By Edward Cardenas
DETROIT (CBS Detroit) – One could say becoming a fashion trailblazer in Detroit was in Eric Yelsma’s “jeans.”
As a skinny kid growing up he would use his mother’s sewing equipment – she was a home economics teacher – to tailor his jeans. Then as an adult he took his worn-out, favorite pair of jeans to his tailor to repair, and she declined, telling him “she never wanted to see these jeans again.”
He then wanted her to make a pair of jeans, and she said it couldn’t be done.
“Being told it couldn’t be done was throwing down the gauntlet of ‘let’s see if we can do it,” said Yelsma.
It took about a year and a half to make his jeans, which turned out to be “absolutely awful” but proved it could be done. Making jeans then became a hobby until he was downsized out of the corporate world.
That is when he was freed up to pursue his dream, and had the epiphany that “if I don’t do it, I’ll always regret it.”
He “jumped” into the effort and spent a year to get all the equipment together and start working on his business initially out of his home, but once he realized that the business that would become Detroit Denim needed more space to make it successful, he found space three years ago in the business incubator Ponyride to build his business.
He started with just one employee – himself – taking 26 different pieces through an 82 step process to hand-make one pair of jeans. He has grown to seven employees producing three pairs of jeans a day, with a goal of 20 pairs of jeans a day, “which is entirely doable,” he said.
What makes Yelsma’s jeans unique is that they are made by Detroiters, with materials made in the United States including selvage denim made by Cone Mills in North Carolina.
In addition to men’s jeans, he is also making bags, shirts,belts and aprons.
But “jeans are our focus,” said Yelsma, who plans on keeping true to his roots.
“We are pretty adamant that we hire Detroiters,” he said. “We are a Detroit company. What is super important to me is that we be authentic. You can sniff out fakes and inauthenticy pretty quickly.”
His unique journey to making jeans in a warehouse just outside downtown Detroit has garnered national attention and customers across the country and around the globe including Australia, France and Sweden.
And if customers are in the area, they can come to the Detroit Denim and try on either the “classic” or “hockey” cut of the Heritage Jean and have it tailored and “customized” to each person’s fit.
He is looking to expand into women’s jeans, but wants to “do it right.”
“We are on a big push to do one thing well, and then we go on to the next thing and we do that well,” said Yelsma.
While he is looking to the future, he is humble about his intents.
“I never wanted to be this fashion thing,” Yelsma said. “I wanted to be a maker.”