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Denim Suppliers Feel the Effects of an Industry in Flux

Though it’s been around for centuries, denim is anything but stagnant.

Recently, the global denim industry has seen a significant shift toward sustainability, and everyone from trims suppliers and mills to major brands is trying to keep up.

Couple that with the fact that retail is fragmented, tariffs are forcing new sourcing strategies, a U.S. presidential election year is on the horizon and a recession is allegedly around the corner, and you have what Matthew Fuhr, advisor for Pakistani denim manufacturer Siddiqsons, calls “the perfect storm.”

The idea that these are uncertain times might just be the only concept that’s certain.

At Kingpins in New York City this week, leaders from the denim supply chain shared how these forces have—or haven’t—impacted their business.

In his conversations with Siddiqsons’ clients, Fuhr said he noticed some customer hesitation, pointing to store closings as one of the driving forces behind the reluctance.

News in 2019 of legendary retailers like Barneys New York and Lord & Taylor shuttering their New York flagships, and the bankruptcy of fast-fashion retailer Forever 21, have had a global effect on the mood and outlook of fashion. Retailers are becoming more mindful of their inventory and are opting for less overall.

“The industry is in transition,” Fuhr said. “Stores are closing, and it’s causing an oversupply of product.”

The U.S. and China trade war has had an effect on Chinese denim manufacturing. HeBi Ge Yuan Textile Co., a China-based manufacturer with vertical capabilities, is no longer producing garments.

A rep said it’s instead producing fabrics and shipping them to other countries for production, based on clients’ preferences.

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Others aren’t as affected by the challenging times. Pakistan-based mills such as Kassim Denim and Crescent Bahuman are mostly steering clear of trouble, as trade issues in China are causing some companies to turn to them for services.

Mills that make products at a higher price point, such as Candiani, also remain unscathed overall.

Damiano Dall’Anese, the Italian mill’s executive vice president, noted that customers that value quality over all else will stay loyal. “Good products will always sell,” he said.

Candiani isn’t experiencing a lull in business, but Dall’Anese is noticing a market increasingly saturated with misleading messages about sustainability. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to cut through the noise. “It’s pressuring companies to create fabricated messaging,” he said. “Greenwashing is everywhere right now.”

And it’s not just mills feeling the effects. Trims supplier YKK said some customers are in a holding pattern and are opting to stick with what has historically worked than experiment with sustainable alternatives.

“We’ve introduced products that companies are excited about, but some are too afraid to pull the trigger,” Terry Gazsi, regional sales manager at YKK, said.

While times are difficult now, the future looks bright, she added.

“Times are challenging for everyone at the moment, but it’s not permanent,” she said. “There’s a new wave of people who see sustainability as a necessity, and will make purchasing decisions based on that.”

While many companies want to be sustainable, getting to that point is an investment.

“Different brands have different needs and price is most commonly the top priority, as many American consumers want inexpensive jeans,” Paul Ledgett, Diamond Denim North America president, said.

Louis Pedraza, a rep for Kassim Denim, agreed. “There’s certainly an altruistic part of the business that works on ideals,” Pedraza said. However, at the end of the day he said customers need products that fit in with their budgets.

In order for sustainability to more accessible, demand for alternative products needs to increase. And that responsibility, Alvin Cheung, a rep for Black Peony, said falls on the shoulders of the customer. “There needs to be a level of demand for sustainability,” he said. “As more customers ask for a sustainable product, its price will go down.”

Though it’s a simple concept, it’s also a long game. “It needs to start with denim leaders and famous brands who are able to place large orders,” Cheung said. “And then, everyone needs to get on board.”