Betty Madden Is Breathing New Life Into 130-Year-Old Lee Jeans

by Charles Manning

Betty Madden took over the reigns at Lee in December of 2018 and has spent the last year revamping the 130 year old denim brand’s offerings and reissuing some of the classic styles that made Lee famous in the mid 20th century. The results are cool, stylish, and ridiculously comfortable (no, seriously, I’m writing this while wearing a pair of Lee jeans and a Lee denim jacket and they feel like pajamas, they are so soft and flexible). 

Lee creative director Betty Madden

Tell us about your background! What were you doing before you became the creative director for Lee?
I spent 12 years at Abercrombie & Fitch. I started in women’s design as an intern when the company was tiny, almost like a startup. Then I worked in men’s, helped launch kids, and then played a key role in the creation, incubation, and launch of Hollister. I also worked in Ruehl, a luxury brand that included handbags and apparel. I am incredibly grateful for the training I received during my time at A&F; I feel like it has shaped my whole career.

I tend to love a good startup or clean up especially if it’s something I can really believe in. As VP of design at Aerie, I helped reimagine it when it was still just a fledging lingerie brand by American Eagle. My experience in lingerie, which is focused on innovation, function, and the consumer, gave me  insight I wouldn’t otherwise have. I then made the move to Nike, where I was the VP creative director for male and female sportswear apparel and footwear.

I left Nike to begin consulting, and spent several years creating new brand visions for clients, including beauty brands, did styling for film and photoshoots, as well as consulting in-house for brands like Victoria’s Secret. I also had a run at Old Navy to reimagine their kids line and their impulse shopping lane, which included paper goods, accessories, and other grab-and-go items. I have had a really diverse career spanning multiple product categories at every price level and I have loved it all.

America has such a rich denim heritage. What do you think makes Lee special?
The story of Lee is so beautiful and spans 130 years. We are written into the history of denim, and there are only a few brands who can claim that. What I love about Lee and what makes it truly special is that from the very beginning we have been inventive and creative, combining function and quality with style. Our clothes created a sense of pride and polish that offered confidence to every consumer, regardless of who they were or what they did for a living. Lee has an honest charm, a youthful spirit and a style that has stood the test of time and only gets better with age.

Vintage Modern Sherpa Lined Jacket, LEE, $108

Do you remember your first pair of Lees?
Lee was everything when I was growing up. It was cooler to wear Lee than any other denim brand. I don’t recall my first pair, but I had many pairs of Lee jeans and jackets and definitely splatter painted at least one or two.

What has been your proudest accomplishment since taking over at Lee?
Making change in how we think about product creation and what the team was able to accomplish in a year loaded with change. It’s exciting to think about how we’re unifying the globe around a single creative brand vision, and how we will continue to lead as brand stewards, adding new chapters to this 130 year legacy.

What do people tend to get wrong about denim?
Denim is a work of art. It’s very complex and created differently than any other piece of clothing. A denim designer has to have the expertise in design, fit, fabric and the eye of a painter.

Reissue Rigid Lee Rider 101J Jacket, LEE, $300; Reissue Side-Zip All-Purpose Blue Jean, LEE, $250

How much denim do you own personally?
I have edited my collection down to strictly Lee jeans and a few vintage treasures I couldn’t part with, but I truly have too many to count. I love my vintage Lee’s from the ’50s because they are patched and repaired, and show the wear of everyone who has ever loved them. There is real emotion in that. I love when I can tell someone patched and stitched to try to hang on to them as long as possible. Denim should never be a throw away. I stack my piles of denim by cast; the levels of indigo are beautiful, and have so much dimension. I love them.

What makes a seriously good pair of jeans?
The ingredients are simple, like a good recipe. It definitely always starts with great fabric, the perfect cast that delivers a beautiful wash range, and the perfect fit. We approach everything we do with the idea that we are here to create legends, and as you know, legends like denim never die.

What’s your biggest denim pet peeve?
When people wash them too often, or even wash them at all. It’s like washing a painting. I always tell people to wait until they stink and then stick them in the freezer.

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