An Independence Day for American Textiles
America celebrated its Independence Day on July 4th. Well, yippee. It's challenging to get too excited about traditional American holidays these days. The American character is, well, sclerotic. We see it in our politics. We see it in everyday life. The country has divided into competing camps, silos of different ways of thinking, and perceptions of what's real or not.
Taken in its totality, it's more than political Left versus political Right. It's deeper than that. Indeed, such divisions have existed in American culture since its founding. For example, according to the American Declaration of Independence, "All men are created equal." Except that in the eighteenth-century mind, "men" were defined as white men of property. Not laborers, not men of color, not women — and certainly not the underclasses.
All the people
Much of American history is rife with struggles to clarify that those great words of the Declaration mean "all people," not just the privileged few. We fought a Civil War over it. A lengthy struggle over voting rights for women and people of color, along with true equality under the law, characterizes so much of American history since its founding.
But beneath the surface, the divisions of old prejudices, fears, resentments, and misgivings continued to exist, like some dangerous animal living just beneath the surface of society.
Much of American history has been dominated by a struggle between monied elites and an indentured class of laborers. The fortunate versus the less fortunate. Yet, these fractures have resurfaced in recent years.
Threats to American democracy?
Many blame Trump for this. But I've come to realize that to blame Trump is to misunderstand the issues at hand. Trump was a symptom of far more profound, more systemic problems. For instance, the tensions that led up to the January 6th assault on the Capitol were building long before Trump.
In fact, Trump's entire presidency provided the means for the disenchanted to claim that their country had been stolen from them. The only patriotic thing to do was revolt — and fall into the hands of a demagogue. But, unfortunately, Trump's voice was anything but pure and well-meaning: tainted with bigotry, bile, hypocrisy, and division.
I've often heard from friends and colleagues that America is at its best when there's a perceived external threat. Although not entirely accurate, there is some truth to that statement. For example, think of the world wars of the twentieth century, the Cold War, and the struggle against Communism. In those cases, America was unified in the face of perceived external threats.
An external threat is a rallying cry for Americans. But, unfortunately, today, elements in American society treat China as just such a threat. I find it ironic that, though, China didn't become a great power without the assistance of America in the first place.
Think back to the founding of the World Trade Organization, open markets, and the free flow of capital and ideas across the Pacific. It was based on and supported by American policy and ideals. Without that, China may have forever remained isolated in its Communist purgatory, an over-sized North Korea. Paradoxically, all of the recent saber-rattling in the South China Sea has its roots in American idealism.
But there was also another unifying force in American history that brought people together. And that was creative innovation. What's happened to that? Increasingly it feels that American innovation is dormant, a fixture of times and abilities long gone. It helps to perpetuate a sense in the country that the country may have peaked or lost its way. Success and innovation go hand in hand.
Enough of the American civics lesson. Here's the question for our industry to consider: what does it take to innovate and be successful?
The Vidalia Mills story
Since its inception about three years ago, I have worked as a consultant to Vidalia Mills in Louisiana; it's been up and running in earnest for about two and a half years. Privately owned and operated with a dedicated team of seasoned textile professionals, the mill has succeeded against all odds.
Vidalia makes yarn and denim in an impoverished section of a poor state. The company pays its culturally and racially diverse production workforce double the minimum hourly wage in Louisiana while offering subsidized medical insurance. Has it been easy to accomplish this? No, but it's a source of pride.
Vidalia Mills is a start-up in the truest sense of the word. It started with a clean slate, some new ideas, a will to succeed — and a desire to innovate. Something that we don't hear about much these days in America.
As a start-up, it's had its share of challenges. It's had to work through so many problems. It's had to meet payroll, deploy equipment (not an easy task during the pandemic), develop effective production systems, work closely with customers. But, most of all, it had to survive in an America full of skeptics. It's hard work.
The company purchased a vacant one million square foot warehouse. And then filled it with all kinds of cotton and yarn preparation equipment, spinning frames, and different looms. Most prized were 46 Draper X-3 selvedge denim looms saved from extinction when they bought them from a demolition company. And guess what? The mill can't make enough of the stuff; its American-made selvedge denim is sold worldwide to customers both large and small, in lots both large and small. All tailored to the requirements of its customers.
Why build a denim mill in America?
Vidalia's management has been asked why anyone wants to build a denim mill in the United States? Isn't it expensive? When asked that question, the mill's CEO, Dan Feibus, simply replies, "Why the hell would anyone want to build a denim mill anywhere?" He says that because there's too much denim capacity in the world today. Over the last few decades, in particular, everyone and their Aunt jumped into denim production and, by doing so, shredded the fabric down to commodity status.
So what's Vidalia's secret? How has it made it when others have failed? Well, they had a plan. They also had guts. Some say the mill is a product of the pandemic because other mills were forced to shut down. Others say it was luck. But really, the original plan proved resilient regardless of the pandemic and despite what so-called experts said. It's still standing and running flat out.
True, the mill lost a step or two during the pandemic. The deployment of some of the mill's equipment was delayed, but Vidalia managed to stay open despite that. Fortunately, the company avoided a mass outbreak of Covid thanks to strict measures at the plant.
Sour grapes and sugar
The mill has had its successes — leaving some industry observers awestruck. Still, for others, the mill's success has been met with jealousy and resentment, particularly from some legacy mills on life-support. Sour grapes. For sure, every time the mill stumbled, people were eager to pounce and challenge the very existence of the place.
Certainly, mill management made plenty of mistakes along the way. Still, for every error, there was a lesson learned and progress made. And that has made the difference. In addition, the challenges brought the team closer together, working ever harder to solve the problems and overcome every obstacle.
In the case of Vidalia Mills, at least American entrepreneurship is alive and well. Vidalia is a mix of new thinking coupled with vintage technology. Vidalia's Draper looms? Some go back to the 1940s. While the mill's thinking is of the twenty-first century all the way. But there's more to the story.
Because Vidalia's management has been in textiles for so long, they've learned from the American industry's errors of the past. For example, to hear the traditional telling of the demise of the American textile industry is a bitter tale caused by poor government policy, cheating foreigners, and selfish retailers. American mills lost out because of foreign dishonesty and retailers obsessed with making a quick buck.
Undoing the unfortunate legacy of American textiles
In reality, however, the legacy of the defunct American industry is that it has only itself to blame for its failures, beginning with customer relations. It failed at the most fundamental business tenets. Simply stated: they were unable or unwilling to make products their customers wanted. So instead, they made products deemed the most cost-effective from a manufacturing standpoint. A mill can produce products for the lowest price globally, but who cares if no one wants the products in the first place?
It was a bitter lesson for many in the old American industry but a valuable lesson for so many more. Vidalia is one of them. Making products that the customer wants … imagine that. Vidalia strives to meet those goals. It's not perfect (no mill is) but working to better meet the needs of its customers is paramount, and — for you cheapskates out there — it transcends price alone.
For me, that sounds a lot like success. And a dose of innovation much needed in today's America. That's worth celebrating.
Originally published in just-style.com on July 18, 2021.