Jeans retailer fits snugly into Detroit’s Rivertown

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Ian Thibodeau , The Detroit News 11:36 p.m. EST November 11, 2016

There’s nothing fancy about the rugged heritage jeans sold at Detroit Denim Co., despite the $250 price tag. They’re just well-made, says company founder Eric Yelsma.

“We’re making something as best as it can be made,” Yelsma said, standing in the middle of the flagship store and garment factory that he and Detroit Denim co-owners opened earlier this year in part of a former warehouse called the Dongan Building in Detroit’s Rivertown neighborhood.

The opening of the store at 2987 Franklin brought back to life one of the many unused warehouses on Detroit’s east riverfront. Hans Hanson, the building’s owner, hopes it can anchor another destination district for shopping and entertainment in the city. The neighborhood doesn’t have much in the way of shopping despite a sudden flowering of apartments, condominiums and restaurants in the area.

The new store fills “the best place in the building,” says Hanson, who’s in the middle of adding a third floor and renovating the rest of the warehouse. Once finished, it will house several expensive lofts, a restaurant, art gallery and cafe.

Detroit Denim is already a “destination store,” said Yelsma. But he hopes the addition of other attractions will bring more foot traffic for its house-made jeans, denim aprons, leather goods and selected items from other U.S. brands.

Yelsma started Detroit Denim about four years ago in the Detroit business incubator Ponyride after losing his job as a chemical engineer in Ann Arbor. He decided to make jeans, because he “really liked the idea and the concept of making something you can wear.”

His only background on the subject came from high school, when he had to learn to alter his pants because he was tall and skinny. He couldn’t pinpoint when he had the idea for the denim company, but setting up in Detroit was as much about love of the city as convenience. He’s from Metro Detroit, he loved the history of manufacturing in the city —and frankly, he couldn’t have afforded to open the bootstrap company in any other major city.
Brenna Lane, one of the Detroit Denim owners, is in charge of production and operations at the Rivertown factory. She developed the system used to make the company’s jeans, leather goods and denim aprons. Each pair of jeans takes four hours of work involving 86 steps on 10 different machines. The denim comes from a North Carolina mill; other materials are sourced from the U.S.

“There is something very therapeutic about making something with your hands,” Lane said. Her domain, walled off by windows from the showroom, is a network of sewing machines and stations beginning with a cutting table in the back of the room. There are few places in the U.S. making blue jeans by hand.

Lane’s workshop churns out between six to 10 pairs of men’s jeans a day. Yelsma hopes to increase that to 25 pairs a day soon. He said the company will start making women’s jeans in 2017.

While Detroit Denim brought a few manufacturing jobs back to the city, Yelsma said the brand also subverts fast fashion, a term used by clothing retailers to talk about trendy designs that bubble up and fizzle out quickly, often sold at low costs and poorly made.

“Everyone owns a pair of jeans,” he said. “This American thing isn’t made in America anymore.”

That’s not to say Detroit Denims never tear or wear out in spots. They’re meant to, and Yelsma wants that to happen. Given that the five cuts offered at Detroit Denim only come in one color, save for a few special edition pairs, it’s interesting to watch every pair age differently, he said.

While the jeans get broken in, Yelsma and his team recommend customers refrain from washing the denim for at least the first six months of wearing them. This allows unique creases and fades to set. And if a customer wants a tear fixed, Detroit Denim offers free repairs, Yelsma said.

“We hope you wear them out,” he said. “People write songs about well-worn jeans.”

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