How Brands Choose Denim Mills
Summary of this article
In this article, American designer Todd Shelton discusses how smaller quality-focused brands choose a denim mill.

He has taken his own brand through the process.
How Brands Choose Denim Mills

For any denim brand, choosing a denim mill is the second biggest decision after fit.

There are many choices of denim mills throughout the world; every continent has denim mills in operation, excluding Antarctica.

So how does a denim brand wade through the choices and select the best denim mill for its jean? Quality, aesthetics, price, reputation, location, and minimum requirements all factor into the decision.

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A Question of Quality or Price – Roughly Speaking

A new and small brand may focus on creating the “best jean available.” In this case, most important would be quality, aesthetics, and reputation of the mill. The brand will face minimum requirements – a minimum purchase can reach 10,000 yards (approximately 5,000 non-selvedge jeans).

Larger brands may place a greater emphasis on price and location. Minimums are not an issue for them, and they can ask a mill to replicate the quality they have become known for. If a new CEO can save $1 million a year by moving denim production from Japan to Thailand, they may take the chance hoping that customers will not notice any difference in perceived quality.

“If All the Others Use the Mill, We Should Too”

A newly established denim brand will arguably first look at which mills successful or ‘hot’ denim brands are using. Some brands will tout their denim supplier explicitly. What you often hear is “Cone Denim.” Cone is the largest denim mill in America and the only one making selvedge denim.

A new brand may think: “If ‘brand X’ is using Cone, we should too.” The fallacy with this method of selecting a denim mill is that the brand creates parity between its jean and other jeans already in the market. What this selection process lacks in independent or creative thought, it makes up for in time and cost savings.

Sampling Denim From American Mills

When we developed our first jean in 2005, using US denim was most important to us. We researched and found that there were five denim mills in USA at that time. We sampled denim from Cone, DNA (Denim North America), and UCO (a Belgium based mill set up in the American Southeast). The remaining two mills were budget friendly, but didn’t produce the aesthetic we required.

With denim from the three mills in hand, we made samples, washed them, wore them, and studied how they aged. This was a year-long project. Eventually, we chose UCO because the color, weave, weight of their denim best matched our desired aesthetic. Unfortunately, a couple years later UCO decided to close their US-based mill, meaning we then had to choose from Cone or DNA. For our brand, DNA was the better fit and we worked with them until 2013.

Turning To Japanese Denim

Let’s go back to the late 2000s again. A few years after we made our first jean, our knowledge and experience with jean making started becoming clearer. We were able to see and understand the nuances in denim and jean making techniques. With this new understanding came a desire to advance our product.

During this time, we were exposed to denim being made in Japan and Europe. The attention to the ‘art and pride of denim making’ seemed to be elevated in these countries compared to the more commodity-minded American denim mills. After thorough research, we selected three Japanese mills and one Italian mill to sample. With denim from all four in hand, we began another year-long selecting process.

In 2009, we chose one Japanese mill to supply us with selvedge denim. After a few years, we decided to have them supply us with all of our denim.

The process of denim selection is indicative of the culture of the brand making that choice.

How a brand chooses their denim can and will say a lot about what makes that brand tick.

Today, we have confidence in our knowledge of denim, in the denim we choose to use for our jeans, and in our supplier. And in full-disclosure, it took time and lessons to get there.

Thank you to Todd Shelton for personally providing us with these useful insights.