If you ask Jack King if he ever thought he’d wind up in the clothing business, he’ll answer you with two curt words: “Absolutely not!” It’s true, but it’s also hard to believe; the business seems to run in the King blood. In 1913, Jack’s great-grandfather, Landon Clayton (L.C.) King, and a pattern-maker named Lockwood, started a cut-and-sew factory in downtown Bristol, Tennessee. The following year the company trademarked the “Pointer” brand for its line of workwear. The business expanded, and over the next ninety years, L.C., then his sons, and then his grandsons, managed the operation. But Jack wasn’t interested. “I didn’t want to be in that factory,” he says. “I wanted to open up a food import-export business in Singapore.”
Today Jack is not in Southeast Asia. He’s in eastern Tennessee, serving as the president and sole owner of the L.C. King Manufacturing Company, the oldest cut-and-sew textile mill in America still run by the founding family. Instead of contemplating the logistics of importing French fries into Singapore, Jack spends his days considering how to best produce and market chore coats and overalls. And while L.C. King is a company he never intended to join, it is a business he is proud of and a legacy he is committed to preserving.
In the winter of 1997, Jack’s father Riley King was managing the L.C. King factory. Riley’s brother Richard, who was in charge of production, had retired in 1993 and Riley needed help. At the time, Jack was in Atlanta working for a successful food broker, which he considered a dream job. But when Riley called and asked his son to come work for him, Jack reluctantly agreed. In November 1997, he walked through the door of the factory that had provided a living for three generations of Kings as well as countless numbers of families in Bristol. It did not go well.
“My dad had a strong personality,” Jack says. “It was the typical father and son relationship where you don’t get along because you’re both strong individuals.”
So rather than argue with his dad, Jack focused his attention on finding his place in the company. At the time the Internet had just come on the scene, and Jack felt his first job at L.C. King should be getting the company up on the web. He designed a website that far surpassed what most companies were doing at the time and created a social media loyalty program long before social media even existed. “We had a page on the website called Pointer Brand People,” Jack says. “If a person sent us a photograph of them wearing our stuff—now, this was before cell phones, so an actual photograph—we would scan it and upload it to the website. Then we would send them a free T-shirt. What was really great was looking at what was in the background of the picture because it told you the life the people were actually leading while wearing our jeans or overalls, and to me that was what I liked the most. A lot of the great pictures were of fathers and sons. It was a nice wholesome way to promote the brand.”
The nineties were a boom time for the L.C. King Company. The factory was producing its own Pointer brand of workwear, as well as providing outdoor wear for several other companies, including Sears, Wal-Mart, Cabela’s, and Bass Pro Shop. But the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) ended that fruitful run. It happened so suddenly it was as if someone had flipped a switch. “In 1999, our business disappeared overnight,” Jack says. “I mean gone. It just stopped. All of the sudden we had to figure out what to do, and all we could do was start to promote ourselves on the Pointer brand label.”
The Pointer brand has been a mainstay of American-made workwear for more than a hundred years. The iconic label featuring L.C. King’s beloved pointer breed of dog has been worn by generations of farmers and outdoorsmen, and more recently hipsters, all who appreciate well-made, American-sourced, long-lasting clothing. In fact, the overalls last so long they come with a lifetime repair guarantee. Pointer is more of an icon than a brand, and its customer base is loyal and somewhat predictable. You can often discern where someone is from just by the type of Pointer overalls they’re wearing: low-back in Kentucky and South Carolina, high-back in Georgia. And even though he is president of the company with a slew of responsibilities, if you’re wearing a pair of Pointer low-back overalls purchased within the last twenty years, you should know that Jack King himself sewed the suspenders.
“That’s how I was able to get the men and ladies who work here to be on my side when I first started,” Jack says. “They didn’t really know me, so one day I went up to see Mary, who was in charge of the parts room, and told her I wanted her to teach me a sewing job. I wanted to make something that we were actually delivering to the customer. She taught me how to make the suspenders for the low-back overalls. You use four different machines to make these suspenders. I soon learned why the ladies were always complaining about the mechanic not fixing the machines. I developed a personal relationship with the people sewing upstairs. Being part of what the workers were experiencing gave me compassion to what they are going through. And I still make the low-back suspenders to this day.”
But no matter how well made and how beloved they may be, the harsh reality is the market for overalls is limited. So, in 2016 the company unveiled the L.C. King brand, a line of workwear that doubles as streetwear: jeans, chore coats, barn coats, and vests. “It’s a more refined product,” Jack says. “New patterns, updated fits, new sewing applications, and like Pointer it’s 100-percent American-sourced.”
The commitment to American sourcing is something Jack is proud of, but it’s also a cause of concern. The American textile industry is now almost non-existent. The abandoned and repurposed textile mills that dot the South are a reminder of how a once-burgeoning industry moved overseas at a rapid pace, taking its ancillary businesses with it. “America is not in the textile business anymore,” Jack says. “There is only one fabric mill left in America—Mount Vernon out of Trion, Georgia. So, challenge number one is to continue offering a 100-percent American-sourced product.”
Jack took over full management of L.C. King in 2005 and purchased the company from his father two years later. And while the American textile industry continues to wither, the L.C. King Manufacturing Company persists, in large part due to Jack’s dedication and the talent of the men and women who work there, some for as long of forty-five years. The factory has been a vital part of downtown Bristol, Tennessee, for more than a century, and Jack says just about everyone in the region has a family member who has worked at L.C. King at one time or another.
Whether Jack knows you or not, if you happen to run into him while wearing an L.C. King product, he’ll most likely approach you and thank you for your support. He wants to develop a personal relationship with the people who wear his products because the garments his factory produces require a commitment. “When you buy workwear, it’s typically not broken in,” he says. “So the customer has to commit themselves to wearing this garment and it being a part of their life for a substantial time. If you buy something we make, you’re going to have it for a long time because of the construction and the quality. Look, we’re not fast fashion. We’re not a fad. We’re just a little factory in downtown Bristol, Tennessee, in rural Appalachia, that just happens to make great clothing.”
Crafted to last a lifetime with 100-percent American-sourced materials, L.C. King’s Pointer overalls and shirts have been worn by generations. For more information visit lcking.com