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Denim Brands Talk Life After White Oak

This month marks the final weeks of 112-years continuous production of selvedge denim at Cone’s White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Significantly higher manufacturing costs and waning demand for Cone’s niche product led parent company, International Textile Group, Inc. (ITG), to announce in October that the plant would shutdown on Dec. 31.

As the iconic mill winds down U.S. production, designers and brands are still grappling with the loss of a one-of-a-kind supplier.

Maurice Malone, Williamsburg Garment Co. denim designer and owner, was caught off guard because his small company was seeing interest in “Made in USA” denim from retailers across China and Hong Kong. “When I first heard Cone Denim was closing White Oak, I didn’t believe it. I checked by reading a few stories online and the reality started to sink in,” he said.

“What’s heartbreaking,” Malone added, “is the decision makers behind Cone seem not to see the importance of its people, heritage or value. I think they don’t know how to market their product or take advantage of what they have and are choosing the easy way out.”

Malone believes this is standard practice in the U.S. garment industry.

“Outsourcing and cost cutting is the easy way out,” he explained. “It takes more thought to find workable solutions that could keep Americans working than to locate and solve problems.”

Chiming in on the topic, Jean Shop co-founder Eric Goldstein said, “My first thoughts were that the situation is very sad, I have been doing business with Cone White Oak for my entire career, 30 years.”

Goldstein says he discussed the future of the mill with Ken Kunberger, president and CEO of ITG and Cone Denim, and his efforts to save the mill months prior to the announcement.

“I must say that I am very surprised that others are so outspoken and shocked. How can so many people be so surprised when most brands [and] customers pulled out of White Oak and started to purchase selvedge denim from Asia simply due to the price? If there is no demand for the White Oak product how can they possibly stay alive?” Goldstein posed.

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White Oak’s closure will leave some brands in a bind, especially those that built their brand on a “Made in USA” story.

“The closing [of] White Oak is a big issue for future of Made in America jeans. I believe the entire landscape of Made in America denim is going to change. It takes on a completely different vibe when it’s made in USA with imported fabric,” Goldstein said.

Jean Shop previously used Japanese selvedge for all of its production, but when the brand’s mill partner in Japan sold 100 percent of its capacity to another company, Goldstein decided to purchase exclusively from White Oak. “At this point the number of premium selvedge mills continues to shrink although there are still some out there for sure,” he said.

Others believe the future of true American-made denim is at a crossroad.

“At a time when the U.S.-made jeans industry has been making a steady come-back, it’s like the rug is being pulled out from under us,” Malone said. “I really don’t know where we will be a year from now after I assume the stock of U.S. selvedge runs low. American made jeans are our thing, it’s the essence of what we do and who we are.”

Tellason co-founder Tony Patella thinks jeans can still be manufactured in the U.S., though fabrics will have to come from other places, like Japan. Tellason worked with Cone to produce all of the fabric it needed for 2018 before it closes. “We also have good stock of finished products and unused rolls of denim that will last us quite a while,” Patella said.

Malone would like to avoid that route and see “Made in USA” denim live on in some capacity.

“I’ve been discussing various ideas with guys that can get a great deal of money together to keep USA-made denim in production,” he said.

If “Made in USA” denim has any future, Goldstein said it’s up to the brands and consumers to accept higher prices.

“The consumer and the brands have not been engaged in ‘Made in USA’ in any significant way, that’s why White Oak is going through this,” he said, adding, “It’s up to the brands to push ‘Made in USA’ products and help cause a demand for the products.”

Jeans made in the U.S. with Japanese fabric was supposed to be a novelty for Williamsburg Garment Co. but the tables may have to turn. Malone realizes that Japanese fabrics could be his company’s only option.

“That would be truly sad,” he said. “I have no thirst for importing most of the fabric we use, sewing it in the USA and calling them American-made jeans.”