The timeless American denim jacket, omnipresent in the pantheon of American Cool since its birth in the 1800’s on Sacramento street in San Francisco when Levi Strauss answered the call from dock-workers and gold-miners clamoring for real clothes that wouldn’t fall apart when pushed hard.
Fast-forward 140 years and hard-living men still yearn for rugged utility and classic style – but finding a denim jacket made in America with quality in mind is harder than you might think.
The iconic “Jean Jacket” style that most of us associate with is the Levi’s “Type III” aka the Trucker. First introduced in 1962 as the Lot 557, perfected in 1967, and still available today. Hit up your local department store and you can find a number of variations of the Type III. Typically these are made in China or elsewhere of lightweight denim in a variety of trendy colors. Somehow these always leave me feeling nostalgic for the simple, heavyweight denim jackets of yesteryear, the kind we used to wear and punish as kids. The kind that could survive a full-speed wipeout on your PK Ripper and that get a little cooler looking the longer you wear them.
The first place to visit in the search for a real jean jacket is the world of selvedge denim. We seem to have finally caught on to what Japanese denim-lovers have been doing for the past 20 years – making heavy denim with old-fashioned shuttle looms and top-quality dyes and yarns – and now there is deluge of selvedge denim product available. This is great, but these typically come with high-end designer labels – and prices. Levi’s boutique alter-ego “Levi’s Vintage Clothing” will sell you a Type III for $385 – when they have them in stock.
During our frustrating search for a heavy, made-in-America Type III jacket, we stumbled upon what initially seemed to-good-to-be-true, the “Ironside” by a company calling themselves Brave Star Selvedge. It was a Type III style jacket made from 15oz Cone Mills selvedge denim for only $128!?! Who are Cone Mills and Brave Star Selvedge?
Cone Mills – American Icon
Cone Mills is the company that got the exclusive handshake deal in 1915 to supply Levi’s with the XX selvedge denim for all 501 jeans. They’re a company with a fascinating history (read more here) that mirrors much of the American experience of the past 150 years: European immigrants hustle their small grocery into a textile empire by foreseeing the need for a durable American fabric for the exploding turn-of-the-century workforce, position themselves well for the lucrative war-effort contracts during the two World Wars, then continue to grow and diversify while denim becomes the casual-wear fabric of choice for multiple decades of Americans. From the late ’70s-on there is the steady decline common across the American manufacturing industry, exacerbated by consumer demand for cheap and disposable imported clothing. By 2003 they had filed for bankruptcy and were bought by our current Trump-appointed Commerce Secretary and “King of Bankruptcy”, Wilbur Ross, famous for buying bankrupt manufacturing businesses to gut and flip for a profit. He merged Cone Mills into a conglomerate which he sold in 2016 to an equity group. The White Oak factory was home to the last American selvedge denim mill before they closed last year after more than 110 years in Greensboro, NC.
Enter Brave Star
While Cone Mills was being amalgamated and groomed for resale in 2005 one of their minor initiatives was to sell small runs of denim to the emerging selvedge scene as part of their “White Oak Label”. One of the first folks to jump at this was a young denimhead who ran his own vintage denim store in Los Angeles, Mik Sirfontain. By 2006 Mik had created Brave Star Selvage – the first all-selvedge, American made denim brand. Initially selling mainly to Japanese customers and a handful of local boutique shops, Brave Star is now focused on selling direct to the consumer from their factory in downtown L.A. and offering massive savings versus other selvedge products sold in stores.
Impressed by what we could learn about Brave Star we went ahead and ordered a 15oz Ironside raw denim jacket and some jeans. It didn’t take too long before they arrived, with hand-signed butcher-wrapping! The fit and quality were spot-on and the 15oz weight seems to have that Goldilocks “just right” magic. The design stays to true to the Type III classic but with the addition of hand-warmer pockets which are very nice to have. The cut is designed for versatility, modern but without excessively high arm-holes or slimming.
Based on our experience we highly recommend Brave Star. The combination of high-quality American-made product at great prices is unbeatable. As the last of the White Oak denim runs out it may eventually become impossible to buy a truly Made In America denim jacket so get ’em while they’re hot!
Note: There seems to be some hope for American selvedge denim. The local demolition contractor who bought the White Oak land has also bought all of the original Draper loom machines and intends to produce denim. Also, a company called Vidalia Denim has purchased the town’s old Fruit of the Loom factory with ambitions of producing denim there.