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.
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.