Talk about irony: Levi Strauss & Co., whose Levi's brand has been an American icon in the denim and rugged outdoor clothing business since Gold Rush days, is becoming just another foreign product.

The company is shutting six more of its plants, wiping out 3,600 jobs, shifting the bulk of the production overseas.

It had already closed 24 North American plants since 1967, with 13,000 jobs down the drain. In addition to its San Francisco plant, where it had made its famed jeans for more than a century, it will close an operation in Georgia, three in Texas, and one in Tennessee — another blow to mostly rural economies that have benefited for decades from textile/sewing work.

The almost 150-year-old company is now left with only two plants in the United States, both in San Antonio, and it's probably a safe bet that they're on the endangered list as the textile/apparel industry continues to be hit by a tsunami of cheaper imports.

“It's going to be difficult for a lot of these workers to find new jobs,” said the president of the union representing many Levi's workers. “It's a sad day.” A spokesman for another worker union said, “It says a lot about manufacturing trends threatening the U.S. economy when Levi's are no longer being made in the United States.”

Company officials say overseas competition and lagging sales make it necessary that they concentrate less on the making of their clothing and more on marketing. Phillip Marineau, chief executive officer, said the company “has to move away from owned and operated plants in the United States,” contracting with cheaper offshore manufacturers in more than 50 countries “in order to remain competitive in our industry.”

More than 60 percent of U.S.-grown cotton goes into clothing, a significant portion of which has been denim. Any diminishment of that market, on top of the already precipitous decline in use by American textile mills — themselves a rapidly vanishing species as more and more plants shut their doors — only reduces the potential demand for U.S. cotton.

More than 100 textile operations folded in the last year; since 1997, the industry has lost nearly 200,000 jobs. Like a roller coaster plunging downhill, industry use of U.S. cotton went from 11.3 million bales in 1997 to 7.3 million last year. This trend has been accompanied by a dive of cotton prices to Depression-era levels.

Van May, president of the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, summed it thusly: “In just four years, we've gone from a healthy, vital condition to one of depression and uncertainty.”

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., who has a large cotton constituency, feels the trend is irreversible and that low-end knit production will continue moving to low-wage countries. But, he believes, with favorable trade legislation, the United States can hold on to its more efficient production of woven fabrics.

That will be scant consolation, though, to the hundreds of thousands of textile workers who've already lost jobs and to the nation's cotton growers who've seen use of their product shrivel like a hailstone in the August sun.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.