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.
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.
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.
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