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Denim Made in America Takes a Big Hit, But It’s Not Dead Yet

U.S. denim manufacturing has suffered some severe body blows of late from which it might never fully recover, but some contend where’s there’s a loss there’s also opportunity.

The U.S. denim market lost an iconic symbol when Cone Denim said it was ceasing operations and closing down the White Oak mill in Greensboro, North Carolina, at the end of the year after 110 years of continuous production.

Then DNA Textile Group in Columbus, Georgia, announced late last month that it will be exiting the denim business by the end of January due to sagging demand and low selling prices.

The denim market–fabric and jeans–moved the bulk of U.S. domestic production into Mexico following the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, and since then mills in countries like Pakistan and Turkey have become major players.

International Textile Group (ITG), parent company of Cone Denim, said changes in market demand have significantly reduced order volume at the facility as customers have transitioned more of their fabric sourcing outside the U.S. Despite tremendous efforts on the part of the plant staff and all employees to manage these changes, the plant’s large size provides much more capacity than is needed, resulting in a significantly higher manufacturing cost that cannot be supported in a sustainable business going forward, ITG said.

[Read more about the denim market: Kingpins Mills Come Together, While Making Strides Toward Greater Sustainability]

“For more than 125 years, Cone Denim has defined American denim and authenticity with the White Oak mill representing the essence of Cone’s heritage,” said Kenneth T. Kunberger, president and chief executive officer of Cone Denim and ITG. “We truly regret having to take this action to close the mill, and we deeply appreciate the loyalty and dedication of all current and former employees of the White Oak mill.”

The White Oak mill, known for its 1940s vintage American Draper X3 shuttle looms that produced vintage selvage denim, was started in 1905.

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Cone Denim’s extensive global platform includes state-of-the-art operations in Mexico and China and the Cone® 3D R&D incubator focused on advancing performance and sustainability to the world’s favored fabric.

Kara Nicholas, vice president of product design and marketing for Cone Denim, said with White Oak closing, business will be transitioning to Cone’s Mexican facilities.

Nicholas noted that the White Oak had become a “boutique business” and used for product development.

“Along with our factories in China, we had developed a global strategy over the years,” she said. “Made in America for denim has become very challenging and without much apparel manufacturing, it became increasingly difficult to support.”

Monte Galbraith, president of DNA Textile Group, said, “We regret having to make the decision to cease denim operations and are profoundly grateful to our denim team members who have invested their incredible talents and loyalty to DNA over these past 15 years. It is because of their outstanding efforts, willingness to change, and most importantly their commitment to innovation that our denim business carried on much further and longer than conventional wisdom called for, and for that I will always be grateful.”

Galbraith said DNA Textile Group will be “pivoting quickly and focusing on our five-year-old Technical Fabrics and Custom Finishing Divisions,” which have been steadily growing and still have a bright future.

Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing, said of the closing, “You have to ask, does this symbolize the end of U.S. denim production? Who is there left to call on for sourcing denim in America? Mount Vernon Mills is still around, but who else is there? Can it continue to be viable?”

Dale McCollum, vice president of merchandising denim fabrics for the Apparel Fabrics division of Mount Vernon Mills, added, “It’s a sad day to hear of these closings. We always liked healthy competition. It made us better and it always made life better for our customers. As those companies have talked about their exit strategies, the effect it has on Mount Vernon is that we will have a lot customers coming directly to us, especially in the realm of Made in the United States.”

McCollum said Mount Vernon has been a “quiet giant down here in Trion, Georgia, with quite a rich heritage.” The company started manufacturing denim in the 1970s.

“Since Cone’s announcement, I have been contacted by several brands that want to continue to make denim garments made in the USA,” McCollum said. “We’ve reviewed product lines with them and they have found it very satisfactory. That’s an encouragement to us to keep that momentum going.”

McCollum noted that Mount Vernon is “right-sized” to meet increased demand and has flexible production for prompt delivery if and when more business comes its way. The company has capacity for 1.5 million yards a week and currently produces 800,000 yards a week.

“One of the keys to our success and longevity is that our customer base owns their own manufacturing on this side of the world,” he said.

He noted that Mount Vernon has advantages, like owning its own underground aquifer, and it’s also vertical in that it spins its own yarns and dyes and finishes its fabrics. The privately held company also uses natural gas, which helps keep costs down.

Carey said the shame is that with speed to market and manufacturing closer to home being a key sourcing strategy, “It’s very disappointing,” especially with Lenzing in the midst of building a new Tencel plant in Mobile, Alabama.

However, Carey noted there is plenty of North American distribution for the fiber with Mexico and Central America factories, and U.S. yarn and knitwear companies.

The yarn and knitwear end of the business has been where the revival of U.S. textile production has been most felt. Experts note that those businesses have been able to automate their facilities better than woven manufacturing has, and have been able to export more to factories in Central America and the Caribbean for assembly and importing back to the U.S. under preferential trade agreements.

According to the National Council of Textile Organizations, the value of U.S. man-made fiber and filament, textile and apparel shipments totaled $74.4 billion in 2016, an increase of 11 percent since 2009. Yarns and fabrics led the way with $30.3 billion in shipments. Investment in fiber, yarn, fabric and other non-apparel textile product manufacturing climbed 75 percent to $1.7 billion in 2015 from $960 million in 2009.

The U.S. imported $3.47 billion worth of blue denim trousers for the year through October, with Mexico and China the leading suppliers, according to the Commerce Department’s Office of Textiles & Apparel.

For Van Tucker, chief executive officer of the Nashville Fashion Association (NFA), the irony of the threat of the denim mill sector falling away is the importance of the fabric and jeans made from American culture.

“Nashville is the center of the music world and there’s nothing more iconic then denim and music. So, we have some brands, Too Son and Imogene + Willie, for example, that are denim brands. We have a rich history in denim manufacturing in the area, but we also recognize that denim is facing challenges. We feel like we’re in a unique position. Our location is certainly a positive. Our business-friendly environment in this region is a positive. I think there’s a great argument for the revitalization of American denim and we want it to happen here. There’s an opportunity to innovate in sustainability in denim for new investment.”

NFA members like Stony Creek Colors, which grows and makes natural indigo dyes, have an opportunity to carve out a space in the U.S. denim market.

“Denim is quintessentially American, and the opportunity has probably never been greater for us to take a step back and take a look at what the right way to move the industry forward is, and we look forward to being a part of that,” Tucker added.