Founder’s Letter: A Love Letter To All Blue Lovers

For Valentine’s Day, I wanted to write about the many things I love in our industry and how lucky I am — and how lucky many of us are — to work with a product we adore and to work with people who excel and love what they do.  So many people around the world live in jeans which is also true for those of us in the business. We live in jeans; we live thinking about jeans and we live “off” jeans.  This love of what we do —and the excellence many of us strive for — is inspiring.

As I started to write this “love letter,” I talked to my Kingpins colleagues about the direction of this piece. There is nothing more boring than writing fluff about why you love something. Happy gooey stories are vanilla. Meaningful or memorable stories need friction, tension, ups and downs, provocation. I am always cognizant that there are few things in society that are worse than being boring (although not everyone will admit it).

My Kingpins coworker and “pseudo denim professor” Gordon Heffner suggested I focus on what disappoints me.

“Damn! That’s a great idea,” I agreed.

He further suggested I write about “the Yin and Yang, the good and the bad, the push and the pull” of my love of denim.

And he is right. Love is not a straight line.  It rolls all over the place. One day, it’s “I love you madly!” The next, it’s “Ummm….Let me think about it some more.” 

There is a rhythm to our affection, an ebb and flow, from good to bad and back again.

Lost Love

When I first went to Tokyo in the early 1980s, I was blown away (and I mean literally levitated) when I saw domestically produced Japanese denim jeans brands like Edwin, Hollywood Ranch Market, Evisu, Big John, Denime and Levi’s Japan for the first time. The fabrics were bluer than I’d ever seen. There were slubs in every fabric at a time when American and Italian denim had none. And the touch of the Japanese fabrics was softer than anything I’d seen, but it was also thicker and heavier than what we were being served up in traditional production in the U.S.

Brand after brand in Japan sold startling and amazing jeans with prices dearly expensive — between 5900-7900 yen.  Japanese consumers accepted those prices. And why not?  That was the price of jeans everywhere in Japan.

Today, most of those brands are gone (Edwin recently closed their Japanese sewing factory) or have changed drastically from what they once were. The typical price of a pair of jeans in Japan these days is about 3900 yen ($34). Direct-to-consumer retail has taught a new generation of Japanese consumers that jeans are not worth much at all and now those consumers expect and receive lower quality and are gleeful because it’s all so cheap.

What is more frustrating than loving something unconditionally that disappoints you? Or worse, loving something even when it continues to disappoint you shamelessly?

Of course, there are arguments that top-quality denim is still available in Japan and these cheap alternatives are simply fulfilling mass demand. But It’s still disappointing to see quality diminished from what I remember first falling in love with. And it’s sad to see what was once so special and precious, barely hanging on to life.  Mills no longer invest in upgrading and garment factories and laundries are all but gone.

With this thought in my mind, I got all blue-hearted and despondent over what was and what has replaced it. I miss and mourn the failure of the Japanese denim industry to prosper and survive as it was at its height.

It’s similar to the massive public outcry over Cone Denim’ closure White Oak in 2017.  All sorts of denim folks, young and old, weighed in on the loss (it was like losing two fingers on your right indigo mitt). The oldest denim mill on earth permanently shutting off its U.S. looms after 110 years because of lack of demand from its own American market.

Granted, Cone had been struggling in the USA for a long time.  After a bankruptcy in 2003, Wilbur Ross bought it and merged it with Burlington Industries. Cone survived by making denim in China and Mexico while maintaining its tiny selvedge factory, White Oak. The reality is the U.S. plant was wiped out not by consumers asking for lower prices but brands and retailers forcing Cone to sell their goods cheaper because by the end of the 20th century, the definition of “smart business” and “excellence” became sourcing huge volumes at low prices, even if that meant the product came from the bottom of the barrel.

I remember when Levi’s had a policy of not buying from China. I remember when they changed their minds about that policy and bought a lot from China. Things change. Fashion is about change but excellence should not change. 

A perfect wine glass, regardless of where it’s made, is perfect because of its shape and thinness and weight and balance. Similarly, a perfect computer is a delight to use and a dud is a pain. Yet many in our industry remain fixated on making cheap stuff that they know is not so great because they believe the quality only needs to be “good enough.”

The Art – Like Love – May Return

And then there are the smiley moments.

As founder of the Transformers Foundation and the Kingpins Show, I have the good fortune to collaborate with amazing mills and people. So let’s give a blue heart to a few of them and their excellence:

Cone Mills still is still pounding out great denim after 131 years in business. Tejidos Royo has operated at a master level of production for 119 years. Candiani continues to bring the best-of-the-best as it has for 84 years. I also want to blue heart the Rudolf Group, which this year celebrates 100 years of family- owned chemical production. 

True experts, true excellence, all. 

Let’s also give the appropriate credit to the Pakistani mills who are quietly and patiently building up production experience, expertise and skill — especially those that are doing so while pursuing a real and profound interest in environmental improvements and sharing their true production data. 

Pakistan is a very interesting country during these times when we are all concerned with the provenance of cotton. The countries that make denim and grow their own cotton include China (which has a sizeable domestic market); India (also has a sizeable domestic market); Brazil (has a sizeable domestic market); Turkey (has a domestic market) and Pakistan (which has no sizeable domestic denim market).

Pakistan is essentially able to export almost all its denim and that makes them very interesting partners. Right now, we are watching their mills grow in stature and skill, which we love to see. 

A few years ago, my friend Sanjeev Bahl and I were in a meeting in my office with another denim mill owner. (Sanjeev will remember this moment very well). We were discussing collaboration when that mill owner said “Sustainability is the new play.” Sanjeev said nothing but politely packed his briefcase and excused himself from the meeting.

There should be no “play” about anything. You either want excellence or you don’t. We need to share a big blue heart this Valentine’s Day with those we know are excellent. Those that think effort to improve our industry for everyone is simply a “play,” they get a sad face. And they know who they are.

-Andrew Olah

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