At the corner of McDougall and Franklin in Detroit’s Rivertown Warehouse district, a rocker-chic woman and I reach an old brick building at the same time. She opens the door and says, offhand, “Things have changed.”
Construction noise puts an exclamation point on her observation. Din echoes above us — where lofts are being built — and down the block at the in-progress Orleans Landing development.
Inside, more change is in the air. Denim duds have replaced the century-old Dongan Electric Manufacturing Co. In the showroom of the Detroit Denim Co. — among exposed rafters, brick walls, a leather sofa and an animal-hide rug — site-made men’s jeans are sold, along with locally made jewelry, soaps, fragrance and work boots.
One aspect hasn’t changed, however. Manufacturing still happens here. Workers man sewing machines, fashioning North Carolina denim into dungarees, totes, bib-style aprons and other goods.
Detroit Denim is the creation of Eric Yelsma, a Michigan native who once dragged a jean jacket from the back of his car in an attempt to grind some Detroit into the fabric. The distressed result of that experiment is displayed in the boutique. (My fellow shopper tried to charm the staff into letting her buy it.)
When I stopped by, Yelsma was on the phone, talking with a Vancouver retailer interested in his line. Detroit Denim is sold at Detroit Mercantile Co. and City Bird, as well as in a few men’s boutiques around the country. Yelsma’s own attire reflects his brand: Detroit Denim jeans (Archer fit), denim-blue glasses frames and Michigan-made Wolverine work boots, which he carries in his shop.
He points to a denim vest, which reflects his expanding product line. An impeccably detailed men’s jean jacket ($345 retail) just launched. And they’re developing women’s jeans (probably two cuts, plus a custom option).
“We’re a brand, also retail, and we manufacture our own stuff,” Yelsma says. “Raw material, cut and finish — and people walk out the door.”
Many who visit the shop are from outside the state or city, Yelsma says. The most frequent comment he hears is, “You make your stuff here?”
Yelsma says he sees movement in all aspects of fashion design and creation in Detroit. What he would like to see more of, he says, is local production.
“You have to be gutsy,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it if I’d tried in Chicago, New York, LA or San Francisco. I’d be dead in the water trying to pay the rent.”
“The manufacturing part is the hard part. But we can’t be an all-tech or all-food city.”
In 2010, Yelsma left his job, cashed his 401k and began making jeans in his basement and garage, which he quickly realized wouldn’t cut it.
“I said to myself, I have to jump in the deep end,” he says. He moved his startup to Ponyride, the incubator space in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
“I was hugely fostered by Ponyride,” he says.
Ponyride is one of several elements fostering Detroit’s burgeoning fashion industry. Other factors include the Techtown-based Detroit Garment Group (DGG) and a new fashion-accessory program supported by Shinola at College for Creative Studies (CCS).
Karen Buscemi, president of DGG, which mentors fledgling designers and makers, is working to establish a garment district with the goal of making Detroit “a permanent place on our country’s fashion map.”
At CCS, the new accessories curriculum is a bachelor-of-fine-arts program offering coursework in the design and manufacturing of handbags, leather goods, footwear and other products.
All of this is percolating amid a prevailing entrepreneurial spirit, the sort of wave that spontaneously bubbles up in a city every so often.
Kevin Peterson, an automotive engineer and fragrance maker from Minnesota, says when he came to Detroit, people kept telling him to quit his very good job. He didn’t. But he and his wife did form Sfumato Fragrance. Peterson created a custom, signature scent labeled Detroit Denim No. 1, at the request of Yelsma, who wanted the aroma to evoke “diesel poured on a pine tree and lit by a cigar.” It’s sold at the shop — and it is smoky.
It’s also a hint of the sweet smell of success in a city that’s wearing a new label these days: UNESCO City of Design. Fitting that designation, Detroit’s fashion industry is expanding from a small closet into a full wardrobe — from jeans, tees and bags to a dab behind the ear and sunglasses for the brightening horizon.
Mark Cox, for example, is creating eyewear under the name Mark Cox Apparel at Ponyride. After an Air Force career, Cox returned to his boyhood home, where he’s combining military discipline and a youthful interest in the arts into designing modern-classic frames, which are produced in Italy.
His specs are sold in England, Washington, D.C., Grosse Pointe Farms and Ann Arbor. He’s also attending CCS’ accessory program, where he wants to learn shoemaking.
A modern-day cobbler?
“It’s really going back to the way it was in the early 1900s,” Cox says. “My goal is to co-locate manufacturing with retail, so when you look in the back, you see the eyewear being made.”
A similar sensibility guides the recently opened Douglas & Co. leather goods on Milwaukee in Midtown. And on Woodward Avenue, once the main thread in clothing retail, Detroit is the New Black sells Motown centric apparel — another stitch, in time.