The European headquarters of Wrangler in Bornem, Belgium, feel less like the home of a billion-dollar business and more like the base of a trendy start-up. With a vibrant, youthful atmosphere and staff decked head to toe in Wrangler alongside swish decor in the brand’s signature branding and giant posters from the latest campaign, this 70-year-old brand is being brought firmly into the 21st century.
Pioneering this transformation is Rino Castiglione, who has been EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) president of Wrangler since 2015.
The first thing Castiglione does when he walks into Wrangler’s showroom at parent company VF Corporation’s head office is to climb on to the rugged wooden table to fiddle with the overhead lights. Evidently hands on, this relaxed president takes Wrangler very personally.
Originally from Sicily, he moved to nearby Antwerp when he joined the company nearly three years ago, and although clearly enamoured with both the business and the town, his eyes flit pointedly to the pouring rain outside the window when asked how the two compare.
Despite this somewhat unassuming location for its European headquarters, both Wrangler and VF have rich histories, and the latter is one of the largest fashion companies in the world. It also owns denim brand Lee, as well as The North Face, Vans and Timberland – all of which are run from the European headquarters in Bornem.
Founded in 1947, but with origins tracing back to 1904, Wrangler is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. One of the three best-known denim brands in the world (alongside Levi’s and Lee), the brand began life creating denim for American cowboys.
“Wrangler is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of American denim along with Levi’s and Lee, but compared with the other two is something of a newcomer,” says Doug Gunn, managing director of The Vintage Showroom. “It feels younger and fresher to a degree as a result. I always think of Wrangler as having the western influence – it started very much aimed at the cowboy and rodeo fan market.”
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s – what Castiglione describes as the “glory days” – Wrangler became known for its figure-hugging kick flares.
“Wrangler always had its own distinct look and feel to the brand, away from what was going on at Levi’s and Lee, and I think that holds true today,” agrees Ame Pearce, a freelance denim design consultant. “For me the 1970s was when Wrangler came into its own, using interesting fabrics and colours capturing those ‘Summer of Love’ vibes.”
In 2016, the brand had global revenues of $1.7bn (£1.2bn), has more than 865 stores worldwide and ecommerce sites in 13 countries.
Having worked for Valentino Maison as sales manager from March 1998 to January 2000 and regional manager at Benetton from February 2000 to February 2002, Castiglione joined Wrangler from fellow denim giant Guess, where he was vice-president of the jeanswear division from 2009. Although he confesses he did not wear Wrangler before he got the job, his enthusiasm about its potential is nonetheless vibrant and infectious.
“I always thought of Wrangler and Lee as two of the most iconic denim brands,” he says. “Today I’m even more convinced that we have a bigger opportunity for the future. I accepted this as a challenge because I believe the brand has an opportunity to become more and more relevant.”
Today I’m even more convinced that we have a bigger opportunity for the future
Since starting in his role as president in 2015, Castiglione has spearheaded a series of sweeping strategic changes to the business, from shaking up the product range with new lines and collaborations targeted at a wider audience – and at the same time expanding its pricing architecture – kicking off a store refit programme and launching its ecommerce operations. He sees his role as bringing the Wrangler heritage brand to a new, youthful generation. His aim is to modernise the brand for a new audience while still celebrating its unique heritage.
“With a brand like Wrangler with 70 years of history, you need to respect your roots and follow that heritage and DNA,” he explains. “Three years ago we said, let’s go back to that DNA. Let’s continue to develop Wrangler as it originally was.”
Castiglione takes the “glory days” of the 1970s as his reference point – Wrangler’s “provocative, young, sexy and funny” ethos is reborn, and also celebrates the retro aesthetic and cowboy origins that made the brand iconic.
Wrangler’s latest results showed slightly slowing revenues: global revenues were down 2% in the second quarter of 2017 year on year, but revenues were steady across Europe. In a consistently tough climate (VF’s total jeanswear revenue fell 7% year on year in the first half of 2017) the renewed focus on traditional denims, heritage and storytelling is astute.
“We are definitely seeing a revival of heritage denim,” says Emily Gordon Smith, head of fashion at Stylus, an innovation research and advisory company. “Not just because of the omni-nostalgia that surrounds us but also as a counter to the technical denims (with a focus on ultra-stretch) that have really driven sales for so long. We can now see a renewed interest and excitement around the tradition of denim, and what that means in terms of looks and qualities.”
Generation Z will one day become 45% of total consumers
At the same time, Wrangler is widening its customer base, Castiglione explains: “If we are thinking as a consumer perspective, the younger generation: Generation Z will one day become 45% of total consumers,” he says. “We want to be ready to compete across global markets, not just in Europe.”
Reworked product is part of this strategy, and the new Blue and Yellow range will launches for spring 18. In addition to urban-inspired hoodies, jeans designs incorporate retro elements. One pair, laid out in the driftwood panelled showroom, features detailing borrowed from the earliest of Wrangler designs: seams on the outside of the leg intended to make horseback riding more comfortable and seven belt loops to stop jeans falling down. Paired with a light, faded wash and trendy straight leg, these jeans are sure to prove popular with the Gen Z target market. (Wholesale prices for the collection range from £10 for a T-shirt to £40 for a denim jacket)
Castiglione is also starting to gear the Wrangler product to be much more lifestyle focused, no longer purely a performance denim brand.
“Denim is the core of the business but how we want to approach the market now, tied to our new brand strategy, is to become more and more lifestyle,” he explains. One area of focus for this is tops, which have become a huge hit, and have helped drive the brand’s womenswear growth, which now makes up around 20% of sales up from around 10%. Standout designs include prints borrowed from archive imagery, and the iconic “Wrangler” logo T-shirt (£25).
The youth market is not the only focus for the brand, and by leveraging collaborations, Wrangler has opened up a market in the higher-end luxury market.
The 70th anniversary collaboration collections with artist Peter Max for autumn 17 and spring 18 (pictured), which features bold prints and patterns redolent of his famous “Summer of Love” and “Yellow Submarine” works, sits at a more premium price point. Retail prices range from £60 for a graphic T-shirt to £400 for a Sherpa jacket. Denim jackets are £220. Yoox and Colette in Paris are stockists.
“It was a good step for the brand as momentum to celebrate the 70th anniversary,” says Castiglione, “But it was also a part of the new Wrangler strategy.” Although tight-lipped on future partners, Castiglione is keen to create additional capsules to sustain this premium offer.
A scroll through the brand’s Instagram posts gives further insight into Wrangler’s new direction. A parade of super-cool influencers and models, kitted out in Wrangler, are snapped at the world’s hottest festivals and events. From singer Dua Lipa in a colour-block denim jacket to model of the moment Adwoa Aboah at the brand’s “Wroller Disco” anniversary party at consumer trade show Bread and Butter in Berlin earlier this month, the feed oozes desirability.
Wholeale and retail
“Customer are looking for style, comfort and longevity,” explains Colette O’Boyle, menswear buyer for Arnotts. “With Wrangler, they know they are getting all of these things. A heritage brand like Wrangler that has always been synonymous with denim speaks to our customer.”
[The ecommerce site] was one key project when I began at Wrangler
As well as a focus on wholesale, the retail arm of the business is undergoing a modernisation, as Castiglione aims to make the business fit for the modern shopper. Wrangler has more than 865 stores worldwide, and in December launched its new global flagship store in Moscow – Castiglione believes the Russian market has huge potential. While the store brings “a different, new and better experience fit for our new consumer”, combining heritage details with a more sleek, lighter look, and tying in with his belief that as digital retail grows, “in the future, bricks-and-mortar stores will become more about the brand experience”.
Surprisingly, Wrangler only launched its European transactional website two years ago.
“[The ecommerce site] was one key project when I began at Wrangler,” explains Castiglione, who is animated about the potential changes the possibilities of etail. “Today you can’t exist without being digital: digital is the future – as a channel today it’s growing faster and faster, and it’s part of the life of the next generation.”
When it comes to other future issues, Castiglione is, if not dismissive, largely relaxed, about the likely impacts of Brexit on the business in the UK. Wrangler is “monitoring” the situation, but is yet to make any changes or feel any impact.
With Castiglione driving the brand, its 70th anniversary marks a turning point, as it draws on its heritage to appeal to the up-and-coming generation of the next 70 years.