was such that the unhemmed hem would fray in a very particular way and then stay that way through many washes. Whether the fabric in this new version can do that will be a telltale as to whether this venture is legit, in my opinion.

  19. Duckehead’s were available, for a time, as catalog orders from JCPenney during the mid/late 90’s….I remember my Mom ordered me 2 pair for 7th grade. My Mom still fondly remembered the brand from her days studying down south during the 70’s, and she told me that these were kind of a big deal. Unfortunately, they were no longer as iconic or envy-inducing as some may believe. The “iconic” Duckhead logo was meaningless in a Michigan/Midwestern sea of baggy late-90’s Polo, Hilfiger, and Abercrombie logos. More recently, I purchased a “revival” pair on the cheap from Belk about 2 years ago….and I thought they were middle of the road with respect to fit & quality.

  20. @spinman, @Alex

    Aja is my favorite album of all time!

  21. Mitchell S. | May 6, 2014 at 10:43 am |

    @C. Sharp: Thanks for the link. Orvis sells a duck-embroidered baseball hat on their website: http://www.orvis.com/store/product.aspx?pf_id=7C3P

    Orvis used to carry duck-embroidered belts and duck-embroidred pants/shorts several years ago. They named their duck-embroidered pants “Charleston pants,” after one of the best-dressed cities in the U.S.A.

  22. J.I. Rodale | May 6, 2014 at 11:05 am |

    @CeeEm

    Designers of pants seem to think that the market consists of male porno stars.

  23. I see they’ve removed their countdown clock and changed it to “coming back.” I’ll refrain from judging as I know how difficult web development can be…

  24. Duck Head | May 6, 2014 at 9:59 pm |

    Thanks for the great piece Chris. The website has proved to be a bit of a harder thing to launch than we first realized. We are very sorry for the delay in the re-launch, but knowing it didn’t work in the past, we want it to be perfect. The site will launch before the end of the week, and by beginning of June, we’ll have everything available to purchase on the web.

    -Team Duck Head.

  25. A.E.W. Mason | May 6, 2014 at 10:24 pm |

    Great piece and very interesting history. Many thanks.

  26. I’m sure I’m not the only Southerner who recalls buying Duck Head khakis and Eastland mocs as a kid at McRae’s or the much-lamented, dearly beloved Parisian’s.

  27. If I may make an additional comment, I do hope Duck Head is successful, and I hope that they are able to offer their khakis at something below $100/pair.

  28. Duck Head

    Good luck on your new relaunch. Also, Kathleen Sebelius will be available soon if you need expertise on your website start up. 😉

  29. Well researched, well written piece. Great to see a great product (brand) resurrected and renewed.

  30. If ‘Team Duck Head’ is legit, I’m glad to see them post here: it means that they’re at least aware of the entire potential customer base of this blog: guys looking for traditional khaki pants (made-in-America would be nice) that don’t, as other posters have said, cost more than $100, and aren’t cut for gigolos, or boast a zero-rise, peg-leg, Castleberry girl-style. You know – pants for actual men.

  31. Duck Head | May 7, 2014 at 9:11 am |

    Spinman, I assure you we’re listening. We’ll do our best not to make “gigolo” pants :)

  32. I truly hope these become a hybrid variant of the stiff, durable Dickies and the soft, breezy Stan Ray Gung Ho chinos.

  33. I care about nothing more than fit. I hope Duck Head can succeed where so many so regularly fail. Ideal: Brooks Brothers Clark with a higher rise. We already have Bill’s for “husky” old people and every other brand under the sun for skinny-fit, low-rise capris.

  34. Hopefully Hinton & Hinton in the town square will stock this brand. Seersucker is not very cheap these days! I bought a pair of Berle pants from H&H at $140

  35. Duck Head | May 7, 2014 at 6:58 pm |

    what does everyone think about leg hole? Any particular fit ya’ll like better than others? We hear you on the rise, good to know about width of leg as well. thanks!

  36. Palmbeachprep | May 7, 2014 at 8:09 pm |

    Too many “southern” brands out there claiming to be authentic, original, and have heritage. One can’t create heritage; it takes time. In my opinion Duck Head is the true authentic southern brand. Great to see this iconic label back in the marketplace!

  37. @ Duck Head

    8″ opening should please all here. Or, if you want to be truly innovative, make the leg opening proportional to the inseam and waist: 32″ and less = 7 7/8″, 34 – 38 = 8 1/4, 40+ = 8 1/2. something like that, many will chime in on this point and will provide you with enough data to figure out what is most popular and desired. I’m a 30″ waist and prefer no more than 7 7/8.

    Most non-low rise trousers fail for shorter and slimmer guys b/c the leg opening is the same as it would be for a guy with a 44″ waist. and low rise fail for everyone b/c they crush your gnads.

    Good luck!

  38. M Arthur | May 7, 2014 at 9:27 pm |

    @Duck Head: Deep pockets please. RL does this detail very well across their entire pants line.

  39. C. Sharp | May 8, 2014 at 8:33 am |

    @Team Duck Head

    Thanks. it was a fun piece to write. Site is looking good.

    @ SE glad you liked it.

    Appreciate the many reads, comments and shares this post generated.

  40. Excited by this and glad the company is listening. I second the person who suggested using the Brooks Clark fit as a model but, as others have said, just more tapered. I wouldn’t kick a slightly higher rise out of bed either. Think of the tall, lanky people who want to keep their shirts tucked in!

  41. High rise: yes, please!

    Proportional leg openings tending towards smaller openings: absolutely.

    And not too tight in the crotch, but not MC Hammer baggy, either.

    I can’t wait to see how they turn out!

  42. B. Roberts | May 8, 2014 at 2:43 pm |

    Team Duck Head:

    do you plan on offering unfinished hem or plain/cuffed?

    team #cuffnobreak

  43. Wore these all through college, hardly ever wore jeans. They were great pants, but not expensive then, and were not the best made things on the planet, but they broke in well, and could be cutoff to make shorts in a pinch, without feeling guilty about it. We always would have them tapered as they were too wide at the hem. The cloth was a little nubby and rough (i.e. cheap), towards the end of my time at school Boar’s Head khakis showed up, which were significantly better made and most of us switched to them. Still wouldn’t mind a pair of Duck Head’s for knockaround pants, now if I could only find a LL Bean Rangeley flannel shirt!

  44. The important thing is that Duck Head will be relaunching in my hometown of Greensboro, NC!

    http://www.bizjournals.com/triad/blog/2013/11/duck-head-apparel-to-be-relaunched-in.html?page=all

  45. Good luck, DH!

  46. Duck Head | May 8, 2014 at 10:07 pm |

    thank you all! We are as excited and love the brand as much as you all do!

  47. I fondly remember buying my first pair (and subsequent…) at a surplus store in Lex. KY my freshman year at UK. The year 1982. They were definitely a staple of my wardrobe throughout my college years and beyond. Though I don’t recall my last pair, I too am looking forward to the brand being resurrected and breaking in another pair!

  48. Would love to see some high rise pants with tapered leg openings

  49. What I hear in these comments underneath all of the nostalgia is that there is hole in the chino market that has yet to be filled. It is becoming a lot like the OTR OCBD market. Very few choices overall and none at lower price point.

  50. Jonathon Goddard Jr. | May 10, 2014 at 2:09 pm |

    Comment by Oxford Cloth Button Down — May 10, 2014 @ 7:35 am

    “What I hear in these comments underneath all of the nostalgia is that there is hole in the chino market that has yet to be filled. It is becoming a lot like the OTR OCBD market. Very few choices overall and none at lower price point.”

    With respect, with that kind of negativity it’s a wonder manufacturers bother with you at all!

  51. Alistair Arnold | May 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm |

    Good luck to Duck Head! Let’s hope the quality is as good as the fanfare.

  52. Great news! Wore Duck Head through my prep school years, and then they disappeared. Thought that a few years ago somebody tried to resurrect the brand, but they (on the website) somehow didn’t seem the same. The website looks great, and the store is about two hours north of me, although I imagine they’ll be offering products online. Fondly remember this great deep royal blue Duck Head polo I had, in addition to the great khakis.

  53. Bought 2 pairs from the Belk test sale a couple years ago. Instantly and still my favorite pairs of khakis. Khakis are supposed to be comfortable–brooks brothers khakis are so stiff and blocky they defeat the purpose. Plus, all but the clarks are nut cutters. If I’m going to look stiff and formal, I’ll just wear (more comfortable) dress pants or a suit.

    I echo many of the sentiments of other commenters. Your target client is the types of guys that never have and never will buy the “skinny” trendy junk that looks like it will lower your sperm count. Give me a relaxed slightly updated look that will fit the guy with a little bit of a beer belly and is 15-20 lbs overweight. That’s your target client.

  54. Any word on why the Duck Head launch has been postponed again?

  55. Men who want good classic style pants in real colors, olive, kaki and blue want you Back……!

  56. Any word on the availability of these? I’m sure that management is trying hard to bring these to market, but the delays have snow been many months and I’m ruinous if they may have stopped operations and called it quits at this point.

  57. @ At Andy its all still a go. It has been soft launch with the internet getting out a little a head of the company. You can follow them on social media They were at Pinehurst showing product recently. Your a week or two from hearing more details and we let you know about it soon.

  58. So, the internet commerce site launched today, with (presumably) the main offer being the O’Bryan Pant priced at a hefty $135. Here’s my question: is there a way to produce US made goods that don’t cost an arm and a leg?! That would be a great story line to try to flush out here. It’s just disappointing to see another company come out at the high end of the market (which is already saturated, in my opinion), and offer products that are out of reach of the average consumer.

    Something worth finding out might be for how much Duckhead pants sold at retail the last time they were made in the USA, then adjust that price up for inflation. I’d be interested to see if the effect is the same at the J. Press Shaggy Dog sweater (http://www.ivy-style.com/the-color-of-money-return-of-the-dark-green-shaggy-dog.html#comments). Here’s AEV’s comment for reference:

    Comment by AEV — October 16, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

    These were $14.50 in 1960 (http://www.acontinuouslean.com/2008/05/07/the-summer-of-1962/).

    According to the CPI inflation adjustor, that $114.00 in today’s dollars.

    $230.00+ for a Shetland wool sweater is absurd – only a massively under-educated consumer would ever waste their money like that. And, these sweaters fit terribly – a “medium” fits like a modern “extra large” – why?

  59. Robert Smith | July 12, 2014 at 7:15 pm |

    Having lived in the south, there is no way anyone would have bought these khakis for $135. Crazy.

  60. @RWK That reminds me…yes it’s only July, but the Andover Shop is having a stellar sale on combed Shetlands. Haven’t received mine yet in the mail but if the interwebs speak truth (you can’t lie on the internet, can you?) the maker is the same for both J Press and Andover, Laurence Odie Knitwear.

  61. Hello Christopher,

    Correction: My father David Baseheart actually orchastreated a leveraged buy out of Duck Head around 1985, and then sold his 45% interest in the company to Delta Woodside Industries in 1990..not 1985. He then did something brilliant by creating a sales team consisting of himself and two other sales buddies of his, and was the exclusive sales intity for the company…the guys made a killing because David Baseheart WAS Duck Head as far as the retailers and anyone in the clothing business from top to bottom was concerned..Dad had the relationships because he built the company from an almost dead obscure farmers work clothing company into what all of us remember…. but Delta Woodside wasn’t able to keep their word to the retailers on shipping product on schedule, and they ended up (according to the lawsuits that followed) simply not paying the sales reps the commissions owed them and messing up the relationships that dad had worked years to develop..After dad sold the business, Duck Head went straight into the toilet…this was in the early 1990s…

  62. @Danny Thanks for comments. Just goes to show you can not always trust those newspaper guys. Always happy to have live fact checkers with a personal connection to a story. It always seems that our stories bring out folks that would have been great sources for the original story.

  63. No thanks. Duck Head are old man khakis.

  64. In reply to RWK’s comment dated July 7th: According to some reliable sources, there is a way to produce good quality piece goods at an affordable price in the USA…a khaki pant could be manufactured and retail for about $40-$45…lose the hang tags and fluffy extras as a starting point..be prepared to dig in, have modest financial expectations and slowly..I mean slowly build awareness one small campus bookstore at a time.

    A pair of Made in the USA Duck Head khakis circa 1983-1989….A $20 Bill +/-

  65. Ada Thimke | May 3, 2015 at 6:14 pm |

    So PLEASE tell me when, where and how I can get my hands on some Duck Head apparel. My husband became a huge fan of it when we would visit my ailing Mother in Missouri in the 1990’s. He was so upset when we could no longer find those great shirts and khakis he grew to love wearing!

    BTW, I live in Oshkosh, WI where the Oshkosh by Gosh overalls were (WERE) made. It was a sad day in Oshkosh when they sold to Carter, moved operations to Malaysia. Somehow Malaysia by Gosh just doesn’t have that nice, homey ring to it and the quality of those overalls began to suffer and then they disappeared!

    Back to reality. Please let me know where I can find your brand of shirts and pants!

    Thanks,
    Ada.

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