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Unprecedented Times: How Denim Mills are Emerging from a Pandemic Haze

When the global denim industry gathered in Munich for Bluezone in late January last year for two days of fabric innovations, trend forecasting and a pint or two with friends, no one expected it would be the final denim event of that size and international scope for some time. Hugs and double kisses were shared. The Prosciutto di Parma legs were out on display, beckoning passersby to visit the Italian mills’ booths. Birthday cake candles were blown out, plans for future meetups were made and the energy was very much in line with the intimate feeling that makes European denim trade fairs feel like a family reunion.

But the signs that something was amiss were there. One major red flag was the empty booths as Chinese exhibitors were forced to drop out due to travel restrictions. And there was nervous banter about the coronavirus (as well as the prospect of World War III), but the majority of conversations lacked insight into the severity of the health crisis, how it would spread and the impact it would have on business.

Unbeknownst to exhibitors and attendees alike, a domino effect would soon begin to stretch across the global denim industry—first through Asia, then to Europe and the Americas. It would bring production to a halt and press mills to salvage any business that could be had with brands, which would face a whole other set of woes, including sweeping retail closures, the cancelation of tourist dollars and an end-consumer base grappling with drastic spikes in unemployment.

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The denim industry, however, is nothing if not resilient. Much like its 147-year-old hero product—the classic blue jean—players in the denim supply chain have proven time after time their ability to adapt, innovate and sniff out solutions. Along with filling in gaps for the sudden global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), mills invested in their digital communication tools to stay connected with suppliers and clients. And their R&D teams delved into the mindset of the pandemic consumer to develop products that would speak to the new need for protective and durable yet comfortable denim.

Denim mills would come to terms—and even embrace—the so-called reset forced by the pandemic as an opportunity to become more agile, responsible and transparent manufacturers. “No company will get through the pandemic alone, and fashion players need to share data, strategies and insight on how to navigate the storm,” said Deniz Mutlu, marketing specialist for Turkish denim mill Orta. “We are in the same ship with our business partners. Collaboration more than competing is key.”

Hard truths

The pandemic immediately magnified the pre-Covid weak spots that existed in the supply chain and individual businesses. For the first time, said PG Denim CEO Paolo Gnutti, executives had ample opportunity to identify their glaring inefficiencies. “We had the bad luck of having more time available to understand what was indispensable and not just the frenzy to create in excess,” he said.

With most pain points directly connected to cash flow, the pressure to correct course was paramount. Like most companies in March 2020, Naveena Denim Mills was unprepared for the coronavirus crisis. Though long-standing stakeholder relationships enabled the Pakistan-based company to pivot its plans for the year, internally, the company scrambled to re-evaluate its books. “We had to rearrange our cash flow, especially in the first months of the pandemic,” said Aydan Tüzün, Naveena Denim Mills executive director of global sales and marketing.

Bigger companies faced bigger problems. The scale of Soorty’s operations, whose footprint spans Pakistan, Bangladesh, The Netherlands and Turkey, posed a staggering challenge as the company struggled to minimize costs when lockdowns paused production, said Ebru Debbag, Soorty executive director global sales and marketing. “As with every crisis, we have come to understand our vulnerabilities and have developed strategies to minimize the impact,” she said. “We [are] structuring our operations to become more flexible, even at our scale.”

When the government mandated shutdowns in Mexico for manufacturing facilities that were not considered essential, Cone Denim was unable to operate its facilities in that region for several weeks. “We quickly began working with our sister division, Burlington, on medical fabrics, which allowed us to restart after a few weeks, but the initial lack of having products deemed ‘essential’ in our product mix was a short-term weakness,” said Steve Maggard, Cone Denim president. “We’ve used this opportunity to diversify our product capabilities and prevent this type of disruption in the future.”

Mexico-based Global Denim was struck by the speed of the Covid-induced shockwaves. Government restrictions created limitations and obstacles for the mill’s R&D, production and sales teams, and putting in place the management and protocols to work from home took some time, said Anatt Finkler, creative director for the mill. “We learned that we must be always prepared for a plan B, C, D… in case something like this happens again,” she said.

Better, faster, stronger

As the pandemic’s dire reality began to set in and outlooks for 2020 fell by the wayside, denim mills relied on their strengths and close-knit relationships to push forward and maintain morale.

When components and garments were tied up at ports, vertical operations became an undeniable asset. Soorty’s standing investments in high-capacity product development infrastructure that included denim mills and garment facilities enabled speed and flexibility at a critical time, Debbag said.

“The pandemic is changing behaviors and this evokes devising longer-term strategies,” she said. “It is essential to understand the dynamics of the consumer, their expectations, their altered lifestyles as well as what a pair of jeans will represent. The manufacturers need to become an active partner to the brands… We will demand closer relations to the brands that we work with so that we can serve them better and build a sustainable ecosystem including the consumers.”

And while many industry experts forecast a return to local sourcing and manufacturing, commanding a global presence in various regions of the world proved to be a major win for several mills. “Having powerful offices in producer countries such as Turkey and Bangladesh enabled us to keep track of every stage of the supply chain, to keep communication strong and to provide the necessary support,” Tüzün said.

Likewise, Cone’s global manufacturing footprint and supply chains in Asia and North America were a tremendous strength. “This versatility provides great advantages to our customers and allowed Cone to deliver product uninterrupted during the pandemic,” Maggard said. “Different geographic areas were affected at different times and to different degrees [but] we were able to keep product flowing to customers and prevent supply disruptions.”

Pre-Covid investments in automation gave Pakistan-based Artistic Milliners a running start when the pandemic forced the mill to accelerate production and streamline its behind-the-scenes workflow. The crisis, said Ebru Ozaydin, Artistic Milliners senior vice president of sales and marketing, led the company to further reconsider some of its “redundant complexity” in design, sourcing and production.

“That’s why we are actively looking for opportunities to simplify operations throughout our manufacturing processes to avoid wasted time and resources, inconsistency, impact on environment and other negative outcomes resulting from inefficiencies,” she said.

Screen time

Though trade shows have experimented with online events and individual mills dabbled in various modes of digital marketing prior to Covid, the disruption in day-to-day operations drove the industry to collectively join the virtual bandwagon.

Adapting from in-person presentations to online-only customer interactions was the greatest challenge Advance Denim encountered during the pandemic. “Since we are a very tactile and visual business, it was difficult to shift in such a short period of time to presentations through videos and Zoom calls,” said Mark Ix, Advance Denim director of U.S. marketing.

Six months later, however, Ix expects to see digital communication become a permanent and welcome addition to the Chinese mill’s business strategy. “Even as the pandemic has passed, I feel that there will be less in-person mill weeks and more of a mix of online and in-person small meetings,” he said. “I hope that we will be able to have trade shows again, but large gatherings will be challenging in the near future.”

It’s a sentiment shared across the industry. The need for contactless communication forced Global Denim to think outside the box and accept digital as an effective means of doing business. “Before this happened we never thought working with fabric remotely could work, but we managed to get the creativity flowing and deliver a new collection that we can’t wait to start showing our customers,” Finkler said. “The pandemic has showed us how we can adapt to changing environments and how we can conduct business digitally and be very successful while doing it. It is teaching us that the merge of both physical and virtual worlds is the key to success.”

Cone’s ability to deliver digital product catalogs and customer presentations that allowed the company to remain in contact with customers and highlight new products even when travel was not possible, Maggard said, was the result of the strong relationships his team has built both internally and externally.

“Our relationships and connection to the denim community are a core strength of Cone Denim and have been key to staying connected and responsive to customers during the pandemic,” he said. “Our ability to quickly pivot to digital interactions and utilize our strong presence on social media has been extremely important to stay connected with customers and the denim community at large.”

Ozaydin credits clear communication, positivity and a focus on collaboration as the reasons why she believes Artistic Milliners will ultimately emerge stronger from the crisis. The mill kept close ties with its customers, updating them on reopening plans, safety precautions and worker well-being efforts. “We believe in the importance of sharing news, maintaining positive relationships and conveying the message that ‘we’re in this together,’” she said. “Our approach has always been solution-centric, which really helped all parties.”

For Calik Denim, an app it introduced in 2019 became a well-timed, vital tool for the Turkish mill’s communication with clients. The app allows users to match Calik fabrics with the latest global trends, as well as request samples and access editorial and video content. It’s a precursor, said Tolga Ozkurt, Calik Denim deputy general manager of sales and marketing, to how designers will create more efficiently and consumers will shop less, but better, online.

“While there is much uncertainty ahead, we use our extensive experience and innovation to help guide our customers through this unprecedented time and towards a brighter future,” Ozkurt said. “The technologies we have created which address the coronavirus are so tightly aligned with the other great threat to humanity: the environmental crisis.”

Product shifts

The hardships that came with Covid, however, are leading to better manufacturing practices, smarter fabrics and new business opportunities, particularly in athleisure and at-home fashion. Lockdowns essentially gifted companies the time to develop new projects that will resonate with pandemic-era consumers.

During pre-Covid times, Mutlu said Orta and its partners were already talking about seasonless styles, capsule collections, and eco-conscious materials and circularity. This mindset, she added, is a must-have for the “eco-modern” generation. The pandemic, however, accelerated Orta’s actions and brought to light the fragility of people and planet. Orta’s new collections address these safety and well-being concerns. Here4Good includes fabrics made with hemp and reclaimed cotton waste, recycled denim and dyes derived from food waste, while Denim Guard offers fabrics with antibacterial and antiviral protection.

“During the lockdown, we realized that we are apart but we are also together,” Mutlu said. “We realized that we need to act on the health and safety of not only ourselves but people around us, our coworkers, our neighbors, the planet more than ever.”

Though 2020 is not the first time the jeanswear industry has been affected by a boom in comfort-driven athleisure, it is better equipped compared to the early-to-mid 2010s when the hybrid moniker began to trickle into fashion vernaculars and consumer closets around the world.

“Denim is taking up this opportunity to rethink the function of the garment and its construction, building it starting from the sustainability of processes and the circularity of materials,” Ozkurt said, adding that natural and recycled fibers, thermoregulation, extreme softness and open and comfortable construction with degradable stretch are among the important developments denim mills will use to shape post-Covid collections.

“The months we spent at home, living in close connection with ourselves and with [our families], working remotely and focusing on basic needs have amplified the demands for comfort and loungewear by the end consumer,” Ozkurt said. This period, he added, was a wake-up call for brands that were not addressing this audience.

New at-home fashion and loungewear will spur denim producers to up their game in regard to soft hand and stretch, Maggard said. Cone Denim is catering to this shift by focusing on how to create fabrics that are suitable for looser, more comfortable silhouettes. “It is an exciting challenge to develop fabrics that capture Cone’s authentic aesthetics, but engineered to be more lightweight, soft, and comfortable,” he said.

Naveena anticipates that the demand for comfortable and functional fabrics will linger over the jeanswear industry for years to come. “Denim has always changed with the times; sometimes it adapted itself to new realities, sometimes it was a frontrunner and symbol of change,” Tüzün said. “Denim fabrics of today, with new fibers, constructions and treatment technologies, meet this demand perfectly. I think our industry will again be the first to adapt itself.”

To meet the growing demand for athleisure, Advance Denim has introduced Warp Loop, a three-layer lightweight denim that is structured for comfort and breathability. While the pandemic will not cancel jeans altogether, Ix said the mill is bracing for a consumer who wants the iconic look of traditional denim interpreted through a lens of comfort and style.

The allure and comforting appeal of athleisure during a worrisome time are not lost on Finkler, but as re-opening countries and cities begin to return to some semblance of normalcy, she is optimistic that consumers will rediscover the fashion that makes them feel most like their best selves.

“I am very positive that once people start seeing some hope from this situation, they will start leaving behind at-home fashion for their beloved jeans,” she said. “Denim gives some sense of normalcy, freedom, and it’s the most democratic fabric out there. It represents so much and people will want to translate these feelings of change through their clothing.”

The start of 2020 brought a sense of discovery to the denim industry. From biodegradable stretch and recyclable fibers and dyes, to a collision of inclusive, vintage and streetwear-influenced designs, denim mills and their partners seemingly had a new set of tools for creative experimentation.

But the pandemic, for all intents and purposes, has put a crimp in many of these endeavors as mills instead focus on recovery plans. “The pandemic itself has already been tough enough, therefore we’ve opted for shifting our energy more on transforming the way we do our business in a way that all parties in the supply chain can benefit [from] and recover better,” Ozaydin said.

Fabric producers are beginning to ramp up their capacity, but the uncertainty of the coronavirus and the quick pace at which new hot zones are springing up weighs heavily on mills’ outlooks for the remainder of 2020. Business developments during the summer have been promising, but Tüzün anticipates that it will take several more months for Naveena to return to full capacity.

Mills are also preparing to be met with a decidedly smaller and more fragile retail landscape. “The denim and jeans industry will shrink before it can grow, and that future growth may not be volume dependent,” Debbag said. Resilience, she added, will be key for all players working with complex systems such as the denim and jeans supply chain.

The rash of store closings and bankruptcy filings is causing issues in the supply chain that will take a while to work through, Maggard said. “Uncertainty about the Covid-19 situation as well as the fact it is a U.S. election year will cause brands and retailers to be conservative and adopt a wait-and-see approach, placing orders at the last minute and not making long-term commitments,” he said. “But I also think it is a year of opportunity. The recent challenges have strengthened relationships, and those denim producers that remain viable and continue to deliver on their commitments to customers will be rewarded going forward.”

This unprecedented event has also served as a sharp reminder of how important it is for denim mills to foster strong internal teams. “Our staff is like our family, and providing the safest environment for them to return to work has been our top priority and we have succeeded in this,” Finkler said.

“Globally, I see a hard situation still in the works,” she continued. “This pandemic hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, but in seeing our industry is going back to work, I am hopeful that by the end of 2020 we will hear some good news and start 2021 with a bright new future ahead of us all.”

Read more from the latest issue of Rivet magazine here.