DEHEN HAS BEEN operating in Portland since 1920, though many of the city's citizens are only dimly aware of it—if they're aware of it at all. Yet the knitwear company's signature items—varsity jackets, cheerleading uniforms, motorcycle club sweaters—are deeply intertwined with the visual history of American life.
William Peter Dehen emigrated from Germany to the US in 1903, originally settling in San Francisco, where he found work in a knitting factory. Along with his brother, he also helped move alcohol into the country from Canada, a side project that earned both Dehens a little time behind bars. After his release (and after stealing and marrying his brother's girlfriend while he was still stuck in the clink), William moved north to Portland and found work as a night knitting manager at Jantzen Knitting Mills.
When he struck out on his own with Dehen, William created a company that proved to be resourceful and adaptable, sometimes to a ridiculous degree. For instance, during the Great Depression, when the bank was ready to seize Dehen's property, William snuck into the factory at night and moved all the knitting machines into the basement of his house. Legend has it, there are even photographs of the hole that was cut into the floor of the kitchen to accommodate a particularly tall piece of equipment. The company weathered the hard times by selling sweaters door to door, sometimes bartering them for food. They similarly had to battle out the materials shortages of WWII, and more recently faced the market changes that led to the demise of many an American manufacturing firm.
When offshore labor became the norm, the decision to remain in Portland meant that Dehen was an exception to the rule. However, there was a feeling that it was more important to retain their American-made status than to maximize profits—and to do so would have arguably devalued iconically American garments.
These days, with a boom in the interest in "heritage brands" like Dehen, they are making moves to adapt once more. They recently hired Nathaniel Crissman, who co-designs the Church & State line with Rachel Turk—those two, along with John Blasioli, are the three designers tapped by Pendleton to create the highly successful Portland Collection for the brand, a foray that earned them a place in forward-thinking, independently minded clothing boutiques around the world.
Similarly, Crissman is expanding and tailoring a line called Dehen 1920 for the brand, which aimed to appeal to a similar menswear market, and the effort started to pay off when they were included in a showcase of American-made apparel during last winter's Pitti Uomo menswear trade show in Florence, Italy.
This week they're hosting a factory sale, which presents a rare opportunity to find a wide range of Dehen products—including samples, $20 jackets, and the current collection—for sale under one roof. Time to grab a piece of wearable local history. Dehen factory sale, 1040 NE 44th, Ste. 3, Thurs April 23-Fri April 24, 10 am-4 pm, Sat April 25, 10 am-3 pm
• Two of the city's finest tastemakers, shop/gallery Nationale and Portland Garment Factory, are teaming up for "Big Shirt." Part pop-up shop and part art installation, look for PGF's HouseLine of womenswear plus viewing enjoyments including but not limited to... a really frigging big shirt. Nationale, 3360 SE Division, Wed April 22-Sun April 26, opening reception Thurs April 23, 4-8 pm
• Mabel & Zora is celebrating its ninth anniversary with a trunk show of Grayling jewelry. Plus, in-house apparel line Tiffany Bean will be marked down 20 percent through the weekend. Mabel & Zora, 748 NW 11th, Thurs April 23, 5-8 pm
• No discussion of Italian contributions to fashion is complete without addressing the importance of craftsmanship. That's why the Portland Art Museum's programming in conjunction with the Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 exhibit includes a showcase of some of Portland's own design talent, demonstrating and discussing their own techniques live in the gallery space every Saturday. This week, the guest is the Oregon State University Apparel Design Program. Portland Art Museum's Object Stories gallery, 1219 SW Park, Sat April 25, 1-5 pm, included with $20 museum admission
• Your annual opportunity to spend a pleasant Saturday exploring some of the city's finest modern homes has arrived. The eight houses in the self-guided Portland Modern Home Tour include examples at the vanguard of sustainable design, a development that features a "community keg," and a house that floats! Portland Modern Home Tour, Sat April 25, 11 am-5 pm, $30-40
• If you're feeling inspired by Portland's thriving DIY culture, now's a good time to jump in. Here's a chance: The recently opened A.ell Atelier is hosting a "Sewing 101" class where you pick up starter tips over the simple task of creating your own up-cycled totebag (note: bring something old to work from, like a curtain or a dress). A.ell Atelier, 3539 SE Hawthorne, Sat April 25, 1-3 pm, $15, reserve a spot: email@example.com
• It's a telltale sign of a corporate background when you send a press release about a "consumer facing opportunity," and this is what we have here: The designers behind the menswear line Jugar are former Nike employees, and the resultant apparel bears a strong athletic-wear influence. Jugar's been quiet around town as it makes inroads abroad, but this weekend they'll be hosting a two-day pop-up shop where you can get acquainted. The Cleaners at Ace Hotel, 403 SW 10th, Sat April 25 & Sun April 26, 11 am-7 pm