ON A SPRING DAY IN THE OFFICE OF DEHEN, a small Portland clothing company, Jim Artaiz pulls out a cardboard box recently unearthed at a venerable Boise sporting goods store. An ivory-colored wool cardigan lies inside, carefully folded. A burnt-orange “A” adorns the left breast, and the label of Dehen, a firm founded in 1920 by Artaiz’s wife’s grandfather, is sewn inside the collar. “This is from the early ’60s, maybe the late ’50s,” says the tall 53-year-old. “Someone paid a deposit, but never picked it up. It’s been in a basement for 50 years.”
Outside Artaiz’s office, just a couple of sewing machines whir beneath the skylights of the former Fred Meyer warehouse that houses Dehen’s small factory, tucked between I-84 and the posh Laurelhurst neighborhood. Even though it’s a half-century old, the accidentally archived sweater looks like it could just have rolled off the hulking old knitting machines that stand in the center of the workshop. A quick touch reveals why: the thing is constructed like a battleship, with a dense weave of virgin Oregon wool that creates a stiff, indestructible texture from a time before comfort as we know it was invented.
Though several generations have passed since the last time a high school football hero wanted a letterman cardigan, to Artaiz and the rest of this family firm, the sweater is as much a prototype as a relic. Dehen is about to bet a sizable chunk of its future on convincing 21st-century fashion fans to buy garments pretty much exactly like it.
“You could say they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” Artaiz says, replacing the box’s lid. “But actually, we can.”
DEHEN BEGAN in the glory days of Portland garment-making, when knitting assembly lines and sewing factories employed thousands, and landmark local companies like Jantzen and White Stag pioneered casual apparel and sportswear. In the ’60s, Dehen, while smaller than the big names, nonetheless occupied three-quarters of a block in what is now the Pearl District, with more than 100 employees and a shop full of unionized technicians.
“We’re a throw-away society. But our stuff lasts.”
—Gary Hilde, Dehen’s president and master knitter
Every major change in America’s apparel industry—manufacturing’s en masse move to Asia; big-box retail; consumers’ gravitation to cheap and disposable goods—buffeted the company. Today Dehen consists of a tight-knit handful of owners and veteran employees and a largely seasonal staff of about 35. The firm’s core trade of cheerleader gear and letterman jackets is steady but hardly growing. As Artaiz drily notes: “Other than Glee, it’s not really the cool thing for kids to wear right now.” The “cheer” business grows ever more complicated as increasingly competitive and athletic participants demand more color varieties and technical fabrics; the anemic economy has squeezed demand for $400 leather-sleeved letterman jackets.
In search of a future, Dehen is turning to its own past. This fall, the company will launch a spin-off brand, Dehen 1920, based on designs produced half a century ago for high school jocks, big men on campus, and 1950s motorcycle clubs. The new line will roll off the factory’s old machines—archaic industrial beasts made of heavy black iron and gleaming brass, built just after World War II and controlled with player piano–style punch cards.
Those knitters create garments, like that letterman sweater from Boise, that are both luxurious and brawny. A single sweater from Dehen 1920’s new collection might contain $40 worth of raw wool and retail for over $300.
“The cloth is the same as things we did decades ago,” says Gary Hilde, Dehen’s president, chief knitter, and probably one of the last people in the country capable of operating those ancient machines. “We’re aiming for someone who knows clothes and recognizes craft. So we’ve said, what’s the best thing we ever did, back in the day? Let’s bring it back, because there are people who want that quality.”
For all of its throwback trappings, however, Dehen 1920 arises from Portland’s 21st-century apparel industry. The effort unites Dehen’s long-time owner-operators—Artaiz, Hilde, and Mike Dehen, the last direct descendent of the Dehen clan serving as a partner—with unlikely collaborators: James Clark, a former Nike branding specialist; Sonny Okamoto, a Japanese retail entrepreneur; and consultants seasoned at modern companies, like Nau and Nike itself, that define Portland as the global capital of activewear.
In the grand scheme of the city’s apparel industry, which fuels at least 17,000 jobs and underpins Portland’s “creative economy,” the Dehen gambit is microscopic. Still, this small effort confronts a couple of Portland’s major economic questions: Can a soggy old logging town prosper by selling style to a global audience? And can Portlanders still prosper by making things?