Robert McMillan made it his mission to ensure that his company filled a gap in the market: denim cut and sewed entirely in the U.S.
While the Covid-19 pandemic may have dealt an unfortunate blow to many small businesses, Robert McMillan saw an opportunity to keep his company above water amid the demand for face masks. In true entrepreneurial fashion, when Dearborn Denim closed its four stores in the Chicago area, McMillan pivoted his business from denim to making thousands of fabric masks a day, first for hospitals and later for sale to the general public.
The move to masks embodied the spirit of what McMillan, a former bond trader, has sought to achieve since founding Dearborn Denim in 2016, focusing on local, made-to-order manufacturing.
With the overwhelming majority of apparel manufactured outside the U.S., McMillan made it his mission to ensure that his company filled a gap in the market, creating a denim collection that was designed, cut and sewed entirely in the U.S.
What will the denim industry be like in the next 18 months?
As a market, jeans will probably be slow for a little bit as people try and cut back on spending. That being said, I think there are a lot of social movements that will manifest themselves in looking for ethically made apparel, which we’ve been doing for a while now, for four years.
The virus and the need for personal protective equipment puts the spotlight on the breakdown of international supply chains. As we have a giant unemployment rate in the United States, people might be looking for American-made, too, but it’s hard to say. People have been saying that for decades.
What changes would you like to see in the denim industry as a result of Covid-19?
I’d love to see more American cut-and-sew arising. I’d love to see other companies like us popping up that are committed to apparel manufacturing in the states. And I’m not talking about your $300 denim cut-and-sew done in the U.S.—there are plenty of folks doing that. I’m talking about brands that are putting out price-competitive products that just happen to be American-made. It’s not that you buy them because they’re [produced in the U.S.], but they’re putting out a great product and a great price that makes you proud that they’re made in America.
We’re going to keep pushing what we do, but I don’t think we should be the only ones doing it.
How do you define sustainability in a post-pandemic world?
Sustainability is one of those catch terms where marketers often will use it to draw attention, but it often doesn’t actually mean anything. There’s different kinds of sustainability. When we started off, I bought a bunch of machines and set up a factory and started adding one person at a time. Growing from a micro business to a small business is financial sustainability.
In terms of fashion being the second-largest industry that generates waste—the average American throws away 80 pounds of clothing a year—the best way to address that is by shifting consumer sentiment toward clothing as a durable or semi-durable good as opposed to a consumable good, which is what the fast fashion industry has changed into.
If your jeans last longer because they’re made with good stuff, you’re already contributing significantly to reducing the amount of waste generated by fashion.
Our jeans on a per-wear basis are cheaper than fast fashion because they last longer. From a survey we took, fast fashion jeans generally last somewhere between three and six months. Ours last usually well over two years. If you’re buying a pair of fast fashion jeans for $20, you’re roughly spending that four times as often as you would spend $65 for one of our jeans. Your cost per wear is actually less with our jeans. And because they last longer, you’re creating less waste, and because you’re creating less waste, you’re making for a more sustainable fashion industry.
Describe your dream jeans.
When we started making jeans, we asked what we wanted that pair to look like. The tailored fit dark wash with stretch denim is the first pair that we started with. I like to be comfortable and I like them to look good. You can dress them up and dress them down, you can wear them on the job site or [when] you are going out to dinner with your wife. Great product, great price and you put them and you don’t want to take them off.
I know a lot of people like the heavier cottons like the 13 oz. selvedge denims. That’s not for me, I like stretch denim.
What is your most worn pair of jeans, and why?
I wear our tailored fit dark wash. I have two pairs of jeans and I wear them every day.
Name one word that best describes denim.
I’d have a hard time extracting a single word from one aspect of denim. I would say that denim is like a good marriage: it’s always with you and it changes over time. Jeans have changed over the past 50 years [to complement] what people want. Construction workers want stretch denim, and that is moving away from the rugged jean aesthetic that has been prevalent for a very long time. It’s work wear, office wear and casual wear. It’s the quintessential American wardrobe fabric.