Jeanswear brand Detroit Denim is a true rara avis — a denim and jeans company that is produced entirely in the Midwest from made-in-America fabric. The company was officially incorporated in 2010, but founder Eric Yelsma was cultivating his brainchild for several years prior to taking a leap of faith and officially launching Detroit Denim.
The brand currently has a factory and flagship store in the Rivertown section of Motor City. Its high-quality raw denim jeans are made to last a lifetime and its onsite denim repair facility allows them to keep on going despite wear and tear. The pieces can be purchased directly in-store or online.
Yelsma recently shared the story behind his company and explained what’s on deck for this coveted, locally made brand.
What is Detroit Denim’s backgorund?
I came from the corporate world and I worked in the chemical industry for 15 years, and then a great favor was done to me and I got let go. It didn’t feel like a favor at the time, but in retrospect, it allowed me to make the jump into making jeans. I wasn’t a very savvy fashion person by any stretch; I just knew that I wanted to make jeans and that I was kind of obsessive about it. It took me about a year to talk myself into starting the business because no one makes stuff in the U.S. anymore, particularly apparel and particularly in the Midwest and especially in Detroit. So it was almost absurd — I’m going to make apparel in Detroit. But there was an epiphany I had where, if I didn’t do that, I would regret it. And, if I tried it and it was a huge failure, I had this backup and I could always go back to this soulless corporate life.
I cashed in some 401Ks (which you’re not supposed to do) and I started buying machines and figuring out how to sew. There’s heck of a lot that goes into making a pair of jeans versus a T-shirt or bag. I just put my nose to the grindstone, figured it out, and started making jeans.
What sets Detroit Denim apart from other jeans brands (aside from the fact that they are made in Detroit)?
One of the things is that we make our own stuff. There are a lot of brands out there that I respect very much and think are fantastic, and the vast majority of them don’t make their own stuff, so what I like is that we have an integrated supply chain. We design, pattern-make, cut, sew, finish, and fit all in one building. That allows us an extreme amount of control and gives us the ability to adapt and adjust and, hopefully, come up with what we think is a very nice pair of jeans.
Who is your customer?
I thought I knew my customer. I thought it was some 20-year-old to 40-year-old young urban professional with lots of disposable income, and I’m finding that I have a pretty broad demographic. We just launched women’s jeans because there was such a high demand for it, and it took us over three years to do that.
And you have five fits for men?
We’re very fit-centric. I personally feel that, if you are going to be spending this much on a pair of jeans, it had better be a fantastic pair, and one of the most important things is how they fit. We have five fits. It’s all the same style, but it’s really just a difference in fits. It goes from the slimmest cut to sort of a curvy cut for men, because you get a lot of athletic men that have slimmer waists but real big seats and muscular thighs
Tell us about the denim repair that you offer.
We have a dedicated denim repair area with four machines that are just for denim repair. They are all industrial machines and we do complimentary lifetime repair for all of our jeans. We expect them to have them a long time, and I always joke that they are just starting to get good by the time you get that first hole. It’s not a reason to stop wearing them. Let us patch them up and keep going.
What’s on tap for the future?
In the vein and pursuit of sustainability, we are starting a separate line that we call Refashioned, where we take old-fashioned and thrift pieces and we redo them and bring them back to life. All of our jeans are raw denim, so the idea is that you put your own character and charm and wear into it. But if you get older pieces, they are pre-distressed, and what we’ll do is add to that in terms of patching and changes in the patterns. What started as a curiosity has turned into something very well-received. In essence, it turns and old beat-up jacket into a real statement piece or something that you would have for decades.
The other thing is I want to grow the jeans line. Up until a while ago, I was a bit of a snob and I would only do selvedge denim, and I have a lot of people who don’t care for the stiffness of raw selvedge, so we are looking at other denim. We’ll always have our selvedge, but I’m trying to be less of a snob about jeans.
What would you say is the No. 1 reason a guy should check out your line?
It’s a really well-made pair of jeans that you are going to appreciate and hopefully wear for years. And I think the other thing is that it’s important that people know where their stuff comes from and know how it’s made and who is making it. I’m not trying to wave the social responsibility flag, but it’s a nice, rewarding thing to know more about the stuff that you consume. I always equate jeans and apparel to the food industry, and we’ve been McDonald’s-ized. You look at the fast fashion and you’re just basically being sold a bunch of $1 hamburgers — and, frankly, you are getting what you pay for.