When the onetime sock capital of the world’s industry collapsed, it was “like a vacuum cleaner pulled all the people out of town.” But then Gina Locklear had an idea.
The Sock Queen of Alabama
written by Steven Kurutz in the New York Times
FORT PAYNE, Ala. — Nine years ago, when she was 27 and unhappily selling real estate, Gina Locklear went to her parents with a proposition. She wanted to make socks. Not the basic white socks the family had specialized in, but fashionable socks, with organic cotton and dyes.
“I want to get into the sock business,” she told them. “I want to make a sustainable sock.”
Ms. Locklear, now 36, grew up in the business. Her parents, Terry and Regina Locklear, started a mill in Fort Payne, Ala., in 1991. They made white sport socks for Russell Athletic, millions of them, destined for big-box stores and your own feet if you took gym class.
Gina’s younger sister, Emily, recalled the girls going to the mill after school, where they helped their parents sort socks into dozens or played in the bins. Named after the two daughters, Emi-G Knitting bought the Locklears a house, bought Terry a vintage Corvette and paid for the girls’ college educations.
Still, the idea of Gina and her parents making organic fashion socks, or any socks at all, seemed totally crazy, given the time and place.
The mid-2000s was a devastating period for Fort Payne. Nestled in the state’s mountainous northeast, the town of 14,000 had for decades billed itself as “the Sock Capital of the World.” The cushioned sock was invented here, and one in every eight pairs of socks sold globally was said to be knitted in Fort Payne.
At the industry’s peak in the 1990s, more than 120 mills employed roughly 7,500 workers. But cheap foreign labor and free-trade agreements made the town a loser in the game of global economics. Seemingly overnight, the mills closed, and the new Fort Payne became a town in China called Datang. The 2008 financial crisis finished off those who were still hanging on.
“It was like a vacuum cleaner pulled all the people out of town,” Terry said.
The Locklears held on to their mill, but barely. Orders dried up, including those from Russell Athletic, and they cut the work force to almost nothing. Terry’s goal was to keep the lights on, because he knew if he and Regina closed the doors and turned the power off, they’d never start back up.
“We’d just come here and sit,” Terry said. “We would talk, and it was, like, ‘I just don’t know what we’re going to do.’ We still had our knowledge.”
It was during these depths that Gina approached her parents with her idea. While almost everyone else in the sock business was being thrown to the exits, she passionately wanted in. “I was 12 when my parents started making socks,” Gina said. “And the realization that our family business might close made me mad.”
Her parents were skeptical. They knew how hard it was to compete and how much money it would take to start a brand. They didn’t get the whole organic thing. Most of all, they didn’t want their oldest daughter to do something she’d soon regret or tire of.
“But it’s been everything except any of that,” her father said.
Her mother added: “She absolutely loves what she does. She’s on fire.”
When you hear the words textile mill, you may picture a brick building a century old and as big as a city block. You may hear the clack-clack of jittery machinery. But Emi-G Knitting is a modern contained operation in a squat metal building on the outskirts of Fort Payne.
One recent morning, Gina was in her office, working on spring orders. She produces two lines: Zkano, an online brand she started in 2008, and Little River Sock Mill, which was started in 2013 and is sold in stores like Margaret O’Leary in Manhattan.
Zkano’s “crews” and “no shows” are a youthful riot of stripes and colors, while the Little River socks are more refined (the fall line was based on Southern quilt patterns). Both cost $13 to $30 a pair.
Going organic (the cotton comes from a farm in Lubbock, Tex., the dyes from North Carolina) has given Gina a marketing niche. Her socks appeal to millennials, who study labels and like a compelling origin story.
“I’m not sure most customers can detect it, but it’s certainly a bonus that they’re made from organic cotton — it adds a point of difference,” said Billy Reid, the Alabama-based men’s wear designer, who partnered with Gina to make socks based on his designs.
Last fall, Martha Stewart and the editors of Martha Stewart Living presented Gina with an American Made award, which they give each year to a few artisans and small-business owners to provide a boost of recognition.
“Encouraging the American public to buy American-made matters,” Ms. Stewart said. “The more socks she sells, the more people she can employ.”
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Besides, “It’s a sensible business,” Ms. Stewart said. “Everyone needs socks. Women are wearing socks as a fashion statement like never before. Turn the pages of Vogue and almost every fancy dress is worn with a pair of socks.”
Indeed, the humble sock is having a moment. Brands like Stance Socks, which partnered with Rihanna on a collection, and Slate & Stone are selling vibrant hosiery, or pop socks, while Miu Miu recently outfitted runway models in marled and argyle socks.
Gina plans to introduce men’s socks to Little River this fall. Zkano already offers them. Tony Hale’s character on “Veep” wears Zkano socks, as does the actor himself.
Gina notices socks everywhere she goes, and in winter wears two pairs, one during daytime, another to bed. Her office décor is entirely hosiery-related: spools of candy-colored yarn on a shelf, mateless samples pinned to corkboards.
She lives with her husband, Al Vreeland, in Birmingham, Ala., an hour and a half’s drive away, and spends part of each week in Fort Payne, staying in her childhood bedroom. Her husband, a lawyer, is “cool” with the arrangement, she said, adding, “It’s been this way ever since we started dating.”
They were married three years ago, during the busy holiday season, at a chapel in Santa Fe, N.M., on a Saturday. “We came home on Sunday,” she said. “And then I went to Fort Payne on Monday. And that’s my life.”
When she’s at the mill, her focus is on the knitting machines and whether they are aiding or conspiring against her. The machines are aqua blue and boxy like ovens. Above them, a halo of metalwork holds the yarn being fed into their bellies. Gina watched a machine work, and after a moment, in a Willy Wonka flourish, a plastic tube spit out an orange-striped sock.
“I love that,” she said.
Pointing to a machine that was noticeably different from the others, she said: “It’s the newest sock machine you can get. It’s made in Italy. It’s like a Ferrari.”
She spotted Vance Veal, Emi-G’s plant manager, and waved him over. When her parents laid off all but their most vital workers, they kept him on the payroll. Mr. Veal, 48, has worked in sock mills since he was 18. His grandparents, mother and brothers worked in the mills, too.
Since Gina came along with her six-color fashion socks, he has made the machines do things no one at Emi-G thought possible, himself included. “We didn’t used to make pattern socks,” Mr. Veal said. “Gina keeps me on my toes. She’s made me better at what I do.”
In a honeyed voice, Gina said, “Vance is the most patient person ever.”
With Mr. Veal’s expertise, Gina can make socks in small batches on site, fine-tuning and experimenting with colors, patterns and materials. It’s a competitive advantage. But running a sock mill in the age of globalization is a “roller coaster,” she said. Her parents’ business making specialty athletic socks now comes in fits and bursts, nothing like the steady, profitable Russell contract. And Zkano and Little River don’t yet sell enough to sustain the mill alone.
Last year, Emi-G downsized its work force from 45 to 30. If there is a customer service issue, Gina handles it herself — in addition to ordering yarn, designing both lines, doing social media marketing, processing credit card orders and lying awake nights with worry.
“If something happened to Vance, I wouldn’t know what we would do,” she said later. “When the sock industry left, a lot of the workers left town, and their knowledge left, too.”
Credit Raymond McCrea Jones for The New York Times
Gina and her parents drove into town to have lunch at what’s referred to in Fort Payne as the Big Mill. Now an antique store and restaurant, the Big Mill is indeed a century-old brick building as big as a city block. It’s where W. B. Davis ran the town’s first hosiery mill in the early-1900s. It’s the building that begot an industry.
Over pimento cheese sandwiches, Terry and Regina recalled their beginnings. Terry’s mother had worked in a mill, and his older brother owned one. When he was miserable selling cars down in Tuscaloosa, it seemed natural to come home and try socks.
Asked if the current building was their original location, Terry, who is 71 and has a bashful charm, said: “No. I’m almost ashamed to tell you. We started in a renovated chicken house.”
There was no air-conditioning. In the summer, they would open the big doors on both ends to get a little breeze going. “Birds would fly through while we worked,” Terry said.
With so few mills left in Fort Payne, Gina and her parents are now the old guard. But with the industry’s diminishment, they carry little of the economic or civic power of the mill owners before them.
Framed portraits of men like Mr. Davis and W. H. Cobble Sr. hang inside the Hosiery Museum, in a historic storefront downtown. The photo of V. I. Prewett, the founder of Prewett Mills, shows a gray-haired man holding a pair of tube socks.
Among the museum’s historic machinery is a brass whistle on a pole that was once used to signal the start of the workday at the Big Mill. In the morning darkness, said Olivia Cox, the vice president of landmarks for DeKalb County, Ala., the mountainside behind the factory appeared “lit by fireflies,” with the workers “walking down footpaths by lantern light to get to the Big Mill before that whistle blew.”
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Everyone in Fort Payne was touched by the hosiery industry in some way. That night, Gina stopped for dinner at a barbecue place in town; the young man behind the counter had worked in a machine shop that repaired the type of knitters Emi-G uses. His name was Bo Doeg.
He and Gina got to reminiscing about Hosiery Week, a yearly festival that Mr. Doeg described as “Mardi Gras — but for socks.”
Mr. Doeg shook his head. “This is a different world than it used to be,” he said. “Have you seen the vast number of empty buildings?”
Gina was back at the mill by 8:30 the next morning, logging orders from store buyers and considering ideas for the next Little River line, which she develops with a designer in Birmingham. “We’re thinking about Appalachian florals,” she said.
She talked about the challenges she faces, from getting organic cotton at a good price to wanting a family but not knowing how, since she spends so much time at the mill. “I’ll just be honest, it’s been a struggle,” she said.
But she is determined to keep going, to make Fort Payne a place where socks are once again made by the millions.
“It’s hard every day but I still love it,” she said. “It’s what I want to do forever.”
From the ashes of the closed Russell Athletic sock mill, raised the Phoenix, in the form of Zkano socks. I love these types of stories – stories of coming back, the stories of small companies and not large multi-national corporations that churn out tons of clothing items per day. And Zkano socks are organic as well everything made in the USA.