In 1915, Levi Strauss & Co. approached Greensboro, North Carolina’s Cone Mills about taking over as the main supplier of denim to the then 62 year old maker of riveted workwear. An agreement came together quickly and Cone gained the exclusive rights to manufacture Levi’s proprietary Shrink-to-Fit denim for the production of all Levi’s Lot 501 Jeans. This watershed moment in American denim history became known as “The Golden Handshake” and is a gentleman’s agreement that remains in place to this day.
To honor this historic century-long partnership between these two iconic American companies, Levi’s is releasing a special Levi’s Vintage Clothing collection made exclusively of Shrink-to-Fit denim made at Cone’s historic White Oak plant. We took a trip to Cone to see the process of making denim first hand and to get a better sense of exactly what makes The Golden Handshake so special.
The Levis Shrink-to-Fit denim continues to be produced at the Cone Mills’ White Oak plant in Greensboro, North Carolina using decades-old narrow selvedge looms. Thinking about how fickle business can be, it goes without saying that this longstanding partnership between Cone Mills and Levi Strauss & Co. is something truly unique. Looking back at the history of the two companies, it makes sense why these two specific companies would come together. When brothers Moses and Ceaser Cone founded the Cone Export & Commission Company in 1891 it was, in a way, similar to what Levi Strauss’s original San Francisco dry goods business had been prior to the invention of the riveted jean. In 1905, Cone established the White Oak mill (it’s named it after a 200-year old White Oak tree that stood near the site in Greensboro) and the company quickly rose to prominence as the foremost maker of denim in the world. During that same time Levi’s has become one of the most iconic American brands of all time, and the 501 undoubtedly the most significant item of apparel ever invented. In Greensboro Cone still makes Shrink-to-Fit 501 denim to the same high standards that it did when production started for Levi’s over a century ago.
It is important to note that Levi’s is a client of my agency Paul + Williams, but they didn’t pay for this story — I did it on my own because I loved this partnership.
After visiting Cone in North Carolina to see Levi’s Shrink-to-Fit denim being made, we chatted with Paul O’Neill, head designer of Levi’s Vintage Clothing at Levi Strauss & Co., about this historic partnership.
ACL: Tell me about how this partnership has stayed in place over all of these years?
Paul O’Neill: I think the reason the partnership has stayed in place for so long is due to the commitment that was made 100 years ago. At that time, Cone was where Levi’s would have bought nearly all of their denim. So they became close partners and went through thick and thin together including two world wars.
ACL: Would you say there is any partner with as much significance as Cone?
PO: For Levi’s I would say there is no other partner as significant as Cone as we make our product from their fabric. A great chef cannot create a great meal without quality ingredients. The denim we use is our key component and very important.
ACL: What makes Shrink-to-Fit unique?
PO: Shrink to fit is so unique as it gives the denim its own life and really helps to personalize a pair of jeans to its owner. If you sit in the bath in a pair of 501s they will shrink specifically to your body shape as your body will stop them shrinking in certain areas and allow them to shrink in others. After experiencing a shrink to fit jean its hard to wear anything else.
ACL: When was the height of popularity for Shrink-to-Fit? Has there been a resurgence recently?
Up until the early 1980s when we started to pre-wash jeans, all of our 501s would have been shrink to fit. It was the norm and as long as the 501 was popular so was shrink to fit. I guess because most of today’s generation weren’t around when all 501s were shrink to fit it seems like a novelty to try it out and hopefully once they have they’re hooked.
Going to Cone, we heard stories about how Levi’s pushed Cone to bring back the narrow looms and start making selvedge denim in the 90s. Do you have any insight on this?
Levi’s Vintage Clothing started around 1996 and became a collection in 1999.I’m sure at that time Levi’s as a company was really exited about their heritage and recreating the selvedge denim on the narrow looms, so it would make sense to try to bring back this method of producing selvedge denim.
How does Cone denim make Levi’s unique?
I strongly believe that Cone denim makes the most beautiful denim in the world. The shrink to fit denim produced by Cone is exclusive to Levi’s and really gives the 501 its uniqueness. The combination of this amazing denim and the simple design of the 501 makes it a classic.
Any other interesting thoughts on the Cone and Levi’s relationship?
I have been lucky enough to work closely with Cone Mills for the last six years and develop some beautiful fabrics with them and hope the relationship continues for another 100 years.