Bills Khakis {Step Away From That Costco Table}

The decision to locate Bills Khakis in the City of Reading is an obligation to our community. Too many cities have been abandoned by businesses leaving a vacuum while depleting our countryside. We hope that with the growth of our company, we can inspire entrepreneurship and renewal…

--"Angels in Khakis," Bill Thomas, Founder/CEO Bills Khakis, 2005

Entrepreneurs should stay in touch with the philosophical side of what they're doing...know what your company represents. In our case, we are preserving and celebrating a piece of Americana that is becoming harder and harder to get in touch with.

--"Entrepreneur Insights with Bill Thomas of Bills Khakis," 2003

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I'm reeled in by a good narrative. The Bills Khakis story begins with a family photo posted on the company's website. There's little Bill Thomas, future founder, in his loving mama's arms. And there's his Dad (who passed away when Bill was only 11) in rumpled khakis, holding some big ol' fish he just caught. Caught me, too. I wanted to hang out with this family. Fire up the grill, throw on the fish, pull up a lawn chair, sit for a spell. But wait. This is supposed to be about khakis, not family, right? Where was I…? Pegging a brand to its founder, that's where. I like that. It holds him accountable. Oh and by the way, Bills Khakis sells Amish-made leather belts. You can't make this stuff up. I guess you could, but it wouldn't be as much fun.

And before we go any further: That's Bills without an apostrophe. "I didn't feel like I wanted it to be a possessive word," Thomas told reporter Linda Miller. "I just wanted people to say, 'I'm wearing Bills.'" I believe him. That's key, I think. Believability and authenticity. When the same reporter asked what men like most about Bills, Thomas said "It has a story, it's made in America, and it's real."

Called "wildly popular," Bills Khakis has amassed a loyal, often iconic following since its 1989 launch. There's the trio of Bills, who undoubtedly like seeing their name sewn onto the outside label: Bradley, Clinton, and Gates. Add to them David Letterman, former President George W. Bush, and the entire Bush clan. In 1999, GQ proclaimed Bills Khakis "Pants of the Gods." Wrote Owen Edwards: "The timing is a couple of millennia off, but surely the old thunder maker would have been divinely happy with Bills Khakis. After all, these pants…derive their classic style from the trousers worn by such American immortals as MacArthur, Eisenhower, and Patton."

And that was before the brand added its Amish belt.

Still, I'd never heard of Bills Khakis until its Nano-sized ad caught my eye in the Wall Street Journal. Last night, as he read his New England Journal of Medicine, I slid the WSJ under Don / Richie C's nose. I pointed to the Bills Khakis ad. "They're 'wildly popular,'" I said, then added, "'Pants of the Gods." Don looked at the ad more closely. "Never heard of 'em." Handing the newspaper back, he said, "Sorry I can't help. But if they're made in the USA, buy me a pair."

Maybe Don's never heard of the Bills Khakis because they're sold in "high-end men's specialty shops." When you're working hard, caring for patients, caring for your own family, coaching your kids' soccer games, serving as webelo scoutmaster (even wearing that nifty uniform, complete with neckerchief and sewn-on patches), running to your daughters' dance recitals, volunteering as a timer at swim meets, schlepping teenagers to the mall, pacing the floor at night until aforementioned teens are safely home; when you're trying to squeeze in dinner and a movie one Saturday night a month, the phrase "high-end men's specialty shops" never enters the conversation. There's a time and a place for everything, right? Everything except high-end men's specialty shops.

Over the years Don has run into Costco to buy comfortable, affordable Polo Ralph Lauren chinos. The pair currently hanging in his closet was made in Singapore. Like so many Americans, he now wants to buy USA-made, but doing so takes research, time and--using Bills Khakis as a pricing indicator--extra money. Are Bills Khakis worth their price? On the other hand, as we've repeatedly discussed, what's the true cost of those foreign made chinos or khakis when you add in lost jobs, lost capital, the cost of unemployment benefits, loss of morale, lost sense of purpose? Can we afford not to buy American-made?

Bills Khakis is not about mass production or ending up on a Costco table. It's about loyalty to country. It's about nostalgia and yearning. For times gone by, for values held dear; for a family member lost too soon. "As fascinated as we are with the future," says Bill Thomas on the company's website, "our hearts lie in the past." In 1999, Philadelphia Magazine writer Kathleen Renda described a Bills Khakis catalogue interspersed with sepia-toned family photos and wistful excerpts: "Bills Khakis," said one excerpt "is the type of product he would have valued and worn."

In keeping with this sense of longing for a time when products--cell phones, computers, flat screen TVs--didn’t become obsolete overnight and apparel was actually made to last, the company's tagline reads: "We made Bills better by not changing a thing."

This brings consumers full circle back to that nostalgic family photo of Thomas's Dad in those rumpled khakis. But it also speaks to the rest of the Bills Khakis story. In 1984, as a Dennison, Ohio, college student, Thomas tried on a pair of World War II khakis at a nearby Army-Navy surplus store. He couldn't get over the quality, fit and comfort of these originals. They were not only perfect, they represented a forgotten piece of Americana, the bygone era of the Greatest Generation. Smitten, he soon discovered his first pair would be his last. The khakis were no longer being manufactured.

Over the next many months, he tried wearing old khakis from L.L. Bean and J. Crew, but found them lacking. The cheesecloth pockets were too shallow. The pants' cloth was too lightweight. Thomas realized that if he couldn't find a great pair of khakis that matched his favorite pair, no one else could either.

Recreating those World War II khakis became Thomas's driving purpose. After college he had eight months on his own in Chicago before he was to begin a job with advertising agency Leo Burnett. Armed with a $5,000 loan co-signed by his mom, Thomas began his quest to manufacture a couple hundred pairs of his beloved khakis. Ironically, it turned out that the best place to manufacture them was his childhood home town of Reading, Pennsylvania. According to writer Renda, he "ordered a run of 250 pairs, priced his pants at $59, and started peddling them from the trunk of his car. After about 18 months, he had sold them all."

In 1989, after having learned the advertising ropes, Thomas took the plunge and quit. He moved in with his mom, Marge, in rural Bernville, just outside Reading. He undertook a series of part-time jobs (including greens crew, ski lift operator, sporting goods salesman, and rock & roll promoter) and eventually, with the help of family money, pooled the $10,000 needed to launch his business. Each time he turned a profit, he reinvested. He expanded his line, placed ads in the New Yorker. Marge helped fill orders. He hired a handful of employees. He began selling to stores. And then he got a break , says Renda, when "a character wore [his khakis] on the television show Northern Exposure, and the media was ebullient in its praise. Bills Khakis had finally taken off."

According to its website, Bills Khakis currently has 20 "devoted" employees. "All products, including pants, shorts, jeans, shirts and jackets are produced in the United States." The company home is still downtown Reading, in "a renovated warehouse building that was once home to the Reading Hardware Company and now appears on the National Historic Register."

But Bills Khakis--with apologies to GQ--is, after all, a mere mortal brand. Much of its clothing, as an alert reader pointed out, is made from imported fabrics. Here's Bill Thomas's response to this issue:

"Thanks for your inquiry. We source two specific fabrics here in the US, specifically our Original Twill and our Cramerton Twill. Most every other fabric is from Europe, South America or Asia or India. Very few fabrics are still made in the U.S., and the mills that do produce here have already taken most of their production, and resources over seas. We do, however, cut & sew all our products in the U.S. All our products are tagged accordingly."

So if you're looking for 100% USA-made, choose the Original Twill or Cramerton Twill. Yesterday I stopped by one of the suggested retailers in my area to see Bills Khakis firsthand. As Mr. Thomas stated, his products are accurately tagged. If they're made from imported fabric (as were the two styles available at this store), the sewn-in label at the neck or waistband clearly states that. But manufactured here from imported fabric is still preferable to totally manufactured offshore. Don't you agree?

Currently, Bills Khakis sells to over 500 retail stores across the United States. In 2008, according to an online source, revenues neared $10 million. Customer enthusiasm and loyalty abounds. Some customers apparently own 40 pairs of Bills. But for me, the best part of this story comes here at the end.

Located in Reading, Pennsylvania, Bills Khakis sits in the heart of a distressed urban area. While residents of Reading desperately want to make improvements and attract businesses, it can be tough to get funding. Bill Thomas knows about that firsthand. He pledged to give back as soon as his company could safely do so. In January, 2004, after Bills Khakis had reached a $9 million milestone, Thomas and President/COO John Dever, Jr. created the Bills Khakis Community Fund. The fund is there to help those who want to start companies of their own in downtown Reading. "We started the fund because we love the entrepreneurial spirit. It's the engine that truly drives economics and helps people realize their dreams."

When Don picks up his first pair of Bills Khakis, the ripple effect will reach all the way across the country to Reading, Pennsylvania. Great way to stretch his dollar, don't you think? Oh, and the Amish belt? I'm ordering it online. I think Scoutmaster Don will appreciate it.

Thanks, Bills Khakis. Pleasure getting to know you.