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Experts Say Pandemic Could Bring Denim Production Much Closer to Market

In today’s climate, there remain few concepts on which people across the political spectrum agree—and bolstering local production is one of them.

A major catalyst for Made in America is the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted businesses in their tracks and caused irreparable damage to virtually every industry—and denim was no exception. Companies immediately realized the need for easy access to fabrics, greater control over production and an overall shorter, more local supply chain.

From the beginning, Los Angeles-based denim brand Trinidad3 Jeans chose a domestic route for its production, sourcing materials from the U.S. when possible and manufacturing garments in L.A. Joe Lafko, the brand’s managing partner, noted that its local supply chain was key to making it through the pandemic. According to Lafko, it’s not too late for brands to make business-saving changes such as nearshoring and diversifying suppliers.

“If companies haven’t already, they should have plans to shift to localized suppliers if need be, and quickly,” he said. “We have to be smart about who we do business with and where and how we go about doing it. This entire experience should be a wake-up call for those in denim with multi-national supply chains and over-leveraged assets.”

For many, it’s not that they were unaware of the benefits of a short supply chain. Instead, it’s a lack of accessibility. Though commercial blue jeans got their start in the U.S., the majority of the denim supply chain exists elsewhere. American denim was once slightly more diversified—Cone Denim’s location in North Carolina and DNA Textile Group’s facilities in Georgia have since shut down—but now Louisiana’s Vidalia Mills and Georgia’s Mount Vernon Mills are just a few that remain.

While Cone Denim now produces exclusively in Mexico and China, for U.S.-based brands, its south-of-the-border location significantly shortens the supply chain. According to Steve Maggard, Cone Denim’s president, the company is already seeing brands expressing more interest in developing local partnerships.

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“Local manufacturing in the Americas region does offer some significant advantages and is opening conversations to explore new opportunities to diversify sourcing resources. These are conversations we have had in the past, but the intensity and sense of urgency is greater now,” he said, adding that Cone has an established supply chain in the region, making them “well-positioned with diverse capabilities and regional expertise to service customers.”

And it’s not just large companies getting approached with production needs. Zach Myers of Zace Brand, an Ohio-based denim label that produces clothing from American and Italian fabrics, was approached by a number of small brands looking to use his company’s production facilities. He ultimately declined.

Denim experts predict more local production as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which showed the inefficiencies of a long supply chain.
Zace Brand production facilities. Courtesy

“It has been my experience over the last 17 years that for our production facility, we do our best work when producing Zace apparel. It takes a very long time to develop and fine tune each style, and the sewing operators do their best work when repeating processes they have learned to perfect,” he said, adding that the pattern development process alone can cost thousands of dollars.

He noted that startup and boutique brands are the ones that could most benefit from local production, as big-box stores’ consumers “would never justify the retail price points” that accompany a quality, domestically made product.

But it still carries risk. High minimum order requirements are a challenge for small brands, said Myers, as they’d have to invest the capital in the hopes that the product sells. Also, because there are so few, manufacturers across the U.S. are at maximum capacity, which makes it difficult for brands to get their production started.

According to Myers, the scarcity of U.S. manufacturers—and the unwillingness of new manufacturers to emerge—is the biggest obstacle to Made in U.S.A. denim.

“People don’t want the laborious job of sewing and cutting apparel,” he said. “It’s a very intensive job that requires highly skilled operators.”

From both an economic and sustainable perspective, local production is an optimal strategy. Experts agree that producing in the U.S.—where there are high standards for worker safety and wages—appeals to the growing consumer demand for ethical fashion. And on the corporate side, it encourages independence.

“Think: no more import and export nonsense, time on the boat or stratospheric air freight costs,” said Lafko. “Not having to travel internationally to do basic [quality assurance] checks, design changes and line adjustments in-person is a huge advantage.”

Considering the pandemic’s effect on corporations and consumer mindset, Lafko predicts that denim production will eventually return back to where it started.

“America gave birth to denim style,” he said. “I expect we’ll see that resurrected and explored as time goes on, as more and more brands look to re-shore in this time of uncertainty.”