They just hung up.
That was the reaction Rachel Patton experienced when she first took over for her father at Taylor’s Leatherwear. Taylor’s had been a family-run business for decades, and many such businesses are passed to the next generation. But in a niche dominated by men, with a product sold primarily to men, the change of command was jarring.
“They were incredulous and wanted to speak with my father. They didn’t think a woman should be running the business,” Patton reflects.
Before the 1970s, women’s contributions to their family businesses were mostly made behind the scenes. Inroads have been made since, but a closer examination of the numbers reveals that gender parity in family businesses is still a long way off. A survey of more than 1,800 family businesses in 2020 found that only 18% of their leaders were female.
With a degree in architecture from the University of Kentucky, Taylor had envisioned herself constructing physical structures. Instead, she found herself building – and in some cases – rebuilding relationships, while demolishing antiquated notions about the role of women in the workplace.
“When you’re dealing with customers, there’s always going to be one that is rude or unreasonable, so I just focus on the other 99,” Patton said. “You have to put your head down and move on.”
That type of attitude certainly works to her advantage. But what really keeps customers coming back is product. “If you want a nice jacket, one with a lifetime guarantee, you’ll buy from us.”
From Small Town to Hollywood
A bit of history before we talk product. Tullahoma, home to Taylor’s Leatherwear, is a small town, one that centers around air force families. The company was not a uniform establishment out of the gate; it even had a different moniker. Appalachian Tanning was established in 1943 as a manufacturer of men’s and children’s leather sportswear. The company was sold to Red Taylor in the mid-60s, who renamed the business. It was sold again and purchased by David Patton, Rachel’s dad, and his parents in the 1970s.
Besides manufacturing, the Pattons opened two retail stores and extended the product line to include furs, leathers purses and moccasins. “My mom and grandmother ran the store, while my father and grandfather oversaw the factory,” Rachel noted. As the era progressed Taylor’s transitioned from fashion jackets to what people wore to work, quickly becoming THE leather jacket supplier for law enforcement, pilots and government agencies. “We’re the only company in the world with this specialty,” noted Rachel.
Even Hollywood took notice. If you’re old enough to remember the ’80s television police drama Hill Street Blues, then you might recall the jackets worn by Officers Hill, Renko and others. Style 4450, better known as “Chicago Style,” is still the best selling jacket in Taylor’s product line. More recently, the jackets have appeared on shows such as Sleepy Hollow, Gotham and Tin Star.
Move to Overseas Manufacturing
When Rachel took over seven years ago, Taylor’s was still doing some manufacturing in the United States. Each jacket is still cut and sewn by hand, but it is done elsewhere. “We started producing the jackets overseas in the late ’90s, but kept some of the business here as well,” she recalled.
Like many, the decision to manufacture outside the U.S was two-fold. Rising labor costs was a prime consideration. But so too was the shortage of qualified labor; Taylor’s simply couldn’t find machine operators any longer. The Tullahoma site continued to manufacture until its older, female workforce began to retire.
Today, the original warehouse is used to customize, repair and restore jackets. The staff is lean and mean; two women in their ’70s sew patches, shorten sleeves and provide other as-needed alteration and customization; an older gentleman does the shipping and receiving.
The law enforcement community is unabashedly patriotic; they wanted their jackets made here. When word got out, Rachel heard an earful from less than satisfied customers. Some comments were sexist. Others wished for her to fail and the business to crumble. Several swore they would never buy from Taylor’s again.
These customers were offered the option to have their jackets produced here at a premium or imported for less. In the uniform industry, as well as just about everywhere, price is king. After awhile, there just wasn’t a market for made in the USA leather goods.
One of the biggest hurdles was convincing customers about the quality of imported goods. Many doubted that such quality could be replicated overseas. “That’s because they didn’t see the finished product, but once they did, they understood,” Patton said. “The details in the cutting and sewing are top notch, the appearance and overall look is equal and even better than when they were made in the states.”
While the production venue has changed, styling hasn’t. Many of the jackets still being sold today were designed by Rachel’s father with input from the departments. “Cops have been using the same jackets for years, and even pass the down to their kids when they join the force,” she noted. “They don’t like change.” Some features, however, have been updated in keeping with the times. Zip out liners and pockets for soft body armor panels are popular with today’s law enforcement professional.
One for the Ladies and an International Audience
Perhaps the biggest change to hit Taylor’s has been the addition of a women’s jacket line. Taylor’s had always sold jackets to female officers, but had never designed one exclusively for women. Here again, Rachel met resistance, this time from her father. “He thought women would be too difficult to fit,” she said.
Undeterred, Rachel got to work, creating base patterns and enlisting input from the Indianapolis Police Department’s female officers, who served as Taylor’s wear testers. “We got great input from them, and learned a lot about what jacket features are important to female wearers,” she said. One style is currently on the market and selling well; two more versions will roll out soon. Fit has been a big plus – there’s no need to wear a man’s jacket any longer. Popular features include badge tabs, side zippers and other that allow officers to keep warm while accessing a firearm.
A staple for police forces across the United States, Taylor’s jackets are now a hit with the international set. Patton was at first leery about entering the market, primarily because of bureaucratic shipping procedures, but says growing interest made the expansion make sense. They are currently selling directly to individual customers, but Patton hopes to soon add law enforcement departments to its customer list.
Just Down the Road
Going forward, Patton looks to expand the women’s line of jackets and grow the international side of the business. She’d also like to expand Taylor’s online selling and ordering capabilities.
Rachel still discusses business with her father from time to time, and adds that he is just down the road if she needs him. We doubt she will.