Alpha Industries is an American clothing manufacturer founded in 1959 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Initially as a contractor to the United States military, the company grew into an international commercial seller of American military style and fashion apparel. Alpha makes items such as flight jackets and vests, and has made jackets for themilitary of the United States like the M65 Jacket for over half a century. The Jackets are made for men and women, as well as children and now dogs. Popular models include the MA-1 and CWU-45/P pilot jackets.
Alpha Industries is a direct descendant of three companies- Superior Tags Corporation, Rolen Sportswear, and Dobbs Industries. Through the 1940s these companies formed an affiliated family linked by common ownership and an identical business of manufacturing flight jackets for the United States military.
In January 1948, Robert Lane and his wife Helen incorporated Superior Tags Corporation in order to manufacture flight jackets on a United States Department of Defense contract. Superior Tags created some of the most well known U.S. Army Air Force flight jackets known, including the B-10 Bomber and L-2 Jackets (as well as the A-9 and A-10 flight pants.)
In 1952, for unknown reasons, Superior Tags Corporation was shut down. In response Lane decided to organize a new company called Rolen Sportswear. Rolen was, more or less, Superior Tags under a different name. They picked up the same United States Department of Defense (DOD) contracts and used the same Elizabeth, New Jersey factory.
By 1957 Lane had decided his success was enough to attempt a new company. One he could locate in the Southeastern United States where labor was plentiful and manufacturing costs were substantially less. He therefore went to his accountant, Samuel Gelber, and created Dobbs Industries in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Robert Lane was accused in 1959 of bribing a government official for a Department of Defense contract. As such his business and any business associated with him were barred from ever obtaining another contract from the government. Although he held 90% of the shares to Dobb Industries this still spelled the end for Samuel Gelber. He therefore split with Lane and approached Herman "Breezy" Wynn, founder of Wynn Industries Group for help establishing a new group solely run by Gelber. On October 17, 1959 Gelber incorporated his new company, Alpha Industries, in Knoxville Tennessee.
Alpha Industries began operations making military clothing in the basement of a rented Knoxville factory using leased sewing machines and only a few employees. Department of Defense contracts were initially difficult to secure in a time of peace, however, the start of the Vietnam War meant a sudden increase in demand for military clothing and Alpha's growth rapidly accelerated.
Due to the unusual nature of manufacturers who worked by government contract the multiple companies were persuaded to work collaboratively through subcontracts and affiliations. What formed was known as the Wynn Confederation. It was a series of DOD contract manufactures who would lease sewing machinery to other companies within the Confederation, provide them with technical assistance, and provide and train employees. Wynn would also locate the fabric and component suppliers for the Confederation groups. This friendly subcontracting made it possible for fledgling groups like Alpha to acquire work and survive past its first 12 months of existence.
With America's escalating involvement in Vietnam starting in the 1960s companies like Alpha found themselves inundated with work. Alpha expanded considerably over the decade and soon occupied all four floors of the 614 11th Street factory. The government's demand for quality control brought John Niethammer in who would become a huge asset to Alpha's expansion. The 1960s saw Alpha emerge as a leader in manufacturing, especially the now famous nylon flight jacket, the MA-1.
The 1970s saw a new mentality by the Department of Defense. They deemed it necessary to equip every man with separate clothing for every possible weather scenario they could encounter. This meant another boom for manufacturers like Alpha. Because DOD contracts were given preferably to small companies, Alpha did not want to risk increasing its employment to more than 500 workers. The solution was, then, to create new groups they could subcontract to- most notably Summit Apparel and Benton Manufacturing. With a move to a newer, bigger, factory in 1980 Alpha was able to devote whole buildings to single types of jackets. The new factory saw the production of 550,000 field jackets per year.
Alpha soon took a leap that would turn out to be the saving grace of the company. They began to sell commercially. By this time Alpha had dabbled in commercial sales in between DOD contracts but nothing serious and all through subcontracted groups such as Dobbs Apparel. After the Vietnam War Alpha jackets and pants made the rounds through army surplus stores and were known by the men and women who wore them when they served. This budding public knowledge of Alpha's products created the first true demand for Alpha apparel in the public market. A military apparel company through and through, the only changes Alpha would make over the next 20 years for the public market were in the color of the jackets.
In 1982 Samuel Gelber died at the age of 67 and left the company to his wife Mildred with the assistance of John Niethammer and her son-in-law Alan Cirker.
Under new leadership Alpha began to expand the commercial side of its business. For the first time they actively sought commercial customers.
The Reagan administration initially brought new hope to companies like Alpha. The government called for an increase in DOD spending which exceeded 1.8 billion dollars in textile alone. This meant huge new business for Alpha. They became the leading producer of the new CWU 36/P and 45/P Nomex flight jackets which replaced the MA-1 bomber jacket, and the Gore-Tex systems which replaced the parkas.
In the short time it lasted this was a huge boost. However, the end of the Cold War brought the "Peace Dividend" and by the early 1990s DOD spending had decreased by 75%. Liberalization of trade barriers and a reduction of duties also led to a breakdown in the American apparel industry. "Made in America" was not so sought after when an identical product could suddenly be made much cheaper in China.
The decline of DOD contracts and expansion of foreign production threatened to end Alpha Industries. They were barely kept alive by the few contracts they could acquire based on their reputation as a leading manufacturer of the hard to produce fire-proof, seam-sealed flight jackets.
The Gulf War and Iraq War did not noticeably increase the demand for military apparel. The military's focus became on technology and electronics that would reduce the use of human life. Therefore Alpha turned more and more to the commercial sale of its products.
Alpha Industries is now a manufacturer of military style apparel with customers ranging from U.S. surplus to stores across Europe and Asia. Alpha now creates replicas of famous military wear as well as casual clothing that is military-inspired. Children's clothing, accessories, and pets' clothing are also made by Alpha Industries.
Alpha has expanded into networks of international distributors, retailers, and internet sellers. Ryan Brewer is the employee of the year. Supplementing its small American factory base (still located in Knoxville), Alpha has expanded its range of manufacturing outside of the United States.
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