The Great Cone Denim Swindle

At the end of last year, Cone Mills announced that they’d be shuttering their famed White Oak plant due to a “lack of orders,” effectively closing the book on US-made selvedge denim. Following that, a slew of brands released ‘last of’ collections that sold out with a streetwear-like fervor – a tragically ironic outcome according to a new feature from GQ, which argues that the plant “closed because the excitement around the collections cropping up now wasn’t exactly there when it was still operating.”

“These collections position American-made selvedge denim as the works of an unsung artist: not appreciated in his own lifetime, but beloved in death,” Cam Wolf writes. “It’s a hell of a sales pitch — and it’s also too little, too late.”

Noting that there’s been no shortage of brands looking to cash in on the extinction — Levi’s, Wrangler, Todd Snyder and others have released limited edition pieces with collectible, “end of an era” marketing hooks — and that fondness for American-made goods is, overall, a positive thing, Wolf says that “there’s something a little grim about this sequence of events.”

“White Oak is hailed as the most legendary and important denim producer in the states — it’s the reason brands are excited to get their hands on the remaining fabric — and yet that reputation was not enough to save it from going out of business,” he writes.

It’s a weird, if predictable, paradox. White Oak denim is now inherently more valuable than just about any other denim on the market due to a lethal combination of scarcity and sentimentality. Wrangler, for instance, normally sells jeans for “around $34,” but they’re now moving their limited White Oak-made 27406 collection at a $225 apiece clip.

And the value of deadstock White Oak denim-made goods will only continue to climb as the remaining supply runs out – something brands are fully aware of, and keen to exploit. “Wrangler bought enough of the denim… to release small batches of product for the foreseeable future. The strategy, while grim, carries its own stroke of brilliance: with each collection, Wrangler will deplete its supply, making each collection even more valuable and collectible than the last.”

You can read more about it at GQ.

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  • I kind of wish people would read a little deeper and go past pr statements from the firm. If they did they’d find out the reason was Private Equity. It’s as bad as the people blaming the internet for the death of Toys-R-Us.

    • stevenstevo

      Good point, and a very important one too. I agree 100% with your initial statement that someone needs to dig deeper into this matter—I wonder if there are people out there whose job it is to research and investigate stories and then report them to the public…

      While I agree very much with your comment generally that someone needs to dig deeper, it is often hard to find much about private companies since they do not have to disclose their financials publicly. Hopefully someone will get some more info/data somehow. Until then, it’s all just conjecture as to what is really going on. While it is impossible to know exactly what the PE firm’s plans are, I think placing the blame solely on “Private Equity” is a bit of a stretch. PE firms have turned around thousands of companies, and often companies that are in dire straits and have nowhere else to turn. They usually act fast so that everything is purely objective–usually to trim the fat by cutting employees, which can be brutal but often the only way they can turn things around. which results in a true win-win for everyone. Ultimately if the plant were making money, then shutting it down would not be an option. When PE firms purchase a company, they always have an exit plan in 5-10 years. They never buy and HODL

      Part of me thinks that this is not the end of Cone Mills denim…for one thing, I am surprised they have not sold the shuttle looms. Perhaps they have some sort of plan to keep them running in some way, or to sell them to a large apparel company, and for now they are milking the sales bump they are getting from claiming it is the last denim the mill will ever produce. This is common strategy for some businesses—like the jewelry store or furniture store that has a “going out of business sale” every few years. Of course there is another strategy many businesses have undertaken to reduce factory costs–I sincerely hope that is not a strong possibility.

      • Good luck with your wishes for a Cone Mills revival.