Written by Ian Berry
There can be no denying the last couple of months have not been easy for Cone. This famed historic Denim Mill announced it would close it's White Oak plant in North Carolina. Why should this be news? All the rest have, and factories are closing down all over the western world. Yet this mill is the last with a denim factory that was a 112-year-old shrine to jeans and the last major manufacturer of selvage denim in the United States. Yes, the last one in the U.S of A.
I know people that have visited and cried when walking in white Oak, walking on the Maple Wood floors that added that something unique to the mystique and texture of the fabric. Micheal Williams (the founder of the influential men’s wear site A Continuous Lean) said it was 'denim done the right way — not mass-produced on modern looms (although the plant has plenty of those too), but painstakingly made on clanking 1940s American Draper X3 shuttle looms that churn out denim featuring a tighter weave, more interesting textures and of course, the de rigueur selvage stitching on the inside seam that jeans lovers proudly reveal by rolling their cuffs.'
It is an end of an era, most will think of the US when thinking of denim, certainly the history, and now they are not, they are not, making it. Its bad news for the over 200 strong staff in Greensboro, so called, 'Jeansboro'. Its not good news for the American Denim industry, nor the tag, All American made, but, whats to blame?
As someone who grew up in a textile town in the north of England, you see the past civic pride, the buildings, the community - and the decline. But this is a worldwide wider issue. Of cheaper labour and production in other countries. The consumer has been demanding cheaper products and the High Street has been offering it. To be able to offer a Selvedge for $25 and commoditise the market was never going to be possible to produce in the US or anywhere in the western world. Consumer perception of what a good pair of jeans should cost has changed. Fast Fashion became what it is. Lets have lots cheap than less at quality and craftsmanship, with authenticity and heritage. The denim industry may mourn, but were they buying enough fabric? Perhaps everyone should have a look at why, and perhaps even see what is best for the industry moving forward.
I'm very much on the fringes of this great industry, but surprisingly small industry, where everyone seems to know one another. It may be fanciful but looking in from the outside, how good would it be for some kind of council of denim heads. A united body of industry figures that can also protect or rally in support of an issue. It's a debate for another time, but it would be good to have a body that could certify the sustainable values of a brand or mill, so the consumer knows. They all can make nice mission statements...
I won't pretend to know all the ins and out of the industry, but always one to look at something another way. Should Cone be attacked for the closure, or should they be be given a little well done for being the last one battling to stay open with declining sales of White Oak stock. Now, I'm not going to pretend words here can make any difference in the face of families that now have bread winners out of work. But Cone is a mill brand with an un rivaled history and it is this history that I love in the denim story. The routes of the early miner and worker beginnings that then developed and followed that of pop culture. Cone has been there all along, once the worlds largest mill, and if you have never heard of it - they were the ones that supplied the material for the 501.
The hipster craze over the last decade of selvedge jeans (I got the Telleson and special Cone 501 myself.. but also the Japanese brands) waned and as people tighten their belt, they can now get selvedge in the same place they buy their groceries. Fast fashion reigns, not a good place to be in slow fashion. I bought some of mine knowing I would wear them for a decade, not a night out.
I saw it in my university town where the furniture industry bombed. Any industry would with Ikea in every home. We may say that Jeans are democratic, but do we all want the same, do we all want it cheap - and at what cost - to the workers, to the environment? And of course with a good selvedge, the jeans become unique to the owner with ever fade and evolution. I may be looking at this from an artist point of view, but I respect and value craftsmanship, knowledge, heritage, authenticity.
Do well all want to buy cheap art from the final section in a blue a yellow boxed building, yes, it makes art affordable and accessible to more, but at what cost to original creators? What hope do young un found artists have to sell an original piece when someone compares it to a mass produced print?
Back to Cone, In an official statement it was said
The biggest shock that this wasn't on the major networks or papers. Yes, its been in the fashion and denim press, but 'No more American Jean' didn't get a mention. Interesting in a time when I see all the mills wanting consumer knowledge of their names, the one with the biggest brand asset and history didn't even make the mainstream news. It's a sad loss for America and more importantly, the North Carolina community and economy.
But it is this history that I love and I'm honoured to have used some of the last denim from the mill for this installation in New York and cant thank the kindness of Kara Nicholas at Cone enough for the support in pulling off this piece. For my first New York show, it had to be American Denim. I can only thank them for allowing that opportunity. I hope I did the roll of 7180 Beckett proud.
At this point, they can only be proud as a company, the workers in N. Carolina, that they were able to bring White Oak and it's magic to the world for as long as they have. It is so disappointing that timing has run out - but this should make a even more determined effort to keep the spirit alive and to pay tribute to the very special place In Greensboro. The beauty of White Oak is that it has been making denim since 1905 and the history of denim in the US and the history of White Oak are intertwined. The biggest challenge was that it has been making denim since then and has almost 1 million square feet with all of the buildings.
We can mourn the loss, but celebrate that we had it. The outpouring from the denim community showed how much this place was loved. I wish them only the best. I wish all those very very skilled workers the best and heartened to read of stories of others picking them up, and of job fairs put on for them. But in every bad story, springs some hope and a new beginning. The evolution of the jean is not just a famous American fabric, but now a global beast. Ubiquitous, universal, yet people crave difference. You have seen it with Denim before, with whiskey, with Gin now, with micro breweries. What will sprout up from this?
And I'll leave the final message from Cone itself, that through the hard news, they are as Cone, are very much still in business.
We'd like to thank Cone Denim for supplying the denim to work with at the Childrens Museum of the Arts installation of the Secret Garden that is open until April 2018 at 103 Charlton Street.