As the denim industry prepares for the closure of the 110-year old Cone Denim White Oak mill in Greensboro, N.C., industry stakeholders are voicing concern about its effect on U.S. denim manufacturing efforts and the industry at large. White Oak will cease production on Dec. 31, 2017.
The plant was affected by changes in market demands — namely fabric sourcing outside the U.S. — which resulted in considerably reduced order volumes, the compa+-ny said. The White Oak mill produced denim exclusively since its beginnings in 1905 and was differentiated by its Forties vintage American Draper X3 shuttle looms that manufactured its vintage selvage denim.
News of the White Oak closure came as a shock to the textile industry that has long supported and relied on the mill for denim supply. Tricia Carey, the director of global business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers, told WWD that “As denim heritage is built in America, the White Oak facility of Cone has been a fundamental part of this history. White Oak is a brand and has been used at the consumer level to represent the quality and history of the U.S. denim industry with millions of yards of fabrics and thousands of people employed over the past century. As we strive for ‘Made in U.S.’ programs, the closure of White Oak is quite a setback.”
Carey continued, “We just completed a project with the Cone team to use their White Oak selvage denim blending cotton and Tencel fibers for our anniversary. We were able to bridge our 25-year history of Tencel with [the] 110-year history of White Oak. It is disappointing to see this closure happen to our industry and the people at Cone.” The Lenzing, Cone Denim and Unifi collaboration debuted this week at Amsterdam Denim days to launch its “Future Black + Denim,” which is touted as the industry’s “first certified fade-resistant black denim.” The material is part of Cone Denim’s TruTone collection and features Lenzing’s Modal fibers and Unifi’s Repreve black recycled fibers.
Heritage denim brands are particularly saddened by the mill’s closure as White Oak played a significant role in American denim history and the shaping of the current market. Scott Tucker of VF Corp., the jeanswear design manager for Wrangler at the Center of Denim Excellence, told WWD, “Wrangler has been utilizing White Oak denim for our made in America product capsule, so it’s extremely sad that we will be losing this resource. Wrangler loved the authenticity of the White Oak product. I visited White Oak just last month and it was so inspiring to see the denim being manufactured on their original 1905 looms with the wooden floor vibrating underneath.”
Tucker, a Greensboro native, also expressed that it is “disheartening to shut down the manufacturing facility that helped build our city, [and] that’s very sad as well.” He added that “for true denim collectors it’s going to be harder and harder to find denim made in the USA. There’s still a couple of resources like Mount Vernon and DNA out of Georgia, but again, it’s getting very difficult to find true made in the USA denim.”
And consumers can contribute to the growth of U.S. made denim by actively seeking out brands that manufacture domestically, to help reinvigorate the industry. “I think [if] you talk to the average consumer everyone says, ‘Yes, I want to buy jeans made in the USA,’ but they don’t really realize what the cost is of a true made in the USA jean. The cost goes up three or four times [compared to] jeans made in Mexico or China.” He added, “Once we do see the popularity start climbing, which I think we’re seeing already, there will be more incentive to invest in made in the USA products.”
Stefano Aldighieri, founder of Another Design Studio and a thought leader in the industry, said that “Denim arrived to our shores as an ‘immigrant’ almost two centuries ago, and over the decades became the most recognizable and strong symbol of the working people who built the country. It clothed generations of factory workers, farmers, cowboys, navy servicemen, students, hippies, human rights activists and eventually moved on to become the most important fabric on the global fashion scene. The textile industry has been gradually and brutally obliterated in the U.S. over the last couple of decades, and now one of the last bastions is falling.”
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