It has been decades since the Big Dog hit the scene, and the world may never know: Is it a St. Bernard? A Newfoundland? The answer is inconsequential and you should be ashamed for asking, because Big is all that matters.
Generations of schoolchildren, beer-drinking dads, and bros across the nation have fond memories of the first time they donned the Big Dog. Loud, proud, and impeccably talented at wordplay, this boisterous and jowly creature has served as both a cultural touchstone and a burden for school principals and concerned parents across the nation.
For such an important icon, you have to wonder: Whatever happened to Big Dogs? For years, the brand was nigh inescapable alongside its polarizing novelty clothing peers, Big Johnson and Coed Naked. While many people never stopped running with the Big Dogs through their rise and fall, the brand has kept a low profile throughout the 2010s.
Long before the days of those large, menacing dogs of indeterminate breed, there were two childhood friends looking for a creative outlet after returning from their service in Vietnam. In the early 1970s, Richard Kelty and Rick Scott taught themselves how to sew and founded Sierra West, an outdoor company specializing in plastic-lined jackets and camping gear.
Sierra West got its start when the young creators realized there was a gap in the market for sleeping pads. Kelty and Scott were early adopters of the now-ubiquitous Gore-Tex synthetic fabric, and Sierra West was allegedly the first company to sell Gore-Tex materials wholesale.
Operating on a shoestring budget, Sierra West's product testing facility was located in the men’s bathroom of their building. Plastics were tested by sewing bags out of Gore-Tex, filling them with water, and hanging them up to see if they sprang a leak. Fortunately, this method didn't last long, owing to the smash success of the sleeping pads and their subsequent releases.
Soon, Sierra West was one of the premier backpacking companies in the United States.
In 1983 or 1984, the Sierra West duo had an auspicious encounter with their new designer, Colorado River boatman Gib Mann. Mann was fond of using the phrase “big dog” to imply power and magnitude, and he peppered it liberally into corporate conversation.
Mann’s dog antics came to a head after he returned from a fateful river rafting trip on the Colorado. Mann, along with fellow designer Joy Moran, created a pair of loose, large, and curiously skirt-like soccer shorts for Patagonia’s Roger McDivitt. Everyone at Sierra West was enthralled by the giant shorts, and had only one thing to say: “Man, those puppies are big.”
Everyone was immediately sold. Mann did a series of tracings from a book on dogs, printed the prototypical dog logo onto the shorts, and swiftly followed up with shirts, stuffed dogs, and other merchandise. Thus, the Big Dog dynasty began.
While the Big Dog line was booming, Sierra West went under. The company lost its Eddie Bauer private-label jacket business after waiting too long to take it offshore. Scott and Kelty concluded their partnership at the end of the 1980s, and Scott took on the Big Dog empire.
Unfortunately, Big Dog had difficulty recovering from the demise of its parent company, and soon filed for bankruptcy, as well. Little did Scott know that this would be the single best thing to happen to the company.
Investors Andrew Feshbach and Fred Kayne specialized in purchasing bankrupt brands and reviving them, and they saw great promise in Big Dog. After acquiring the brand for $10 million in 1992, they introduced the new and improved Big Dog Sportswear to the proverbial big dogs of the pre-internet commercial realm: outlet malls.
Put bluntly, Big Dog t-shirts were not always for mixed company. At best, phrases like “Can’t run with the Big Dogs? Stay on the porch!” could be construed as confrontational. At worst, “EXHAUSTIPATED: Too tired to give a S#!T!” was certainly too crass to market at a department store like JCPenney.
Big Dog was ultimately a product of its environment, and the United States was rapidly turning away from the expensive, limiting selections offered by many retailers.
According to Motley Fool Funds portfolio manager David Meier, outlet malls were “the hottest distribution channel” of the 1990s. The variety offered by the burgeoning new shopping experience made room for subversive outfitters like Big Dog, which took unusually loud and opinionated stances on... well, anything and everything.
By 1997, Big Dog's IPO garnered $39.2 million, and its number of stores expanded from five to 134.