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Detroit Denim Co. Helps Revive Manufacturing in Motor City

They say when one door closes, another opens—so it’s probably a good thing that Eric Yelsma lost his job selling specialty printing chemicals in 2008 when oil hit $100 a barrel, because it paved the way for him to turn his love of jeans into a business.

“I knew I wanted to do it. I had this epiphany where I realized if I didn’t do it I would always regret it,” Yelsma said. “At least if I tried it and I was a colossal failure at it, the worst that could happen would be I’d be embarrassed, but I could always find something else to do.”

Today, Yelsma’s 3-year-old Detroit Denim Co. sells two styles of straight-legged, five-pocket men’s jeans for $250 a pair, handcrafted from U.S.-milled selvedge denim on the second floor of Motor City’s warehouse-style creative hub Ponyride, as well as belts, bags, tees and heavy-duty aprons. Two additional cuts are in the works, and Yelsma is looking for a new space to house his growing empire.

But it didn’t happen overnight or without setbacks.

“I had to find the equipment and machines necessary to do it. I had to figure out grading, all the nuts and bolts to it. And that took a good year. It took a long time just trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how I would do it,” Yelsma said. “When I did my first pair of jeans, to get that fit, I think I did 14 iterations of it. When you’re doing it overseas I don’t think you have that luxury, you don’t have the time or you’re not willing to spend the money.”

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Detroit Denim Co. is self-funded (“I’m very lucky to be in Detroit because I couldn’t have done this anywhere else with the limited funds from my 401k.”), and Yelsma and his small team of employees hand-make the jeans on traditional machines using all U.S.-manufactured material, right down to the raw-copper buttons and cotton-wrapped polyester thread.

“We’re very adamant about the fit and doing it right, and quality is our big thing. We tie the threads, hand hammer, a lot of little extra things that I think are a huge deal for me and things that other people might not notice,” he said.

Everything is sold in the front of the workshop, through e-commerce and at some select spots in the city, like the Detroit Mercantile Co., and Yelsma said he would love to expand wholesale to other cities but “I just don’t have the capacity at this point.”

It’s not just a matter of space; finding skilled sewers is an issue, too, but that’s slowing improving.

“The one thing I appreciate about Detroit is it’s a very blue-collar, hard work-oriented area, and while I don’t have much access to experienced people I do have access to people who want to learn, have a good work ethic and can work hard,” Yelsma said.

Though a change of address may soon be in order, he’s adamant that wherever the brand ends up, the set-up will be similar: sales in the front, workshop in the back. “We’re able to have people come in, get fitted, there’s a connection to what they’re wearing and the experience. It’s full circle versus just taking it off the shelf, where you don’t know who it’s from or how it’s made,” he said, pointing out that he also repairs jeans from other brands. “I’m a big believer in getting the most out of whatever you have.”

And it all starts with great fit. “We have two cuts (classic and hockey) and we can probably fit 65-70 percent of shoppers with those because we offer a wide size range, from 27-inch to 40-inch waist,” Yelsma said, noting that he can custom-make a pair for anyone who falls outside those parameters. “We get a lot of really thin guys, no seat on them or nothing,” he laughed.

Right now he’s working on two new cuts: a looser fit for an athletic guy with a muscular build and a small waist, and a slim-tapered take on the classic cut. And while he gets plenty of inquiries from women looking for custom jeans, that particular expansion isn’t happening anytime soon.

“I see a lot of room to grow with the men’s jeans right now,” he said.