The Death of American Denim

With shuttering of last remaining mill, selvedge denim will now only be made abroad.

December 14, 2017 5:00 am
Vintage denim. (Getty Images.)
Vintage denim. (Getty Images.)

At the end of October, Greensboro, N.C.-based International Textile Group announced that its flagship factory, Cone Mills’ White Oak denim mill would be closing in the near future: “We truly regret having to take this action to close the mill, and we deeply appreciate the loyalty and dedication of all current and former employees of the White Oak mill. Their talent, effort, innovation, dedication, and customer focus all combined to create a White Oak brand, heritage, and legacy that will forever be the heart of the Cone Denim business.”

It seems that ITG will keep White Oak in “the heart of the Cone Denim business” but not in the world, where it produced selvedge denim on antique shuttle looms since 1905. The press release doesn’t make clear why the owners of ITG, Beverly Hills-based Platinum Equity, must close the mill, just that they will. Platinum Equity acquired ITG almost exactly a year before the closure announcement, saying that they would be taking advantage of ITG’s “brand heritage.” But private equity firms exist as the business equivalent of house flippers, gutting the innards of companies to make them leaner, cleaner, and more cost-effective before they sell them off. And since White Oak’s product was quality but niche, what happened was inevitable.

The closure means that soon there will be no more selvedge denim made in the United States, what was as close to a piece of American history as you can buy at Macy’s. It’s kind of poetic: one of the great things America invented (cool jeans) being destroyed by one of its bad things (unfettered capitalism).

As bad as the White Oak closure is, even non-selvedge American denim is flailing too, its prized durability falling to profit margins and the infinite consumption model of fast fashion. Purveyors of $100+ jeans like Hudson and True Religion are leaving the Los Angeles factories they had previously used, putting the historic industry in jeopardy. It seems that the problem is the price: “If you make blue jeans in China, including the fabric washes, it is $6. If you do the same jeans in Mexico, you can make it for $10, which includes dropping it off here in Los Angeles. And if you do it in the U.S.A., you are looking at $40 to $50. That’s a big difference,” explained Mateo Juarez, owner of United Denim Inc., to California ApparelNews last month. The profit margins just aren’t enough for these companies, which regularly sell imported jeans at prices north of $200 whatever their provenance. After all, the bottom line doesn’t come from the actually being a heritage brand, but appearing to be one.

In other industries, actual American heritage brands are doing pretty well, shoes and other ruggedized apparel especially. LL Bean had duck boots on back order last year around the holidays, and Red Wing Boots is regularly opening up new stores throughout the country. Pendleton Woolen Mills does collaborations with cutting-edge fashion companies like Opening Ceremony (though many of Pendleton’s home-grown textiles are assembled elsewhere). Other companies, like Alden or Schott NYC, become luxury goods, keeping their all-American existence only in that rarefied air, though such a compromise does create the conspicuous image of Joey Ramone buying a $740 Schott Perfecto leather jacket today.  Brands live off the integrated nature of their businesses (they often own their factories or at least have streamlined access to them), but what really keeps them alive is the hype that a brand–as opposed to a factory–can generate.

Companies that smell like Americana, like Carhartt or Levi’s, can survive and indeed thrive without actually contracting American factories to make their clothing. Carhartt is rightfully proud of its Made in the USA products, having a whole page of their website full of graphics and videos talking about the 2,000 people they employ in the country. However, near the top of the page, they imply that only 8 percent of the clothes that they make are actually made in the United States. Meanwhile, Levi’s contracted only 9 American factories of the 564 it used in 2014. All the while, both companies enjoy cross-over appeal for their apparent Americana. Carhartt prominently uses actual customers in its commercials, like in the new “The Carhartt Way of Life” fall campaign ad, full of American craftspeople and adventurers of all colors and creeds. Levi’s current advertisement features a similarly multicultural and all-American in its “Circles” advertisement where “celebrates our individuality and connectedness through music, dance, and Levi’s.” Whatever dissonance one might perceive, these compromises keep costs down and keep these privately-owned names in business.

Among manufacturers, the problem is less tractable unless, like Horween and the New England Shirt Company, you sell directly to the consumer or otherwise make your name known to them. Horween has established itself as the premier leather tannery and supplier in the country, providing everything from their all-purpose Chromexcel line to the high-end shell cordovan leather made from horsehide. Horween manages to make its way onto shoeboxes and eBay listings through the fact that they’re the only leather goods producer that the average clotheshorse could name. Horween makes itself seem like the only name worth knowing and thereby is the only name you know.

Managing to hitch your wagon to a brand seeking an All-American air, a brand outside the clothing world, also seems to help. Horween managed to have itself named as the only leather- and therefore ball-supplier for the NFL and NBA, which helps. S.B. Foot Leather Company has managed something similar, being the main supplier to its neighbor Red Wing as well as to the military. These companies escape the more cutthroat world of fashion brand contracts and engage the wider world for work and exposure, a world that might allow sentiment to enter the equation.

New England Shirt Company is a direct-to-consumer brand, but with a twist: it is the oldest shirtmaking facility still in operation in the US and is housed in a building that has been a shirt factory, with different owners, for the past two hundred years. One can think of it as a contract shop taking on a public face under new management. Even if the brand doesn’t have wide recognition, it maintains the manufacturing history (and legacy of local employment) but now with a presence stretching from Nordstrom to Unionmade. The transition from manufacturer to brand is something that Gitman Bros. made as well, though on a comparatively shorter timeline, opening as a contract factory in 1932 and becoming a brand in 1978. But this strategy requires the factory to actually produce something a consumer could buy, so things like dyeing operations are out of luck.

But how could American denim take advantage of these solutions, and what as-of-yet unused strategies might be out there? Denim factories, if any could fill the prestigious hole that White Oak has left, could take advantage of some greater branding opportunities, beyond the “Made in the USA” label, but then again, how well did that work for White Oak? White Oak had literally made a name for itself in the industry, a name sewn into almost every pair of jeans that came from it. A branding strategy, to work in the long run, requires a factory to be privately and locally owned so that someone higher up won’t shut it down for sake of a few points on the bottom line for shareholders. Shareholders want growth, not stability, and that is not what American manufacturing is made for at this point. The pivot-to-consumer solution only works when a factory has enough clout in an industry and with outlets, which likely correlates with size.

But the easiest way to envision a future for American denim might be to look where homegrown denim has flourished: Japan. Postwar Japan was enamored with the jeans that GIs were wearing, buying them off of them and finding scraps of denim in secondhand markets to cut into Japanese silhouettes. In the succeeding years, Japanese factories would buy scraps from American mills including White Oak to make their own jeans until finally, after buying looms from American companies who were through with them, the first Japanese blue jean denim was manufactured in 1973. Combine this with Japan’s long history of indigo dyeing, and there you have it. (Read W. David Marx’s Ametora if you want a less glib history.) Jeans began, and remained, as clothing that signified both luxury and durability in the Japanese marketplace. This quality and the hype it generates are enough to keep American companies importing denim from Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures and keeps Japan buying jeans at roughly the same per capita rate as North America.

As you may have figured out from what I wrote earlier about it, the American boot industry parallels the Japanese denim industry’s success in combining apparent durability and luxury. Red Wing, Alden, LL Bean, Wolverine, Timberland, each succeed in their own ways and in their own markets. But for American denim to reach this same equilibrium, it would require a revaluation of how we see denim and indeed how we see clothing in general. I don’t mean to rehash arguments against fast fashion, but it seems that the only way that we can get American workers paid is if we invest in what they make, refusing the consumption model that globalized capitalism offers, one where workers and the environment are abused for the sake of material abundance and apparent choice, and instead take up a more holistic view of the things we buy. We might have some cool jeans made here in the future, but the present is pretty bleak. Start stockpiling your strategic denim reserves.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.