Made-to-Order: Detroit's Fashion Industry Takes Aim at Sustainability

Updated: Aug 19

By Crain's Detroit Business


This article was published in Crain's Detroit Business August 16, 2020. We're sharing because it highlights the role Detroit is playing in the movement to reinvest in domestic textile manufacturing and how the city and its businesses are recalibrating garment production in a post-pandemic world.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing Brenna Lane to critically examine the way she has been approaching her business. As the owner of Detroit Denim, a Rivertown-based apparel brand she started in 2010 with her husband, Eric Yelsma, Lane is reimagining how garments are produced and sold.

"The pandemic gave us some time to slow down, and that gave us some clarity of vision," she said. "The industry, as it was, is not something we want to be a part of going forward." Following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's lockdown mandate that began on March 24, Detroit Denim shifted to making protective equipment for local hospitals in place of custom jeans. It also celebrated its 10-year anniversary, a quiet, sad and reflective one, Lane added. She said during that time she realized that scaling her business closer to the size of bigger brands with large outputs was no longer a goalpost. Her new focus is on decreasing how much Detroit Denim produces by investing more time in the company's existing made-to-order model. "Majority of our waste comes from overproduction and overconsumption," Lane said. "We will be pivoting this fall to entirely made-to-order. No standing inventory to waste away or end up in a landfill."

Lane, 35, is in good company with other Michigan-based manufacturers and designers who are invested in recalibrating garment production in a post-pandemic world. Many of them believe Detroit can be a leader in a resurgent domestic apparel manufacturing that eliminates the negative impact clothing has on the people who make it and on our environment.

"There is a trend to bring manufacturing in this space back to the U.S.," said Lori McColl, CEO of Whim, a digital consultancy and innovation lab in Capitol Park. "The old model was not sustainable from the environmental side to the worker side."

Building off the bones of Detroit's automotive history, the Motor City's fashion industry is repositioning itself to be a hub for domestic garment manufacturing that is both economically and environmentally sustainable. Through collaboration, technological advancement and equitable training programs, industry insiders want to establish the city as a global force in fashion.

"It's literally re-creating the automotive industry in the fashion industry in Detroit," said Christina Liedtke, founder of women's wear and accessories brand ASTOURI, which manufactures in Flint. "This is the perfect opportunity for Detroit to ramp this up."

For the vision of Detroit as a leader in domestic apparel production to materialize, the industry will need a highly skilled workforce.

"As a country, we don't have a lot of trained sewers," said Rebecca Grewal, director and founder of Michigan Fashion Proto, an apparel manufacturer in Lansing. "It's a trade that sort of went away … when it was the normal thing to send things overseas."


Career paths

Detroit's clothing business has grown. There were 651 apparel manufacturing jobs in the city of Detroit in 2019, a 71 percent increase from 381 jobs in 2010, according to an analysis conducted by Detroit Regional Partnership, an economic development nonprofit, in August 2020. The impact the pandemic has had on employment data has not been measured yet. Continuing employment growth in the city's fashion sector is where Jen Guarino, CEO of the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center in Midtown, comes in.

"There have been people making apparel here for some time on a small scale," Guarino said. "We're seeing global companies interested in setting up manufacturing here (and) we're preparing the workforce for advanced (apparel) manufacturing."

At ISAIC equitable employment for highly skilled makers is the essential mission. The nonprofit launched an apprentice program this year, during which trainees learn industrial sewing and how to use advanced equipment to make garments, most recently PPE gowns for hospitals. The program's placement data is not yet available but will be in the future, the company said.

Making PPE was an effective way to train employees during the height of the pandemic, and it will continue to be integrated in ISAIC's apprentice program as long as the demand is there, the company told Crain's in an email.

Guarino said ISAIC, which partners with Carhartt and many local brands including Detroit Denim, has a two-year plan to create a for-profit subsidiary that is worker-owned, where employees will be stakeholders. That could be a life-changing opportunity for a skilled worker like Veronica Williams, who is employed at the nonprofit.

While living in a temporary shelter, she learned about Empowerment Plan, a nonprofit in West Village that uses ISAIC's training program to teach current and formerly homeless individuals to sew coats that convert into sleeping bags. "I was able to learn about different types of sewing machines," said Williams, 44. "How to handle different types of fabric and stitching for textiles."

Williams' involvement with ISAIC can lead to a fruitful career path in garment manufacturing, something she found interesting long before she learned how to sew.

"I always had an interest (in sewing)," Williams said. "But I didn't have any experience and I didn't know how to get my foot in the door."

York Project

Josh York's York Project has a small factory in Detroit's Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, with equipment previously owned by the apparel brand Lazlo, where locals are hired and trained in garment production.


The rise of nearshoring

This worker-centric model represents the economic portion of sustainability, which focuses on providing makers with livable wages and career opportunities.

Josh York uses a similar method at his brand York Project, a socially conscious streetwear brand he created in 2012. The company has a small factory in Detroit's Northwest Goldberg neighborhood, with equipment previously owned by the apparel brand Lazlo, where locals are hired and trained in garment production.

"I feel like sustainability gets thrown around a lot in the garment industry," said York, 27, who worked as a sourcing manager at Abercrombie & Fitch before starting his own brand. "My goal has always been the human side first. I'm really focused on creating jobs and keeping people employed in Detroit." Scouting talent locally is a tactic that can help York ensure that in the future his garments, which includes T-shirts and sweatshirts from overseas that are screenprinted in his factory, are completely cut and sewn in the states.

"The York Project brand is shifting to be all domestic made by Christmas," York said. "Now everyone wants to make their clothes more locally. It's a more stable way to go about business." A stability that stretches beyond employment. Before the pandemic, offshoring — in which garments to be sold in the U.S. are produced in usually developing countries at low cost — was in vogue. In addition to worker exploitation and poor labor conditions, most notably evidenced in the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013, the environmental cost was also racking up. Textile manufacturing is estimated to account for 20 percent of industrial water pollution globally, according to a 2019 report by Green America, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that focuses on environmental and ethical consumerism.

Detroit Denim

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing Brenna Lane to critically examine the way she has been approaching her business, Detroit Denim, a Rivertown-based apparel brand she started in 2010 with her husband, Eric Yelsma.


Nearshoring — producing clothes domestically — is one way to address such ethical issues. Lane transitioning Detroit Denim to strictly demand-led production is another strategy. "Clothes have always been made-to-order. Clothes is one of the basic human necessities," Lane said. "The auto industry has just-in-time manufacturing down. We have the engineering knowledge and the manufacturing model here."

She added that this tactic requires shifting consumers' relationship to their clothing. "We live in a finite world with finite resources," Lane said. "Why are we thinking infinitely when it comes to (apparel) manufacturing." Prior to the pandemic lockdown, Detroit Denim was producing 12 pairs of jeans a day, in addition to custom contract work for leather products and aprons. Now, Lane wants to reduce this to 10 pairs a day, stop the subcontracting jobs, and minimize their product offerings — which included shirts, vests and skirts — to focus on jeans and jackets, she said.

Guarino agrees with Lane's approach to environmentally sustainable garment making. "We need to start making things more on-demand, so we're not requiring huge production minimums," Guarino said. "Responsive rather than reactive or speculative manufacturing. Responsive is more about knowing what the market needs and having technology to build it at a competitive price."


Technology and automation

Coming up with a technologically innovative solution to environmental waste and economic

exploitation in textile manufacturing is where McColl steps in. As the CEO of Whim, a technology company, she is responsible for merging the apparel industry with the tech and data ecosystem. Her latest effort involves collaborating with local apparel brands and manufacturers to integrate automation into the garment production process.

"If you think about where a lot of the automation is going… it's focused in optimizing the process," McColl said. "Moving from linear production… where you had minimum quantity orders to hit as a brand in order to be produced… which led to waste… to a customer-led and on-demand model."

She also harkened back to Detroit's history with cutting-edge automotive manufacturing. "Automotive has a clear understanding of repetitive production," McColl said. "Apparel is behind the speed of where automotive is moving."

Automation in apparel includes tools that focus on optimizing the design, prototyping and sampling process, with technology like -D knitting and robotic cutting machines, she added. This, she said, creates an opportunity for makers in Detroit to develop competitive skills. "What we wanted to do is to ensure that you're enabling designers to do what they do best, which is design and prototype new products," McColl said.

As for the costs of the technology, McColl said it's a part of a larger plan to restore domestic production.

"Automation is providing an opportunity for the U.S. to build a competitive advantage against the Asian markets," she said.

Investing in automation can standardize nearshoring in the apparel industry, starting with makers in Detroit, McColl added. "I think at least with this industry, nearshoring is a win regardless," she said. "(Local brands and makers) are trying to compete with price points per units that have been made in China. Bringing those jobs back is a win for the workers in the U.S."

Roslyn Karamoko

Roslyn Karamoko, founder and CEO of Detroit is the New Black, a retailer on Woodward Avenue, said that nearshoring garment production will offer her a chance to diversify her current product line of T-shirts and hoodies.

"We're working with ISAIC to bring that manufacturing home," she said. "We're really excited about that. It has given us an opportunity to expand, moving beyond basics and doing more cut-and-sew pieces."

Karamoko added that the interconnected system being fostered in Detroit can expand "beyond a local narrative," to be an example for the rest of the world. It could show what local fashion manufacturing can look like "when you couple that with an existing brand," she said.

Karamoko, along with other members of the local fashion industry, attributes a collaborative spirit, which includes factories lowering production minimums and local businesses sharing resources, to why making Detroit a central destination for garment manufacturing is plausible. "It's so important that Detroiters are included and involved in access to that opportunity," Lane said. "It cannot be big global companies coming to town and choosing direction of the industry." "It's about cooperation and partnership and being happy when your company colleagues make it and when they do well," Grewal said. "That's kind of our attitude that we're going to make it when we all kind of make it. When Michigan has an (apparel) industry that is recognizable."

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