mike dehen portrait
Image: Daniel Root

Mike Dehen with samples of Dehen 1920’s reinvention of his company’s archival designs.

VAGUE BUT fervent desires for our country to “make stuff” periodically seize Americans. Dehen’s fashion makeover coincides with such a moment, as President Obama urges a manufacturing “renaissance.” (His 2012 rivals will certainly make sad-faced tours of dying Rust Belt widget factories to insist there’s no such thing.) On a boutique level, organizations like San Francisco’s SFMade and places like Brooklyn’s Navy Yard, where hundreds of light industrial firms operate cheek-by-jowl, constitute a craft-oriented equivalent of food’s locavore movement.

Judging by recent employment stats—in June, the Canadian province of Alberta created more new jobs than the entire United States—this renaissance has a long way to go. Still, manufacturing is a bright spot for beleaguered Oregon. A Brookings Institution report hailed Portland as one of the nation’s leading export cities. Alongside giants like Precision Castparts and Intel, Portland has spawned a diverse galaxy of smaller companies that assemble everything from the predictable (cycling bags) to the surreal (lifelike sex toys). Elsewhere, a firefighting apparel company—Portland’s Nine 1 One Gear—recently shifted production from China to Salem. (See our photo feature City of Industry for a portrait of some local builders, makers, and assemblers.)

But none of this energy addresses the nostalgia for the lost industrial golden age evoked by Dehen’s history. The tale—recounted, with definite marketing spin, on Dehen 1920’s website—goes back to German brothers who immigrated to the West Coast in 1903. The brothers (so the story goes) settled in San Francisco, smuggled liquor, and did some prison time before one—trained knitter William Peter Dehen—stole the other’s girlfriend and moved to Portland.

“We all grew up with the family legends,” Mike Dehen, William Peter’s grandson, says now. “In retrospect, there was probably fuzzy gloss on some of them.”

Prewar Portland’s woodsy culture and economic base meant a thriving market for outdoor gear and workwear—a market served largely by the city’s Germans. Carl Jantzen made uniforms for the Willamette Rowing Club before building the era’s most recognizable and innovative sportswear brand. The Hirsch brothers bought a company that sewed ships’ sails, switched to making logging clothes, renamed their firm White Stag, and eventually pioneered ski apparel. Refugees fleeing the Nazi regime took over a local hatmaker and transformed it into Columbia Sportswear.

Today, it’s tempting to consider these primordial companies merely the genetic blueprint for Nike, Adidas, and the rest of Portland’s modern apparel sector. “Jantzen and Columbia meant that when Nike started, there was already a cluster here,” says Tom Gillpatrick, a marketing professor at Portland State. “Design, manufacturing, marketing—all that know-how was in Portland already.” At the time, however, garment-making was just one thriving industrial trade among many, in a city where a high school grad could step into a decently paid career.

Gary Hilde comes from that largely vanished world. The affable 62-year-old started as a knitting mechanic just after graduating from Benson, inner Portland’s technical high school, in 1967. Hilde remembers when Jantzen’s 3,000 or so employees anchored a whole industrial culture. “They were the core of the supply line,” he says. “They trained the mechanics, the designers, everyone. My first job was at Columbiaknit, which had its facility on East Burnside and 18th. When we needed a part, we walked over to Jantzen’s factory at 20th and Sandy.”

dehen fabric colors
Image: Daniel Root

Veteran Dehen seamstress Helene Gosling.

Hilde joined Dehen in 1974 and worked his way up the company’s ranks to his current position, helping to run the firm as its president. But his career path—from machinist to executive—is gone, unlikely to return. Today, when Portland’s economic development specialists talk about creating more apparel jobs, they mean designers, textile scientists, and brand managers, not knitting mechanics. Jantzen maintains a small office here but manufactures overseas. White Stag is a Wal-Mart house brand. Large apparel companies that manufacture in Portland, like Keen and Danner Boots, are noteworthy exceptions.

Like a remote Swiss hill village where the peasants speak Latin, however, Dehen keeps the the old ways alive. To a visitor, the company seems to run as much on stubborn passion as logic. As Hilde puts it: “I don’t really care about high tech. I like to make things.”

Mike Dehen, a soft-spoken 62-year-old, stuck around even as his nine siblings bowed out. The Greek and Italian workers of his childhood gave way to Southeast Asian seamstresses; Wal-Mart decimated the sporting goods stores Dehen once relied on for distribution. The Northwest’s formerly robust supply chain shriveled as companies like Eastern Oregon’s Jefferson Woolen Mills died out, leaving Dehen at the mercies of global markets—snarled this spring, for example, by an Australian wool shortage.

Still, he soldiered on, alongside his brother-in-law (Artaiz) and the guy who came on board to run the knitting machines nearly 40 years ago (Hilde). He seems both excited and somewhat bemused that his grandfather’s company might be about to enjoy a high-fashion moment.

“It’s like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day,” Dehen says. “And it gives us a chance that people, at least a few, will get a new appreciation for what we do.”