It all goes to prove the power of advertising but Mr Wrangler in the flesh comes as a nice surprise after the nasty rumours about him spread across our television screens by his wretched minion Rickenbacker.*
Mr Wrangler is really the sort of grandfatherly gentleman whose kindly creased smile invites a flood of letters from wives and mothers sharing little confidences about their washing problems, how little Johnnie is growing so fast, and how worrying their husbands’ weight problems are becoming.
And Mr Wrangler listens to them, one and all – and applies what he learns from them to his expertise in making jeans. Which is one reason, after all, why Mr Wrangler’s jeans sell to an assortment of 70 male shapes and nearly as many women’s round the world.
His global success can be measured in earnings for the company of $53,587.000 in 1978, with total sales of the complete range of jeans and allied clothes worth $872,306,000.
And that kind of success is built on the quality associated with Mr Wrangler’s name. He has done the well nigh impossible, and made his name synonymous with just that – and perhaps it must be admitted he did not do that just with his nice smile and kindness to Rickenbacker.
He is in Britain under an alias, of course – though his staff admit that they always think of him as Mr Wrangler, so he is not really in disguise. But he is visiting new manufacturing plants in Ireland and Spain as plain Mr Edwin Morris, chairman of Blue Bell Inc, the corporation which owns Wrangler.
So it was the nice Mr Morris who allowed Rickenbacker his say at the interview; even encouraged him from time to time with a “don’t you think so, Dick?” Most of the time, when Mr Morris is on the other side of the Atlantic in Greensboro, North Carolina, Rickenbacker becomes a sleek top executive in his own right – Dick Webzell, UK managing director, no less – but when Mr Wrangler is over here, Mr Webzell admits he thinks of himself in the Rickenbacker role.
He would probably allow himself to be gagged and boomed at by his legendary boss anyway, if it sold more pairs of jeans round the world.
Because while Mr Kipling and Colonel Saunders may keep the world going with their cooking, Mr Wrangler has a worldwide army at his disposal – linked across the barriers of language, politics and philosophy by the little leather patch on their blue-jeaned backsides proclaiming to anyone who cares to check that they are subscribers to the Wrangler way of life.
Things have gone much further. Wrangler now clothes the whole man – or woman. It has to be admitted that if you make jeans which never wear out, there comes a time when you have to diversify to boost sales.
Tops, shirts, and now – or rather from next spring in Britain – shoes will enable men, women and children to present a united Wrangler-clad front to the world.
The other huge area for expansion is in working uniforms. Wrangler actually started out as a company making working denims – and retains a successful range called Red Kap just about to cover the working force of France, Germany and Ireland in stylish denim.
Links have been forged with industrial laundries, and Mr Wrangler is looking forward to the day when even Britain’s workforce wears the denim for the job, in different colours according to function.
This may sound a little unlikely in Britain, with our dislike of uniforms perhaps left over from attitudes to public schools. But wait for it – Mr Wrangler has thought of how best to overcome the prejudice; these denims – and the laundering of them – will be a tax benefit just as they are for millions of Americans today.
Rickenbacker made a good point here, which won him a nod of approval: almost on their own, jeans have brought about what countless generations of education, political pressure and hope have failed to achieve.
Jeans have destroyed the concept of class, low or high, poor or rich, everyone wears jeans, after all.
But doesn’t that hold a hidden threat to the future. Surely sometime, some place, a reaction may swell and the denim dream will be over.
Blue jeans will no longer be redolent of cowboys and open spaces and freedom, but partake of the reality of all almost Mao-style uniformity, an international sameness we must one day be bored by.
Mr Wrangler, though, makes a minor concession. The “Midnight Cowboys” of the jeans trade and the rich end of the market – they’re in trouble. It’s the clean-cut, cowboy-competitive top three, who enjoy a fair fight and even have a non-committal word over the saloon bar, who will stay alive – Levis, Wranglers and Lee.
And there’s always room for the quick-on-the-draw kid who takes a new idea and acts on it faster than the top three – though no-one points out the fate of such arrivistes when the heavies come in… often, they move on to the next. market.
Blue Bell was small fry once itself, before Mr Wrangler was born. Then (in 1916) the firm was 12 sewing machines making top overalls and dungarees in a small factory in Tennessee – just the sort of thing the Waltons might have worn.
During the Second World War, the company made 24 million garments for the US Armed Forces, then applied what in the trade is called “the cowboy cut” to achieve the fit and sex appeal of jeans today.
Now there are 90 manufacturing plants in America, and eight countries throughout the world. The pioneering spirit of marketing is extending the empire on which the sun of success will not soon set. That’s for certain: Mr Wrangler says so.
*In a 1970s Wrangler advertising campaign, an employee called Rickenbacker was always making mistakes leading his boss to exclaim ‘Good grief, Rickenbacker.’