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  Learn the Vocabulary of Demand Manufacturing

February 28, 2018 Leave a comment
Building a true demand manufacturing integrated solution is the key to future domestic manufacturing.  Here is a glossary of basic terms that have emerged as we evolve further toward the goal of a Virtual Inventory with demand response and mass customization. Thanks for following there’s still more to come.
Bill
Demand Manufacturing Glossary
The most important aspect of today’s evolutionary shift from the mass manufacturing of the “Industrial Age” to the promises of the “Digital Age” is the advent of Demand Manufacturing and the impact of sustainable high profits through “Virtual Inventory” (VI).  This opportunity to tie production directly to sales minimizes wasteful over production and the resulting environmental impact while providing a quantum jump in product choice and wholesale and retail profits.
Demand Manufacturing is divided into two production paths that are defined by the customer. Individual pre-paid consumer custom products are produced using Purchase Activated Manufacturing (PAM) and wholesale production that replaces actual retail product sales in store or on line is called Demand Replenishment (DM). 
An Integrated Mini-Factory (IMF) is capable of both manufacturing paths.

Here are some of the terms used to describe the elements of Demand Manufacturing:

Active Tunnel Infusion (ATI)
A permanent coloring process developed by AM4U, Inc. that uses physics instead of chemistry to dye and/or print fabric. Link
Color Space
Display monitor screens are portrayed in pixel based Red Blue Green (RGB) color space.  Digital printing appears as dot arrays of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (CMYK) color space.
Color Cone
A graphic representation of all the factors required to be in alignment to reproduce matching colors job to job and/or between digital printers.
Color Profile
An ICC profile is a RIP translation table that provides RGB, CMYK or Lab color values directions to the nearest CMYK printable value for each color. Profiles are not used for color correction on a file-by-file basis. 
Configurator
Software used online to modify an image or product. Usually used to change the color and/or embellishment on an item pictured in a catalog or customizing display.
“Cost of goods sold” COGS replaces “cost of goods” 
The cost of product is calculated as the total cost of wholesale products actually sold and shipped or retail products actually purchased at full or promotional price.
“Cost of units sold” replaces “cost per unit”
In demand manufacturing units are not produced until after they have been sold. Since there is no pre-financed physical inventory the cumulative cost per pre-sold unit is calculated as product is produced.
Custom Stock Unit (CSU)
This inventory designation represents a personalized product appropriate for sale to a specific individual or individuals.  In unit manufacturing there are very few situations where a CSU exists without the actual sale already in place.  Forecast based CSU’s that remain unsold represent the largest inventory liability.     `          
 “Days of Supply” (DOS) replaces “inventory levels”
The speed of product throughput and shipping determines how many days of supply the production line needs to manufacture to successfully manage the consumer available inventory so that at least one of every offered SKU is available during the selling cycle.
Demand Replenishment
Buyer’s restocking order caused by retail sales rate and DOS.
Digital Core
The digital core of a product is the descriptive binary data that never changes whatever process; assembly or logistics instructions are attached as variable instructions to the digital core.  This is part of the TechPack for apparel.
Digital Inventory
Once products have completed the design and development process they are registered with a design number and stored in a digital folder of SKU marker sizes.  Once the style is in the digital inventory it is ready for production on demand.
Digital Instruction (DI) 
The DI for a product is all the information required to produce one or many of that particular SKU.  In order for the DI to be to quickly available to the active roster, the GSU (see below) must be current.
Digital Twin
The “Digital Twin” is a sophisticated virtualization model developed by Black Swan Textiles to compare and facilitate existing systems.  A factory utilizing the Digital Twin methodology has modeled all manufacturing equipment, operators, and processes, enabling it to simulate the operations necessary to assemble any particular product. Link
Direct to Garment (DTG) & Direct to Fabric (DTF)
Printing machines that print directly on finished garments (DTG) or directly on fabric roll goods (DTF).
“Endless Aisle” Retailing
A retail display using a touch screen, body scanner and video mirror to offer endless VI choices to a consumer.  Displays can include a try-on product that can be visually customized and produced for delivery through store pickup or home.
Generic Stock Unit (GSU)
This inventory designation is normally used for items that can be assembled into a number of different products.  Although GSU’s are usually parts in their basic form (greige or PFP fabric) the designation is also used for items, which are partially assembled but still may be used for many products.
“Grays”
The sewn and finished blanks used to confirm the fit, production speed and process steps for a specific silhouette.  Grays are often part of an “endless aisle” display or are used to reduce returns in swimwear
Integrated Mini Factory (IMF)
One of the key features of an Integrated Mini Factory is that all of the coloring, printing, cutting, sewing and fulfillment are under one roof. This allows for the ultimate in “lean” manufacturing because the minimum can be one custom unit or a retail replenishment that matches consumer sales.
Job Tracker
An optical reader and / or a RFID signal track each job and piece through the production path. 
Landed/Duty/Paid Cost (LDP) 
Actual cost of imported products including: materials, labor, transportation, duties, forwarding, warehousing and distribution.
Linearization
Linearization is an iterative process used to control dot placement for each color for a particular device, ink and substrate using software and press settings. This process balances the primary colors and dot placement.  It is performed before ICC color profiling.
Micro Merchandising
Using social media and other online aggregation tools to identify and target specific silhouettes, colors, fabric and decorations at special interest individuals and groups.
Point of Asset (POA)
Point in the production path when a GSU is transformed into an irreversible SKU awaiting sale.  Items passing this point are a liability until finished and shipped even if they are pre-purchased.
Purchase Activated Manufacturing (PAM)
A pre-paid purchase order, usually individualized, that triggers a production event.
Process Integration
Building the bridges between separate technologies to produce a demand-based seamless path between product design, sales and marketing, coloration, cutting, assembly, finishing and fulfillment. Connecting these developed products requires technology, technique and field experience.
Product Cycle
Once a style folder is registered, the product cycle can begin, usually with sales samples followed by initial stocking orders.  Replenishment orders follow based on actual consumer “take away” until the product can no longer sustain the merchandise turns to maintain its place in the retail store inventory.   Depending on the terms of the replenishment contract the style may remain in a digital catalog for individual ordering.
Product Performance Index (PPI)
The predetermined index of product velocity (turns) times gross profit that a current product must meet to remain active (e-tail) or on the shelf (retail).  If a product does not meet this index its “digital instruction” in the Virtual Inventory is retired but still available on order.  Maintaining a continuous table of PPI tracking by SKU is the key to increasing sell-through and maximizing profits.
Raster Image Processor (RIP)
The RIP is the software that translates the pixel based RGB color on the display screen to printable CMYK color and resolution for actual production.
Replenishment Contract 
The basic document that describes the criteria for production of a particular style is the replenishment contract.  This document sets the standards for order content and logistics timing as well as finishing, packaging and order fulfillment.
Style Cycle
Design and development of a Style Group (see below) involves the traditional process of pattern making and new process of fabric building.  Pattern making is the traditional process of determining the shape and look of the garment and then the reduction of the garment to a digital cutting marker for production.  Fabric building is the selection of the white fabric style (silhouette) and the printing of decorations and colors to determine the print choices, which will comprise the style group.
Style Group
A Style Group is a single or group of garment silhouettes that occur in preset graded sizes on the same white fabric. The customer can choose from preset or custom print or color. Since process color cost is constant, one of the key merchandising advantages of digital production is the ability to change colors and prints on the fly without additional cost in a single style group.  This allows the sales force to offer exclusive prints to each customer.
Style Contract
A Style Contract allows a buyer to change the decoration and color of a Style Group on short notice without penalty to correct for a slow or non-selling SKU.
Stock Keeping Unit (SKU)
This inventory designation is the first product cost point on the consumer side of the POA (see above).  Products at the SKU stage can represent assets if they still can be customized to add significant value, but they generally represent the first level of inventory liability.
Selling Cycle
The period of time a retail product is on the shelf before it is retired because it cannot maintain the predetermined “sales index”.
SMART Book
The Style Marker ART (SMART) book contains all the customer approved process samples needed to check the production quality at each station in the manufacturing value chain.
Tracking ID (TID)
The TID is an order number assigned by the ERP or PLM schedule software that appears on each piece of a garment and is removed when sewn.  The TID creates a continuous reference to the VI data (see below) and the product tracking dashboard.
Virtual Inventory (VI)
The VI is the searchable digital warehouse of SKU and configurator resources.




Posted By Blogger to Virtual Inventory Domestic Manufacturing at 2/28/2018 03:03:00 PM

Categories: Uncategorized

Levi Strauss to use lasers instead of people to finish jeans

February 28, 2018 Leave a comment

  • 27 February 2018
Levi jeans
Image copyright DEVAKI KNOWLES
Image captionLevi Strauss has been making jeans since the 1890s

Levi Strauss is ramping up its use of lasers to automate the way its jeans are made.

The firm says the new techniques will reduce chemical use and make the way in which jeans are faded, distressed and ripped more efficient.

By replacing manual labour with lasers, Levi’s will be able to finish a pair of jeans every 90 seconds, instead of just two to three pairs an hour.

It expects the new finishing method to be fully in place by 2020.

Levi’s said the new process is less “labour intensive” and will help the company be more responsive to local markets. The methods enable the firm to produce just a few kinds of jeans in bulk, quickly tailoring the finishes to buyer demands.

How jeans giant Levi Strauss got its mojo back

Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co, called the process “the future of jeans manufacturing.”

The firm relies on overseas contractors to make the vast majority of its products.

But a spokeswoman for Levi’s says the company does not expect any job losses “in the near-term”, because employees can be retrained and put to work in other areas.

“Given the growth of our business with our vendors, we’ve seen that our manufacturing partners have generally been able to redeploy any affected workers,” she said.

Shoppers carry bags from retailers including Levi's and Selfridge's as they walk along Oxford Street in London, on November 24, 2017.
Image copyrightAFP/GETTY
Image captionLevi’s has faced increased competition from rivals such as Zara and H&M

The move comes as clothing firms grapple with increased competition and a faster fashion cycle.

Fashions favouring leggings and other leisure wear have cut into blue jean sales, while retailers have been pressured to offer new trends more quickly, replicating strategies pioneered by low-cost, fast-fashion brands such as Zara and H&M.

Speeding it up

Levi’s new method involves taking a picture of the clothing, and using computer software that Levi’s developed in house to design the colouring, rips and other details. Upgraded lasers then interpret the design, firing slits and other details into the denim.

The previous process could take more than six months from the start of the design cycle. That will be reduced to weeks – even days in some cases, Levi’s said.

The number of steps involved in the finishing process – which used to involve hand sponging and sand papering wear patterns and other details onto the denim – will drop from 18 to 20 steps to about three, it said.

Levi Strauss worked with Spanish company Jeanologia, which specialises in industrial lasers, to develop the new methods.

They also allow the company to reduce the number of chemicals used to reproduce the worn look of vintage jeans. Those have attracted critics for their polluting effects.

The emphasis on automation comes as Levi’s sales rose 8% last year, accelerating after several years of slower growth, but its profits slipped.

Levi’s, which started in the 19th century as a seller of work trousers, and other products during the California Gold Rush, sells its products in more than 110 countries globally, making more than half of its sales internationally.

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AS WORN BY ALBERT EINSTEIN… LEVI’S® VINTAGE CLOTHING REPRODUCES ICONIC JACKET

February 27, 2018 Leave a comment

FEBRUARY 20, 2018

The late genius chose to keep it routine when it came to his look, presumably to concentrate on the bigger matters before him, but his style did include a love for Levi’s®.In the mid-1930s, Einstein purchased a Levi’s® Menlo Cossack leather jacket, a signature piece he would wear for decades. It became synonymous with his early years in the United States, a time when his work achieved global fame.In 2016, Levi Strauss & Co. placed the winning bid on the Einstein staple at Christie’s Auction House in London. Weathered and creased with wear, the jacket also famously maintains a faint scent of sweet pipe tobacco that endlessly emanated from Einstein’s pipe as he smoked incessantly.

Once the jacket made its way back to Levi Strauss & Co., the Levi’s® Vintage Clothing team went to work. They meticulously recreated the garment for a limited-edition run. With only 500 pieces made, the limited-edition reproduction of Albert Einstein’s Levi’s® Menlo Cossack Jacket is now available as part of the LVC Spring/Summer 2018 collection, retailing for $1200.00.

In step with LVC’s dedication to authenticity, and with the help of Brooklyn-based perfume house D.S. & Durga, they also recreated the scent of Einstein’s jacket: a warm blend of burley pipe tobacco, papyrus manuscripts and vintage leather. A bottle of this exclusive scent accompanies each jacket, along with a replica of the No. 97 auction paddle that was used to bid on this historic garment.

“It’s the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to reproduce a garment that belonged to such an icon and a huge personality of the twentieth century,” said Paul O’Neill, Head Designer, Levi’s® Vintage Clothing. “It was such an honor to reproduce Albert Einstein’s jacket. He’s a legend.”

By working with a similar Cossack jacket Paul purchased online, the team was able to nail down the details of the Einstein jacket, from the buttons and the brass buckle cinch to the waist straps.

Paul also traveled to D.S. & Durga to help replicate that smoky scent. In what he likened to a mad-scientist’s lab, the teams landed on a fragrance distinctly Einstein.

“It is based on Einstein’s study,” Paul said. “It is a nod and a wink to the whole story of the jacket, and we want to really invest in this story.”

Of course, Paul is all about the details. “There’s an interesting triangular gusset at each side seam that has a strap and buckle where you can adjust the waist. That’s great. I also really like the very small rounded collar, I think that’s a very nice detail.

“Ultimately, I think my favorite aspect of the jacket is that it feels very contemporary,” Paul says. “Even though it’s more than 80 years old, it doesn’t feel like you’re dressed up in period design. It feels so fresh and current. It just goes to show how classic the products Levi’s® were producing back in the 1930s. They still feel very relevant for today.”

The jacket will be available Feb. 26.

Categories: Uncategorized

Walmart’s Is Trying to One-Up Amazon

February 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Where Walmart’s Marc Lore Is Trying to One-Up Amazon

Tapping brick-and-mortar network for an edge

Author: Andria Cheng

September 26, 2017

The head of ecommerce for Walmart, Marc Lore, acknowledges that the company has work to do to catch up with Amazon in some respects, but that doesn’t mean Amazon has the advantage in every digital matchup.

COMPANY DATA

WalmartSales and ecommerce data, store productivity information and more

Speaking at an Advertising Week panel in New York on Wednesday, Lore said Walmart’s more than 1.2 million employees in the US, as well as its more than 4,600 stores located within 10 miles of 90% of the US population, are among its “unique assets.” They give Walmart advantages, he said, such as the ability to offer online ordering for grocery pickup, currently available in 1,000 stores.

That advantage can be seen in data from The NPD Group, showing that more than nine in 10 US consumers made a purchase at Walmart in 2016.

Walmart’s ubiquity gives it the ability to try unexpected fulfillment tactics, such as testing a system where employees can make additional money by dropping off customer packages after work. Walmart has found that, on average, drop-offs generally require less than a quarter-mile of additional travel, according to Lore.

These and other edges allow Walmart to deliver fresh goods in a 2-hour delivery window—”cheaper than anybody else,” Lore said. “I like our chances better. The idea of fresh is the next big breakthrough. We are in a great spot.”

RELATED LINKS

Delivery BellsWalmart, Amazon Look to Extend Concept of Delivery

The comments came only days after the company announced its partnership with smart-lock startup August Home to test delivering fresh produce straight to customers’ refrigerators. On Wednesday, Lore said more than 1,000 consumers—at least 10 times the needed participation— have volunteered to join the test, which is taking place in California’s Silicon Valley.

“The world is changing,” Lore said. “People are evolving. Some may be freaked out [about] putting products in people’s refrigerators. But it’s happening.”

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As to the other 10% of the US population not within 10 miles of a Walmart store, Lore said in urban markets like New York, Walmart’s Jet.com is meeting the demand, offering free same-day delivery in the “New York surrounding area”—a feature that Walmart will also be offering soon, Lore said. (To be sure, he admits a lot of the remaining 10% of the US population reside in “super rural” areas where there are no Walmart stores.)

Walmart still has a significantly smaller ecommerce footprint than Amazon, but its ecommerce sales are growing faster.  According to eMarketer’s Retail and Ecommerce database, Walmart’s global ecommerce sales rose 25.8% for the latest 12 months, compared with Amazon’s 16.9%.  In the most recent quarter, Walmart’s US Q2 online sales jumped 60%, contributing to the company’s 12th straight quarter of comparable sales gains in the US.

As Amazon continues to expand into various areas of consumers’ lives and reshapes how people shop via its successful Alexa-powered voice assistants like the Echo devices, Walmart is partnering with Google to offer a feature where consumers can shop for Walmart items via Google Assistant voice shopping. The partnership also involves Walmart integrating its “Easy Reorder” feature to Google Express so Google can recommend a personalized weekly shopping list based on consumers’ prior purchase history.

How this deal came about also highlights the importance of the partnership for Google. In fact, Google was the one that approached Walmart first about the partnership, said Google’s senior vice president of ads and commerce, Sridhar Ramaswamy, at the Advertising Week panel. Walmart’s purchase of Jet.com, which Ramaswamy said was a “big customer for Google products from early on,” resulted in a Google-Walmart relationship taking off much faster, he said.

“It’s been a perfect partnership,” Lore said. “We are a retailer. We don’t claim to be a tech company. … Google has more tech prowess. We are looking through the lens of how we can be the best merchant in the world. … The two of us are stronger than anyone alone.”

Categories: Uncategorized

My Checkered Past

February 13, 2018 Leave a comment
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s About Time – The Renaissance of Made in America Denim (RIP Cone Mills)

February 13, 2018 Leave a comment
It's-About-Time-The-Renaissance-of-Made-in-America-Denim

If you’re into raw denim, there’s a good chance that you’re also into heritage products; those that harken to an earlier time in history and emulate the strong craftsmanship of days gone by. In fact, many of us have a tendency to idealize the past and compare contemporary products with those made in the nebulous bygone era — leaving contemporary products to often fall short of the standards set.

The average denim enthusiast is well-versed in the birth of denim. The rise of Levi Strauss and his denim overalls in San Francisco led to the proliferation of jeans from workman’s pantaloons to a staple in first the counterculture, then into the mainstream where denim resides today. There’s no denying that jeans were born in the United States with Levi’s and their imitators one hundred and forty years ago, but an industry-wide trend of outsourcing labor to cut costs began around the turn of the millennium. Even Levi’s, the originator, closed its last U.S. manufacturing plant a decade ago in 2003.

Around 2003 it would have been easy to find denim made in Latin America and Asia, but one would be hard-pressed a few years ago to lay hands on a pairs of denim both sourced and crafted in the United States. Those days are over. We are in the midst of a renaissance of made-in-the-US artisan goods which, luckily for us, includes raw denim as a production staple.

Tellason3sixteenRaleigh, and Baldwin, just to name a few, are leading the charge in the effort to offer quality goods held to superior standards. The old pioneer, Levi’s, is also back in the mix, producing some of their wares back at home in the good old U.S.A.

Just two notable U.S.-based denim companies

However, what makes these brands special and why should anyone care if his or her denim is made in the United States? There are a few good reasons, two of which boil down to the meaty topics of production and quality.

Transparency of Production

When it comes to companies that mass produce in China, Bangladesh, or Mexico, it’s damn near impossible to know where and how exactly your denim has been sourced. This is not to say that these countries lack capable workers who can sew together some mean denim. Under what conditions though are these workers producing these jeans? Working standards are not as closely monitored elsewhere as they are in the United States, and employees are willing to work for much less than what would be considered an adequate living wage here.

Furthermore, when a company is designing their products in one country and manufacturing them in another, it’s more difficult to control quality. Many of the “Made in America” brands we feature produce their goods close to headquarters and can thus oversee the production of their denim from beginning to end to ensure that the product is up to snuff.
Hell, the one-man brands are the producers, so you know exactly what went into the construction of your jeans. These brands express a passion for the goods they produce, and they are serious about ensuring that each part of the process is going according to their visions.

Sure, you can find cheaper jeans that were made elsewhere, but you have to ask yourself why they’re cheaper. You can rest assured knowing that when you buy a pair of premium made-in-the-US denim, you’re supporting ethical production practices and receiving quality-controlled goods.

Quality of Goods

One of the most exciting aspects of denim being produced in the United States is that many of the companies who produce their goods in the U.S. are establishing partnerships to create jeans. They feature top quality details that not only look great, but also stand up to the test of time and heavy wear.

cone mills denim

First things first, let’s start with the denim itself. America can lay claim to housing one of the companies who form the foundation of high-quality denim production in the world, let alone America, having been in business now for 122 years.

That’s right, we’re talking about Cone Mills. If you’re wearing premium denim made in the U.S. there’s a good chance it came from Cone Mills. They supplied Levi’s with denim way back, and many of the brands today are recognizing what Levi’s did a century ago: Cone Mills is serious about their commitment to producing world class denim.

Aside from having the history to back up their business, they’re continuing to innovate and strive to produce novel fabrics. There are plenty of denim heads around the world who will swear by denim made at Cone.

This is not to say that all premium American denim brands utilize Cone Mills,but they are certainly discerning in their choice of denim. Take, for example, 3sixteen. They utilize denim from Kuroki Mills, made specifically for their company to ensure a unique pair of jeans. Kaihara Kuroki has been using vintage shuttle looms in full production for a couple decades now, and anyone who has been lucky enough to own a pair can attest to their quality.

Another detail that denim enthusiasts love is the leather patch on the back proclaiming the brand name or icon. The beauty of a leather patch – of leather in general in fact – is that it will age with the denim, adding another unique aspect to the jeans. One of the companies at the forefront of creating beautiful patches is Tanner Goods from Portland, Oregon. 3sixteen was the first to utilize their leather before many other brands, such as Tellason, followed suit.

Tanner Goods Coasters

The Bottom Line

It’s exciting to see American brands stepping up to the plate and taking a crack at producing jeans that rival anything made worldwide. Any accusations of xenophobia are misdirected; this isn’t about a fear of foreign companies taking over what the U.S. began so many years ago. Of course, the debate between supporters of U.S. denim and supporters of Japanese denim won’t be settled here. But that’s not the point either.

Rather, it’s about taking a moment to recognize that, at long last, we are seeing a reemergence of the United States as a major player in the design and production of high-quality denim. We’re no longer left looking longingly toward the past for products we can be proud of. They are all around us, right here and right now.

Categories: Uncategorized

Who Killed The Cone Mills White Oak Plant?

February 1, 2018 Leave a comment

Late last year, we received probably the worst news possible in the American denim scene; Cone Mills White Oak Plant–the last selvedge denim mill in the United States–would close permanently on December 31, 2017.

International Textile Group, Cone’s parent company, cited the reason as, “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.” Translated, people weren’t willing to pay the premium price for domestically-produced fabric and companies simply aren’t buying enough to keep the looms running.

White Oak was the very last of a now extinct breed. The mill opened in Greensboro, North Carolina 112 years ago, in 1905, and has produced fabric and denim continuously to the present day. The facility was over a million square feet large and, according to Cone VP of Product Development Kara Nicholas, was at one point the largest mill in the world. White Oak was perhaps most noteworthy for the “Golden Handshake” deal struck with Levi Strauss & Co. in 1915 to be the exclusive manufacturer of the XX denim used in the brand’s 501 jeans.

who-killed-the-cone-mills-white-oak-plant-vintage

They were also often the first and last source of fabric for dozens of new brands who needed high quality denim at low minimums and needed it fast. Many of our favorite like Raleigh Denim, Roy, Railcar, Tellason, Rogue Territory, Left Field, Freenote Cloth, Norman Porter, and Levi’s Vintage Clothing relied heavily on Cone Mills White Oak as the only source of domestic selvedge denim.

And yet as Made in USA raw denim skyrocketed in popularity in the last decade, White Oak’s output seemed to wane. For every new style they introduced (natural indigo, open spun), two more seemed to disappear (duck canvas, unbleached natural, sulphur black, tweed weft). From our (albeit myopic) corner of the market, it appears that demand was at an all time high, so the question remains, why did it close?

The Untold Business History of Cone Mills

who-killed-the-cone-mills-white-oak-plant-stereoscope-of-cesar-cone-center-at-desk-image-via-wikimedia

The story of textiles in America is one of constant amalgamation. Over the course of Cone Mills’s 126 year history, the company has merged and acquired or been acquired countless times.

Cone Mills itself was founded by Moses and Cesar Cone, the eldest sons of a Bavarian immigrant who ran a dry goods business (sound familiar?). In the 1880s, the Cone brothers expanded their father’s grocery business into wholesaling tobacco, leather goods, and eventually cotton. The brothers were convinced that they could broaden their empire by vertically integrating and opening their own mills to produce fabric from that cotton. They believed the best place to locate such facilities was Greensboro, North Carolina, a town close to the southern source of their cotton and with the infrastructure to support a milling operation.

In 1896, the Cones opened their first facility, the Proximity Cotton Mill, which would also be the name of their new company. Caesar Cone thought that cotton denim, the sturdy American work cloth, would be in constant demand in a rapidly developing country so the indigo blue twill became the focus of their production. After their initial success, the Cones opened a second denim facility in Greensboro in 1905. The new plant was built near a large oak tree, and being men of more business than creative imagination, they named the new facility White Oak.

who-killed-the-cone-mills-white-oak-plant-image-via-wgsn

Proximity continued to open new factories at a breakneck pace and had no less than seven facilities to its name (White Oak being just one) by the time it secured the “Golden Handshake” agreement with Levi’s in 1915 and began to produce massive quantities of fabric for World War One. Proximity was quick to diversify in the aftermath of the booming war economy so the company was not fatally damaged by the Great Depression a little over a decade later. This put them in an advantageous position as a one of the top fabric producers for the military effort in World War Two.

In 1948, company management decided a name change was in order and Proximity would henceforth be known as the Cone Mills Corporation, after the company’s founders. Cone Mills went public on the New York Stock Exchange in 1951 and soon saw rapid growth as denim became accepted as American casual wear in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Cone used these gains to diversify into a variety of related industries including spinning, bleaching, sanforization, furniture upholstery, and polyurethane cushions.

who-killed-the-cone-mills-white-oak-plant-cone-mills-spinning-operation-in-greensboro-in-2005-image-via-greensboro

The story begins to unravel in 1983, when Cone was the target of corporate raider Western Pacific who began to buy up stock for a hostile takeover of the company. Cone repelled Western Pacific with their own leveraged buyout by borrowing a significant amount of money to buy all the outstanding stock and go private once again.

Things would not get much better. By the 1980s, the quality of foreign fabric producers (many in Japan) began to rival what was produced in the United States but significantly reduced cost. Cone campaigned that their goods were “Made Proudly in USA”, but such pleas were largely unheard and Cone closed 10 facilities between 1977 and 1990, including their first, the Proximity Cotton Mill.

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1994 would deal a double blow. First, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect and effectively eliminated textile and apparel tariffs (among many others) between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Over the next decade, companies like Levi’s, Lee, Wrangler, The Gap, Lucky Brand, and many others moved the majority of their production out of the United States. With fewer garments produced domestically, it became less advantageous to buy domestic fabric and more brands used fabric made closer to their production country. Second, the World Trade Organization called for an end to textile and apparel quotas worldwide by 2005. Previously, countries could set limits to the amount of fabric they wanted to import (i.e. the U.S. would only import 5 million yards of denim from China, 2 million pairs of jeans from India, etc.). In ten years, textile and apparel manufacturers would all be competing directly against each other without such regulation to artificially protect domestic mills like Cone.

Cone Mills Corporation recorded its highest annual revenue with $910 million in 1995, but that was still at a net loss of $3.3 million. By 2003, only a fraction of the clothing consumed in the United States was being produced domestically and much of what was, was being made with imported fabric. The global wholesale price of denim had dropped 27 percent in the last four years. Cone Mills had diversified into their own value operations in Mexico and China, but it was too little too late and they filed for bankruptcy.

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Enter Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor who saw opportunity in failing domestic textile producers. In March of 2004, Ross bought Cone Mills for $46 million. He also bought their longtime competitor Burlington Industries and several other smaller manufacturers and rolled them all into a new conglomerate, the International Textile Group (ITG). ITG sought to take the knowledge and name brand appeal of these domestic mills while moving their operations overseas, a tactic he employed to great success with bankrupt steel companies just two years prior.

But textiles didn’t prove to be the quick turnaround he found with steel. ITG began with a combined revenue of about $900 million in 2005 but had dropped to $610 million a decade later in 2015. The company’s flagging sales combined with Ross’s political ambitions lead him to sell ITG to private equity firm Platinum Equity in October 2016 for $99 million. Ross then became Secretary of Commerce in the Trump Administration February of 2017 (and more recently, surrogate connection to Russian shipping interests).

Platinum’s business model involves buying flagging companies and drastically reducing the bottom line until they can sell them off for a profit. With ITG, one of those line items happened to be the historical crown jewel of the Cone Mills brand, the White Oak Plant, which, for the reasons mentioned above, had become the last operating selvedge denim mill in the United States. On October 17, 2017 ITG announced it would close the White Oak Plant in Greensboro at the end of that year.

So Why Did it Close?

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I was afraid something like this might happen when ITG announced the sale to Platinum last year, but Cone assured customers and fans alike that they had every intention of keeping the plant open. Members of the artisanal raw denim community were shocked to hear of White Oak’s end. Roy Slaper of Roy Denim believed the mill was doing amazing business, “I was constantly told the mill was operating at full capacity. I’m shocked they didn’t have enough orders to keep it open.”

Amy Leverton, denim trend forecaster, author of Denim Dudes (and contributor to this site) finds it hard to comprehend as well based on her past experience with White Oak, “I visited Cone denim in 2004 when I worked with Duffer St. George to create a White Oak custom selvedge…White Oak around that time was like a graveyard. The White Oak Draper room was not working at half the capacity it was when I went back to visit last year to celebrate their 125 year anniversary. The industry has grown exponentially since my visit in 2004 and developed into a still-niche but very very healthy little scene.”

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But the selvedge business was only a small part of White Oak’s output. Longtime White Oak customers Tony Patella and Pete Searson of Tellason reminisce in their blog post on the closure, “If White Oak is the size of a football field, the Draper looms that make the selvedge denim take up the space of half of an end zone. The mill depends on selling a large volume of fabric produced on their modern looms — the exact type of fabric large brands and retailers use.”

There were only about 40 operational Draper looms on the White Oak floor. That operation was made possible by the wide, non-selvedge denim the other roughly ninety percent of the mill produced. The brands that bought that kind of denim were the small- to medium-sized “Premium” brands that still produced in the United States–the likes of True Religion7 For All Mankind, and Citizens of Humanity. And as those brands waned in recent years, so did White Oak’s viability.

The tragedy is consumer awareness of Cone Mills White Oak selvedge denim was likely at an all time high. Can you imagine the same level of outcry over the closure of any other fabric mill in the world? But such a title is roughly equivalent to “tallest dwarf” and speaks more to how little the average consumer cares about the source of their clothes, much less the fabric of which they are composed.

White Oak was special for the same reasons that doomed it. It was a steam locomotive that somehow still serviced a commuter train route. The global apparel economy had long since moved on, but the emergence of a niche heritage scene along with a few medium sized brands still looking for domestic non-selvedge fabric kept it afloat and the tireless dedication of the people working at Cone Mills like Kara Nicholas kept it alive far longer than every other facility like it in the United States.

Even if it was no longer profitable, there was a great deal of brand value in having something so historically significant at the center of Cone’s operation. The new ownership at Platinum, however, must not have seen it as enough the doors open and their track record shows no evidence of sentimentality.

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Many have wondered (myself included), “why doesn’t someone else just buy it and keep it running?” Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Even if Platinum were to give it over for free, the White Oak facility is over a million square feet (that’s nearly 20 football fields to continue Tellason’s analogy) and the costs of maintaining and heating would be astronomical.

It’s also surmised that much of White Oak isn’t up to current environmental code, but had been grandfathered in due to its age and continued ownership by the Cone Mills Corporation. A new owner–that didn’t also own Cone Mills entirely–would likely be responsible for all of the updates, a cost that would, again, likely be astronomical.

And finally, many of the people who worked at White Oak have been there for decades and generations. They took great pride and care in their work to the last shift. Like the mills themselves, experienced millworkers are a dying breed, and I would sympathize if they’d rather just shut it down instead of hand over control of production to someone without the background to run it properly.

It appears White Oak is closed for good.

Where Does American Denim Go From Here?

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Cone Mills White Oak was the very last industrial scale selvedge denim operation in the United States and a good number of brands relied on them for fabric:  RoyTellasonRaleighRailcar, and Left Field to name a few. There are still a number of other mills elsewhere in the world producing selvedge denim, so those brands will live on even though a main source of fabric has fallen.

For new brands, though it will be much more difficult to acquire small runs of selvedge denim if they don’t have the means or scale to import it. Resources like Pacific Blue Denims and other importers will become much more critical to new American labels.

Other American denim-makers are struggling as well. The DNA Textile Group announced it would close its Denim North America production by the end of this month in November. This leaves only Mount Vernon Mills as pretty much the last large scale denim producer (selvedge or not) left in the country.

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There are also other, albeit much smaller, selvedge denim operations emerging in the U.S. in the wake of the closure. Most notable is Huston Textile Co. in Sacramento, which is already producing denim on their own Draper X3 loom. It will be years, though, before anyone will be able to match White Oak’s output and price point.

Denim has and will likely always be the fabric of America. After all, is there anything more American than exporting a piece of culture so hard it’s no longer even made here?


L

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