The British are coming for the United States denim market.
“It takes seven people to make our jeans,” said Faye Toogood, the co-founder and designer of the Toogood fashion label, from her studio in east London.
“See these initials on the inside of the pocket?” She gestured to some jeans so voluminous and rigid that they could easily stand of their own accord. “This is the ‘passport.’ It details everyone involved, from weaver to the finished product.” And what it reveals is that Ms. Toogood’s denim line is the first of its kind to be designed and constructed entirely in Britain.
Wait … denim? Britain? Indeed. Meghan Markle is not the only American icon being remade in a British mode.
“Thirty years after the last cotton mill in the U.K. closed down, production is returning, and our garment-making infrastructure is growing,” said Adam Mansell, the chief executive of the UK Fashion and Textile Association. Mr. Mansell believes that artisanal denim production is a natural evolution of British manufacturing — and the next chapter of Made in Britain.
“Customers today want clothes that come with a story, not ones that have traveled halfway around the world,” he said.
Ms. Toogood is at the forefront of a boom in denim labels making jeans in England. She has plenty of confederates. Patrick Grant, the creative director of E. Tautz, was so determined to make his jeans in Britain that in 2015 he bought a factory in Blackburn, in Lancashire, that was on the brink of closure.
Labels including Le Kilt, the Cooper Collection and King & Tuckfield are designing and producing their jeans in London, albeit with imported Japanese or Turkish fabrics. And the introduction of England’s first selvage fabric mill, in Lancashire, could change even that.
At the same time, the denim industry in the United States is contracting. The Cone Mills plant in White Oak, N.C., the last selvage denim mill in America, was shuttered in December 2017. Britain, which has never been known for denim despite its past associations with garment manufacturing, is sensing opportunity.
“American denim as a business is in turmoil, and more brands are wanting to craft their jeans here, which gives us an advantage,” said Han Ates, the owner of Blackhorse Lane Ateliers, a denim factory in Walthamstow, in north London. When it opened its doors in 2016, the atelier was the first in London in 50 years to start making jeans again.
The nascent industry is still tiny, of course. It took Mr. Ates three months to build a team of eight. Chris Hewitt, the founder of Hewitt Heritage Fabrics, which produces selvage denim in Lancashire, was turned down by multiple mills that thought his project impossible.
He currently weaves his fabric on two Northrop looms from the 1950s. He is also working on ways to turn locally grown hemp and nettle into a cotton-like yarn strong enough to make denim.
“The closer jeans get to being 100 percent made in the U.K., the more powerful the message becomes,” said David Giusti, the head of digital and retail at Blackhorse Lane. “Level 1 is made here. Two is made and designed here. Level 3 is made, designed and woven here.”
Made-in-Britain jeans share a certain directional and utilitarian aesthetic: The jeans are wide legged and sit high on the waist; outerwear is long line and more akin to workers’ overalls than to classic denim jackets; and many of the pieces are unisex.
“From the music to the mining strikes, there are so many cultural reference points,” said Christopher Lynd, a founder of Ullac, a gender-neutral denim label that began last year with two styles of jeans. Priced from 96 pounds (about $129), they sold out within weeks, according to the label. Mr. Lynd is currently working with a denim maker in Birmingham.
“The industry was hit hard in the ’80s, money wasn’t in abundance, so uniforms had to last,” Mr. Lynd said. “Ullac is built on that ethos. We offer a repair service for our jeans.” So does Dawson Denim, which makes jeans, work wear jackets and pinstripe overalls in Brighton using fabric milled in Japan. The denim comes with a lifetime guarantee.
But will the rest of the world buy it?
“We’ve never heard of British denim, and I’d be skeptical from a quality for value perspective,” said Erik Allen Shockenberger, a founder of Buck Mason, a men’s clothing label in Los Angeles. “But I was never in love with Cone Mills fabric. We source our denim from Japan.”
Others are more positive. “We have used U.K.-made fabrics like waxed cottons in the past,” said Anthony Lupesco, the founder of the Shockoe Atelier in Richmond, Va. “They have a depth to them that you don’t find elsewhere. And there is romance to something made in a smaller mill that can’t be replicated in volume.”
Standard & Strange, a men’s clothing store in Oakland, Calif., has begun stocking Dawson jeans. “I love brands that are crazy enough to take something as universal as a pair of jeans, break it down and make it themselves,” said Neil Barrett, the store’s co-founder.
Mr. Ates, who was a tailor before starting Blackhorse Lane and applied his background to its in-house line, has also made jeans for the recast American line Band of Outsiders. And Ms. Toogood said that more than 50 percent of inquiries about her jeans have come from the United States. As a result, she has doubled production orders for her second season and will introduce e-commerce.
“You would think it would be like trying to sell coal to Newcastle, wouldn’t you, trying to sell jeans to Americans?” she said, laughing.