This high-end denim business opened in the middle of the recession

  • Detroit was one of the hardest hit cities during the economic crash of 2008.

  • Even as unemployment soared over 11% in the throes of the recession, an entrepreneur founded a small Detroit jeans manufacturer that continues to be successful almost a decade later.

  • With most jeans being mass produced, Detroit Denim goes against the industry trend by hand making each pair of jeans. Each pair takes around four hours to make.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Eric Yelsma brainstormed his idea to open denim business in 2008, just as the financial crisis was picking up steam. Today, his shop is one of the only jean manufacturers in Detroit.

Eric Yelsma, Detroit Denim founder: They just axed my division entirely and there I was without a job. And I kind of realised at that point that I really didn’t like what I was doing. It sucked. And so I had this, this fascination – just this burning desire to about jeans.

Narrator: The recession wasn’t his only challenge. A self-proclaimed “denim-nerd,” Yelsma started a business going against an industry trend. Nowadays, most jeans are mass produced, but at Detroit Denim, each pair is made by hand.

The small team of 10 churn out about 40 pairs of selvedge jeans a week. Each pair takes around 4 hours to make.

Yelsma:It really started when I had a pair of my favourite jeans and I would take into my tailor and she’d repair them, and they got so threadbare and so worn, she refused to fix my jeans. And I said, “OK, would you make me a pair?” She told me it couldn’t be done. That was kinda the seed that was planted if you can’t make a pair of jeans. And I’m like, “Maybe I can.”

Narrator: But making jeans in America in 2018 is difficult feat. In 2017, one of the last standing denim mills in the country, the Cone Mills White Oak Plant, shut down due to sagging demand and selling prices. The factory used to supply to heavy hitters like Wrangler’s and Levis. Now, there are only about four denim mills left in the country.

Though resources are scarce, Yelsma still sources the majority of his denim domestically, from Denimburg in Texas.

Yelsma: I wanted it made in Detroit. I wanted it, locally made and there was no other option.

Narrator: Detroit Denim’s jeans aren’t cheap. Their priciest pair comes in at $US265.

That’s more than the average cost of jeans in the US: $US211 for men, and $US165 for women.

Most of the price comes from the expensive materials and the handwork. Brenna, who’s a production manager on the team, says it takes 87 steps to make a single pair.

Breanna Lane, Production Manager: So there are a lot of steps involved in making a jean. First we cut the jeans out. Then we move them through different cells. Then we marry them together. Then it goes on the finishing.

Narrator: The company’s team has more than doubled since the financial crisis, and they bring $US800,000 a year. But for Yelsma, making a local impact in the city he grew up in is even more important.

Yelsma: You know, it’s kinda like a microbrew versus a big brewery. I want to be I’d like to be about 100 people. I’d like to do everything from start to finish, complete turnkey here in Detroit and be known as a world class manufacturer and you know, we don’t make clothes for everybody, but we make really good clothes for people who care about that.

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