Photographer: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg
Photographer: Sean Proctor/Bloomberg

Is the World Ready for $250 Handmade Jeans from Detroit?

Detroit Denim Co. is one of many young local companies trying to channel the Motor City's manufacturing heritage into a new tradition of hand-craftsmanship and quality. Take a peek inside their seven-person factory in the Rivertown District.  Photographs by Sean Proctor/Bloomberg
The Products
The Products

The company produces five cuts of men's jeans, each retailing at $250. They also make bags and small leather goods and this September will come out with a $345 denim jacket. A women's line of denim is scheduled to be launched around Thanksgiving.

Here, tote bags hang in the Detroit Denim Co. storefront and factory in Rivertown.

The Owners
The Owners

The startup is the first graduate of Detroit's maker space Ponyride, which provides inexpensive real estate for local artists and entrepreneurs. Detroit Denim left the incubator for a combined factory and storefront space in Detroit's Rivertown neighborhood in January and opened for business in May.

Eric Yelsma, left, is Detroit Denim's founder. He saw a layoff from a corporate sales gig in 2009 as an opportunity, and followed his passion for making jeans in the new enterprise. Brenna Lane, right, responded to his early Craigslist ad looking for a seamstress, and she now oversees operations and production.

The Pieces
The Pieces

Each pair of pants starts out in 27 pieces. The seven employees move through cells on the factory floor rather than an assembly line, producing small batches of made-to-order jeans through an 87-step process. The factory can now produce 10 pairs of jeans a day.  

The Tools
The Tools

Here, the traditional tools used for making a pair of jeans are stored in simple denim slots.

Sewing
Sewing

One of Detroit Denim's seven employees sews a pair of jeans—while wearing denim, naturally. 

Rivets
Rivets

Detroit Denim's jeans are entirely sourced domestically, from North Carolina Cone Mills selvedge denim down to the buttons. 

Selvedge Style
Selvedge Style

Selvedge denim is made on a traditional shuttle loom in a slower process than typical modern projection mill denim. This gives the denim a richer depth and character, which provides for more wear patterns and contrast in the jeans.

No Easy Journey
No Easy Journey

Despite their initial success, Detroit Denim says that funding has been an "extraordinary" challenge. A manufacturing startup based in Detroit does not attract the same kind of investment that a startup in technology or pharmaceuticals does.  

Here, Yelsma (left) personally helps a customer pick a pair of jeans to try on.

The Shop
The Shop

Detroit Denim brings the "know your farmer" movement from farmers markets across America to blue jeans, creating a storefront at the same site as its manufacturing facility. A College for Creative Studies student designed the space, taking inspiration from airplane wings and garage doors to create a translucent wall separating the factory and the store. Customers can see how their jeans are made while they browse.

The Threads
The Threads

Spools of thread come in a simple array of colors.

In the Store
In the Store

Despite the high price tag, especially in a city still recovering from an economic crisis, the brand has a socioeconomically and professionally diverse client group and has been contracted by Chevrolet to outfit their auto show staff. Yelsma said they're still working on getting a year-end profit as they gain their footing after graduating from the economic benefits of the incubator.

"The receptivity of the jeans is good. The quality, the build of the jeans is fantastic. And now, it's, Can you put all of these other things together to do something that 98 percent of America has not really followed?" Yelsma said. "And that's buying your clothes made locally and domestically."

Here, the custom leather patch is visible on a pair of classic taper jeans in the shop.

Attention to Detail
Attention to Detail

The brand also offers free repairs for life on all their denim products. 

Shrinking Supply Base
Shrinking Supply Base

Detroit Denim is one of a handful of jean companies left in America that doesn’t contract its manufacturing abroad. Sourcing all the supplies domestically means that there aren’t many choices when it comes to what you use; Detroit Denim is down to one button manufacturer. On the other hand, the suppliers that remaining in the U.S. tend to be at the top of their field and to produce exceptional quality products.

Here, Brenna Lane inspects her work.

The Neighborhood
The Neighborhood

Just a couple of years ago, Rivertown was known as the Warehouse District, a largely neglected area of the city that was slated to be the home of casinos in the 1990s—plans that never came to fruition. Now Rivertown is turning into a vibrant residential area with the addition of new buildings and developments.