Detroit Denim founder Eric Yelsma didn't set about creating a metaphor for his city's resurgent manufacturing industry, but he succeeded anyway. His raw-selvage denim Heritage Jean, constructed on the second floor of a formerly unused and foreclosed office building in the Corktown section of Detroit, has no frills and no wash because time and trouble are the only real way to personalize a garment. Yelsma's take on artificial distressing is as Motor City as it is dismissive: "Be a man and break in your jeans on your own. It's your job."
Yelsma has made it his job to figure out how to make a tougher jean. A Michigan-born former chemical company sales and marketing representative (and son of a home economics teacher), Yelsma sources materials from all over the country, such as denim and thread from North Carolina and fly buttons from a Connecticut factory that produced them for Civil War military coats. After not being able to find his ideal top button, he teamed up with a machinist to make engraved copper buttons that gain patina with age.
"I never could have started what I'm doing now anywhere else. In terms of finding real estate and setting up shop, there are far fewer hurdles here than in any other large city," he says of Detroit as a place to do business. "Part of it's the economy, but it's also the people. There's a midwestern attitude of helping each other out."
The Heritage Jean comes in slim, standard, and "hockey" fits (the latter suits a more athletic build), all variations on the classic straight-cut, five-pocket style popularized by Levi Strauss. The results are beautiful in a simple, hard-wearing way, with every rivet and bar tack doing its part. Although the price for a pair is steep at $250, these jeans are handmade by a small staff of experts who treat each garment – rather than bulk orders – as a finished product.
"My goal is to do five pairs a day," says Yelsma. "We're not there yet, but that's my end-of-2013 objective: a hundred pairs a month. At a big jean company, that's an hourly quota."
Detroit Denim makes a few other items like leather belts, hoodies, and handsome raw denim totes. Heavy-duty aprons for the shop workers, butchers, and line cooks of Detroit are a recent development, with custom designs like a full-leather front – designed to keep sparks from scalding a metalsmith. Also noteworthy is the brand's Repair Shop, which takes old jeans made by other brands and spiffs them up with new waistbands, belt loops, or pockets. Yelsma doesn't believe in throwing out denim.
"That's the whole reason I started this business. I had a pair of jeans I loved and repaired them so many times. I want people to get as much life out of jeans as they can. Like if you have a car that breaks down, you're going to fix it." [$250; detroitdenim.com]