Meet Eric Yelsma, founder of Detroit Denim Company. Eric has always loved jeans. The idea of making them had entered his mind, but it wasn’t valid - you couldn’t make jeans for a living. And so, Eric spent fifteen years of his life working a corporate job in the chemical industry as a “glorified sales guy.” Well, in 2008/2009, Eric found himself without a job. The chemical industry was going through some substantial changes and the world was falling into financial crisis - millions of people were left without work.
It’s at that point he realized that what he had been doing wasn’t for personal satisfaction, but because it appeared to be a steady, safe job. That’s when it hit him.
It took Eric a year to talk himself into following his dreams. In time he understood that if he didn’t do it, he’d regret it, and if he did to it - and it failed - he could always go back to a cooperate job. One thing he did decide was that if he was going to do it, he was going to take it seriously.
Starting something where there’s no promise of getting paid, that’s tough, but Eric was serious. So serious that he took some of his retirement savings to make it happen. He began simply by learning. Learning to sew, learning about the materials. One thing that struck him about the apparel industry was that not a lot of clothes are made in the US. There are a few pockets of that industry left around the country, but Detroit is not one of them. And jeans, jeans are American - they have to be made in the US. So, for a while it was just Eric, by himself with a bunch of machines figuring it out.
Why denim? Some people love watches, or cars, or golfing, or fishing - Eric just always really liked denim, and jeans, and the history behind them.
But he loved it, so he pressed on and slowly but surely his company grew one by one as he needed more and more help. Eight years later Detroit Denim is made up of a dozen people passionate about jeans.
Eric is currently looking to move Detroit Denim’s retail space to another location that will bring more foot traffic and exposure while freeing up some space in the factory where everything is made.
They’re currently making twenty pairs of jeans a day. By comparison, Levi’s is selling (in North America) over 1 million pairs of jeans a day. Long term, Eric is looking to grow Detroit Denim up to two hundred and fifty pairs a day, requiring close to 40/45 people.
While he’s not really looking for more than one retail space, I asked him if he had thought about putting his jeans in other stores. He was hesitant, and for a good reason - he has no control over the customer’s experience. There’s no customization, no education. He’s open to the idea of wholesaling, but only if they share values and are willing to give the customer, not just the product, but the experience of Detroit Denim Company along with it.
The are really two routes you can take when it comes to getting into the world of apparel: you can design the product and have someone else make it for you, or you can design the product and make it yourself. Either way, Eric suggests you start simple and start small. Even when someone else is making the product for you, jumping in with the desire to create an entire fashion line will leave you disappointed - it’s too much, and it’s just not sustainable. If your going to make your own product, you need to learn the craft one step at a time. Rushing it will only leave you overwhelmed.
I asked Eric about creating a strong brand because, let’s face it, even if you learn the craft and make a great product, if you can’t sell that product, you’re going down. People will always want to offer you suggestions on what to do and how to do it. Eric believes firmly in being authentic. And that’s something that involves a lot of transparency. Over the years, he’s seen a countless number of brands bought by bigger companies only for them to outsource production in return for profit and a subpar product. Transparency is saying, “look, this is who we are, this is what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it.” Out of that transparency comes the foundation of your brand - it’s a story.
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Podcast SANS END theme music: Church by BenJamin Banger. Find him @ http://smarturl.it/hjfi20