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The Changing Face of the Denim Industry, or Why White Oak Closing Moves the Needle

cone mills denim industry news white oak

Cone Mills' White Oak employee. (Photo by Shane Deruise).

In case you missed it, Cone Mills is closing down its White Oak denim plant soon, the last mill making selvedge denim in the US. That is, unless Huston Textiles takes up the mantle, but it's a big challenge now at this point, and a big difference between a large mill and a fledgling family operation (still, all the best). 

What does this mean? For the workers at White Oak: no more job there, but possibly a new start elsewhere. For fans of Cone Denim, well, perhaps stocking up before the orders finish at White Oak in December. Or scouring the net for used LVC, Roy, Left Field, and other brands that used White Oak denim. For those brands, it seems already that they've got mills in Japan and Italy on the line to replace Cone in their products. 

Now, I'm not one to elevate a recently fallen figure to mythical status just because they've passed. Sometimes they weren't amazing to begin with, and although it's sad, I won't look back with rose-tinted glasses. Honestly, I never really liked Cone denim very much in terms of how the fabric fades. I know that sounds harsh, but its relatively flat nature is what had so many of us looking at Japanese denim in the first place.

It's a symbolic thing, though, this passing.

The birthplace of selvedge denim, America, has lost its last selvedge denim plant. I won't blame the private equity firm that shut it down, either. Word is White Oak had been losing money for years. There just wasn't enough market demand, as far as I can tell. For decades now the big jeans makers had switched over to cheaper denim and, like the frog in the boiling pot of water, the public got used to the very slowly deteriorating quality and bargain-basement prices. After all, selvedge denim is expensive now, and people want $20 jeans from Wal-Mart.

Wait...three bucks? Can't beat that. 

Cutting corners, getting the cost down, make it cheaper but still charge the same price (or more). That's what got us here, folks.

In the aftermath, some were pretty quick to condemn it as capitalism run amuck. Perhaps, but if the plant was losing money, it was losing money. Some said Levi's should buy it, but the other word on the street is that they're looking to go public ( I don't personally see the LVC line surviving in a public Levi's company). 

 LVC 1933 model.

Cost down, cut some corners. Who's really looking at that funny little white line on the outseam anyway? 

The slow downfall of traditional American culture was a long march after all, starting in the 1950s with the introduction of kitsch and youth culture. By the '70s and '80s, the options were too varied, grotesque, and trash culture, to put it bluntly, was born. It was only until the early 2000s that we seemingly began crawling out of clothing Hell (while people in Japan had a 20-year or so headstart). In days past, before even my parents were twinklings in their parents' eyes, it seemed one had to deliberately try hard to be poorly dressed. These days, it's quite the opposite. And yes, I know this makes me sound like an old man yelling at a cloud.

One step closer to the V-shaped silver jumpsuit of the future, perhaps. The fashion riff-raff hordes and their taste will simply spiral out of control, the heavy hand of Big Brother will have to step in and save us from our selves, and issue us our standard issues:

WAYWT: 2050 edition

Perhaps that's a bit too speculative and I'm overthinking all of this, though. After all, people in Blade Runner 2049 were wearing their own digs. There was a distinct lack of denim, though.


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