Blue jeans are often considered to be in the same category as apple pie and baseball — all American. For many years, that was the case. Blue jeans originated in the U.S.A. and El Paso, Texas was considered by many to be the “blue jean capital” of the world.
That started to change, however, about 20 years ago. When blue jean giant Levi’s Strauss closed it’s last U.S. production facility in 2003 to use vastly cheaper labor overseas, the writing on the wall seemed clear — American made blue jeans were a thing of the past.
The massive shift to foreign labor for blue jeans put Lawson Nickol in an uncomfortable position. The Darke County native worked as a sales manager for an American made blue jean company but he simply could not stomach selling this American staple after his company started to outsource labor from Mexico.
Lawson turned in his resignation and, with his son B.J. Nickol, founded the All American Clothing Co. based in Darke County.
“We started in 2002. My dad was a sales manager for another blue jean company that made jeans here in the U.S. His company decided to outsource,” B.J. said. “Dad had the sales background and I had the computer background. We started off distributing other manufacturers’ products and started manufacturing our own in 2007.”
The father and son team took on the daunting fight against the strong global economic tide pulling blue jean production to foreign countries. The first several years of the new business were challenging. The company survived on family savings, financial risks and long hours.
“In the first two years, my income was $1,800. We come out a little better after that,” Lawson said. “We have been conservative. We don’t expect to grow quickly because we want to stay in business.”
Today the All American Clothing Co. produces thousands of pairs of jeans per year and creates jobs for Americans. Nearly all of their sales are online.
“We think only 3% of the apparel sold in the U.S. is U.S. made. This industry has lost over 85% of the employees in this industry since 1990. Now there are only four mills left here in the U.S.,” Lawson said. “It is difficult to find U.S. made products. People don’t know how to find it and where it is.”
“Most of the cost is labor. The cotton is not difficult to sell. It is difficult to sell when people in China do for $2 in labor what we can do here with $8 to $10,” Lawson said. “Mechanization in the future will help, but what makes people want to spend double or triple the price on our products when they can get the same thing from China? They need to know that there are around 600 or so different people that touch our jeans by the time they are purchased, and they are all Americans. The quality is higher with American products. Our products are more durable and they create jobs right here. Our boxes are even made in America.”
The blue jeans get their start in the cotton fields of the southern U.S.
“There are 12,000 farmers in our traceability program growing cotton. They tag all the bales and show which farms they came from. The bale maintains that number on it the whole way through and we know exactly which rolls of denim were used for each pair of jeans. Because of this, we can show what farms the cotton came from for each pair of jeans,” BJ said. “Once they get the cotton in the mill it is tested for its properties. All of these different types of cotton are blended to get a consistent product. They keep track of which bales are used for the process. Rolls of denim go to our cut and sew plant in El Paso from the mill in Lubbock, Texas. Then the jeans are shipped here and distributed. This is really big for consumers that care about their products being U.S.A. made.”
In the competitive blue jean market, All American Clothing Co. has been innovating to offer the style and comfort to accompany their jeans’ domestic origins.
“We have around 20 different jean styles combined with men’s and women’s. We are moving towards a larger number of offerings. We’re in the first year of owning and controlling and watching quality in Texas right now and we are hoping to have 40 different styles by the end of 2013,” Lawson said. “We are trying to get back out and do some things that are unique. One thing is the gusset. Gussets started back when everyone rode horses and they worked really well in blue jeans.
“There is also an important market for plus size clothing and we are trying to work our way into more plus sized things. We are sticking our toe in the water for premium made products as well. The competition in that market is really tough. Generally younger people do not care if it is USA made. The older generations care more about that. The age groups we appeal to are older, but the premium jeans give us more opportunities with younger generations.”
The Nickols and the rest of the 12-person staff in Darke County work closely with the 30 people at the Texas facility and are poised for dramatic growth in the coming years.
“We are really affecting other people’s lives. When we bought that plant down in Texas all those people thought they were losing their jobs,” BJ said. “They came up to us and said, ‘Thank you for what you are doing.’ The biggest challenge for us is educating consumers about the importance of buying from the U.S.A. People want it cheap and fast, but that is not what we do. It takes time to make a good pair of jeans.”
All American Clothing Co. works with around 50 different companies for rivets, zippers, packaging and other necessities. Each company must provide certificates of origin for their products. The final pair of blue jeans then comes with a certificate of origin that is verified by a third party that it is 100% American made.
“It is not just a pair of jeans, there is more to it than that. Everything we do is made in the U.S.,” Lawson said. “With high unemployment rates, people are starting to realize that it is important to buy from American companies. What makes me feel good is that we’re doing the right things and people have jobs. We’re proud to be red white and blue and made right here.”