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What Does ‘Made in USA’ Mean Without White Oak Mill?

Since the closure of Cone’s White Oak Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina at the end of last year, denim brands have been left in a difficult position in continuing their Made in USA product lines in a market without an American selvedge denim mill.

“People always think Made in America is a romantic endeavor,” Christian McCann, founder of Left Field NYC, said. “We have been doing this for 20 years and although some understand the needs of the modern American manufacturer, most don’t.”

And many refuse, he said, to change their business models that thrived on an American made market of the past when simple clothing was made in bulk.

“There are no longer any U.S. selvedge denim mills left although we used to use Cone’s White Oak,” McCann said. “I source from Collect Mills and Nihon Menpu in Japan and as a less expensive option I source Xinjiang Cotton denim from the western province of China.”

Victor Lytvinenko, co-founder of Raleigh Denim, had been sourcing roughly 70 percent to 80 percent of Raleigh’s fabric from Cone, and has stocked up on a lot of that fabric, so much so that they’ve had to get another storage space to keep it. “I imagine that we’ll have a couple of years-worth of the fabric, so we’ll be able to make completely Made in America jeans,” he said.

Despite these newfound fabric sourcing challenges, the Made in the USA ethos still exists within the denim industry. Even before the loss of access to selvedge denim in the U.S., domestic manufacturing has always come with its ups and downs—the most universal of which being cost and control, respectively.

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While manufacturing in the U.S. is often more costly than outsourcing, most American-made denim brands will agree that the higher cost is worth the investment.

“In addition to supporting and creating employment opportunities domestically, we have the ability to maintain a high level of quality control over our product, as well as have the ability to react to any potential issues or opportunities that might present themselves,” Jonathan Crocker, president of Baldwin Denim, said.

Lytvinenko echoed that sentiment, despite the fact that finding factory workers in the U.S. has remained a constant challenge for his brand. “For us, being nearby and controlling our manufacturing ourselves is a huge win as far as the additional cost,” he said. “We know every single stitch and every single detail is being done exactly the way that we want.”

Challenges aside, the advantages of American manufacturing can’t be matched in other markets. “At the risk of sounding cliché, I believe it ultimately comes down to quality,” Crocker said. “You’d be hard pressed to find another country that produces the level of quality, in denim manufacturing, as the U.S.”

pile of jeans
Left Field NYC

The loss of Cone’s White Oak mill has not swayed denim brands in their mission to keep manufacturing domestic. The biggest concern at hand is an uncertainty of how to get it done.

McCann believes that without White Oak, there is “nothing left.” “We saved Detroit and the auto factories but not our only selvedge denim mill,” he said. “Jeans are American as apple pie or baseball and we did nothing to save White Oak.”

In their experiences, denim brand owners believe that ‘Made in USA’ is important to their consumers, who realize that supporting domestic manufacturing results in a better jean and promotes jobs within the country, but the reality of higher costs still exists. “Everyone wants to buy American made, but when it comes down to competition from cheap overseas manufacturing and the fact that a lot of Americans shop in discount stores like Walmart or Target, they wouldn’t pay the difference,” McCann said.

Surveys in recent years have proven that though the majority of Americans do prefer items made in the U.S., but cost remains a deciding factor. The fact that Cone’s mill closed in 2017, after a 112-year lifespan, proves this. The company cited changes in market demands as the reason for the mill closure, explaining that its customers had been sourcing fabric internationally.

Even still, the most growth in the Made in USA realm remains within the domestic market. “When I first started 20 years ago, it was mainly the Japanese that were willing to pay for made in America,” McCann said. “But now I cater to the American consumer. There are pockets of interest in Europe and Asia, but mostly Americans are stepping up and spending the extra money for specialty clothing made in America, although that is still only a small percentage.”

Raleigh Denim has always been more successful within the U.S. market and has actually been experiencing growth within the market at a steady rate.

While Raleigh mainly focuses its sales effort domestically, Baldwin aims to position itself as an American brand that caters internationally. “I genuinely believe that there are significant growth opportunities, both domestically and internationally, for Baldwin as an ‘American’ brand—not solely based on the function of U.S. manufacturing, but from a brand position of embracing and representing American fashion,” Crocker said.

While the closing of Cone’s White Oak Mill has manifested in unexpected challenges to Made in USA denim brands, manufacturers and core American consumers are too devoted to American-made denim to throw in the towel just yet. This notion goes deeper than the commercial benefits of American jobs and higher quality products—as McCann pointed out, denim is quintessentially American.

“Manufacturing in the U.S. is part of our DNA,” Lytvinenko added. “It’s what gets us up in the morning. We have a perspective and a point of view and that’s the reason that we built our own factory, that we’ve trained our team, that we are so close to the making of our product. And I feel that we can be better designers because I built every machine in our factory. We’re making something that we really believe in, in a way that can’t be done anywhere else. And that’s why we’re making it here.”

“Honestly, it looks kind of bleak,” McCann said. He sees government intervention as an opportunity to restore American manufacturing, such as tax breaks to incentivize domestic manufacturing or training centers to promote American workers to learn how to use machinery for denim production. “I think the future comes from the young grassroots entrepreneurs and hope their businesses will grow into large factories in the future but it all depends on two words: buy American,” he said.