dehen yarn spools
Image: Daniel Root

Master knitter Gary Hilde.

IN MAY 2009, with the economy in nuclear winter, James Clark knew he was about to be fired. So he rose from his desk at Nike, donned an orange University of Texas football helmet with a full face mask and plastic shield, and headed to a meeting with his boss.

“It was like a storm that was moving around,” he says now of the 1,750 layoffs. “I knew I was out. Unlike most of the people who were going to lose their jobs, I was actually kind of stoked. I figured I’d lighten things up a bit.”

First, Clark bought a declaration of independence in the form of Nike rival Adidas’s Superstar sneakers. Then, armed with his severance pay and 18 months of health insurance, the now-43-year-old father of two began figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. (Disclosure: Clark and the writer are friends.)

Over the next year, he tinkered with entrepreneurial ideas. He looked around for small companies he could buy or invest in, and worked on a plan to manufacture bags and accessories with a partner in Asia. He discovered Dehen when looking for a local company that could potentially apply finishing touches to these products.

Besides jackets and pleated skirts for cheerleaders, Dehen operates in a number of niches, like knitting sweaters for Portland’s Flying Fifteen Motorcycle Club and sewing faux-antique uniforms for baseball players who insist on playing by the rules (and in the gear) of the 1860s. Dehen also makes samples and small-batch products for Portland’s indie fashion-design scene; on one recent afternoon, Seth Aaron Henderson, the Vancouver-based Project Runway champ, glowered gothically in Dehen’s offices as he awaited a meeting.

Clark saw potential beyond these marginal enterprises. “I kept thinking, ‘Man, this is the coolest thing I’ve seen so far,’” he says. “We’ve been conditioned to buy a sweater at the Gap and just expect it to fall apart in six months. Dehen makes things in a fundamentally different way. And as someone who can barely trace my genealogy past my dad, the idea that this family has been making stuff in Portland for three generations struck me. Not like I want to be adopted by the Dehens, but I was jealous.

“I told Jim and Mike, look, people spend a fortune on branding to try to fake this kind of identity. You’ve got it. You’re real. You have an opportunity.”

AMONG THE GREAT RECESSION’S MANY strange machinations, the fashion world responded to teetering banks and imploding home prices by obsessing over “heritage”—antique styling, handcrafted materials, ancestral companies, and American (or sometimes British) manufacturing. The trend put men back in high-necked, old-fashioned shawl collars, and landed $600 shoes from the 127-year-old Massachusetts boot-maker Alden in the J. Crew catalog. A subculture of blogs, magazines, buzzy pop-up markets, and painstakingly “curated” retail shops developed. Portland’s own Pendleton and Seattle’s Filson both launched new lines to tailor their rural Northwestern workwear to urban tastemakers’ hunger for authenticity.

“We just kept doing what we’re good at.”
—Dehen’s Jim Artaiz

Clark convinced Dehen’s principals they could pull off a similar coup.

Creating Dehen 1920, however, was in many ways less than straightforward. The company archives held great old designs, but Dehen lacked the semimystical name recognition enjoyed by the likes of Pendleton. And unlike Nike, which maintains an in-house history department, the company possessed few actual artifacts of its saga.

“We never saw inherent value in brand heritage, or whatever you want to call it,” says president and master weaver Hilde. “We were just about making a living and making stuff for other people. Back in the day, you didn’t hold on to anything if you could help it. You sold it.”

For much of a year, Clark combed eBay and the West Coast’s best flea markets for old Dehen merchandise. He experimented with the new product line, struggling to translate the history and quality he loved into sellable clothes. New ideas started to crowd the original, archival inspirations. In an industry where designers routinely work two or three seasons in advance, time slipped by.

Clark called in Bob Smith, a freelance Portland designer and 11-year veteran of Nike, where he bucked the company’s innovation-first culture to launch a successful vintage product line in the early ’00s. (“They told me no one would buy a Nike shirt that said ‘Beaverton, Oregon,’” Smith says. “But I’d seen a kid in Paris wearing a shirt that said ‘Beaverton, Oregon.’”) Smith brought his scalpel.

“I told them, look, what’s cool here is the story. Let’s get to the story,” Smith says. “Pare it down to the essentials.”

The resulting line, which hits Japan this month and debuts in the US in October, consists of just seven basic designs: thick, darkly colored sweaters and jackets, some emblazoned with “DEHEN” or “1920,” many made with wool sourced from Pendleton. The lead catalog item is a virtual clone of the letterman cardigan from Boise; another features, yes, a shawl collar. Judging by samples that Hilde and the Dehen staff produced this spring, the 1920 clothes are as crisply finished as they are grandfatherly in design.

“The world doesn’t really need any more stupid retro shit,” Smith says. “I was drawn to Dehen because they make really good stuff. When I first watched them knit the letterman sweater—my God. The thing came off the machine and almost stood up and walked around. Nobody makes clothes like that anymore.”