With an eye for authenticity, an international clothing brand from Reading, PA: still finds inspiration in its local roots.
Symbolism and tradition are important to Bill Thomas. His company, Bills Khakis, was founded on the notion that a pair of WWII-issue khaki pants he found in an Army surplus store in college was a kind of symbol of American industry.
Those khakis, he says, were comfortable, deep-pocketed, and incredibly durable. It gave him an idea.
"I wore them into the ground," Thomas says. "And I realized how great they were, how there was an opportunity to create not only a company but also a brand."
Thomas founded Bills Khakis in 1990, and has since created a unique and powerful brand—a brand embodied by that first pair of Army surplus khakis.
"There was this metaphorical symbolism of what these khakis represented—something genuine, authentic, a bit of a touchstone," Thomas says. "It's also the comfort to know that not everything has to change to be better."
That message has resonated with consumers, and made Bills Khakis a national brand now sold in more than 500 men's specialty stores across the country.
"The market was in need of a great pair of khakis," he says. "There was room for a company to take a craft approach. I always say we're the only microbrewery of khakis."
And although Bills Khakis are sold nationally, the company is Pennsylvanian through and through. The first office was in Thomas' hometown of Reading, and it remains there today.
"The idea of committing to being in the downtown area was important from the start. Being in Reading always felt like the right thing to do," he says. "I also think that Reading, for our brand, represents a real piece of Pennsylvania—the railroad, the industrial town; a place where things were once made and a celebration of industry. I thought it was a good backdrop for our brand."
Here again, symbolism plays an important role: "Reading is a symbolic backdrop… Pennsylvania has a little bit of that industrial-era mystique, and you can't say that about every state. It can be a personality for a brand.”
Thomas says people are always recognizing the keystone in the company logo. What that symbolizes to customers, he says, is reliability—something Thomas has worked hard to imprint on his brand.
"The trick is to take a product that is timeless and make it relevant," he says. "It's about consistency and reliability, and when we change something, it's because we add something, not because we change the essential thing."
And Thomas has been changing some things at Bills Khakis lately. Not the khakis, of course, but the company has recently expanded its product line. Bills Khakis is selling belts now—all handmade, one at a time, by an Amish craftsman. Keeping with the company philosophy, Thomas reiterates that it's not just about what the product is, "It's how we go about making it, and the process."
"We're trying to take what we did with a pair of khaki pants, a basic item, and do it with other items," Thomas says. "Do it in a way that no one else is doing it—in a simple way."
Thomas plans to grow his company on that principal: Doing things the simple way, and doing them right. He says there is more demand out there than Bills Khakis currently is able to service, and his goal is to continue expanding the company's presence among consumers in the marketplace.
Toward that end, Bills Khakis launched a community Web site in the fall called Billskhakispub.com. An offshoot of the company's main site, Billskhakis.com, the purpose of the new site is to build a greater community among people who wear Bills Khakis. The site features forums, blogs and a preview of new products six months in advance.
Like most things about Bills Khakis, the site is designed to do something traditional and old-fashioned—like building community—in a new way.