Detroit Denim Co. partners with multimedia artist Paul “FFTY” Johnson on limited-edition denim run

When Eric Yelsma co-founded Detroit Denim Co. in 2010 with his wife, Brenna Lane, he had no way of knowing whether the concept of selling jeans made in Detroit would be successful. In the wake of an economic downturn, he was willing to take the risk.

“I was let go of a job I had back in that global recession, and I ended up deciding to do something I liked, rather than something I thought was secure and smart,” Yelsma recalls.

A decade later, another global crisis — this time, a pandemic — gave Yelsma a new reason to reconsider his career as Detroit Denim closed its doors to the public in response to government shelter-in-place orders, their shop quickly pivoting to produce personal protective equipment instead of jeans as part of a local effort to mitigate PPE shortages.

“We questioned whether we wanted to continue once this pandemic ended, and my business partner and wife, Brenna (Lane), and I had some pretty in-depth talks. And we both agreed that we wanted to continue Detroit Denim — but in a way that we felt good about,” Yelsma says.

Since closing their retail store and reopening the brand’s production facility last May in a new location in Detroit’s Littlefield neighborhood, Yelsma and Lane have done just that. After transitioning to a custom made-to-order model inspired by the automotive industry’s just-in-time manufacturing practices, the pair were able to incorporate lean manufacturing principles into the company’s daily operations and eliminate overproduction in an industry known for its increasing textile waste.

But cleaning up their production practices wasn’t enough for Yelsma and Lane, who were also seeking better ways to connect with the city they loved as Detroit returned to something a little closer to “normal.” 

In February, as the city forged ahead into a new reality defined not only by the challenges of an ongoing pandemic but also the uncertainty of rapidly increasing inflation, Yelsma and Lane had an idea: why not support Detroit’s artists by incorporating their work into the brand’s apparel in a new denim series?

Finding the right fit

According to Yelsma, turning the vision of an art-centric jeans series into a reality wasn’t difficult in a place like Detroit, where a culture of creativity and collaboration has been fostered for years. 

“Detroit, I think, has more artists and more skill than most cities. The amount of soul that’s been [here] for decades — nothing has changed. We don’t have to look far to find really good artists,” Yelsma says.

Paul "Ffty" Johnson. Photo supplied / Detroit Denim Co.In fact, for the first run of Detroit Denim Co.’s artist series, Yelsma and Lane didn’t have to look further than the fabric studio next door, where multimedia artist and Detroit native Paul “FFTY” Johnson frequently worked on projects incorporating embroidery onto textiles and canvas.

Having learned the art of chain stitching nearly a year earlier after meeting Jacob Down of Low Stock Clothing, who is Detroit Denim’s machine technician, at the studio, along with an impressive resume that included acceptance to Detroit’s Murals in the Market in 2016 and a residency at the Red Bull House of Art in 2015, Johnson seemed like the perfect artist to feature on the company’s first run of limited edition, artist-focused jeans.

As a creative that specializes in multimedia work that frequently utilizes textiles, the idea of collaborating on a limited run of handmade jeans featuring his artwork was also appealing for Johnson, who says he values the collaborative spirit that runs deep in the city — and at Detroit Denim.

“There's so many fingerprints and identities that get you to where that spot is, you know, like it's not even your own — it’s a collaboration with everyone. And I feel like us here [at Detroit Denim], we're comfortable to admit that, you know, it's not like ‘my’ time to shine or ‘their’ pair of jeans. It's a collaboration with both,” Johnson says.

Eric Yelsma and Paul "Ffty" Johnson. Photo by Erin Marie Miller.From a spark to a flame

For Johnson and the co-owners of Detroit Denim, deciding on the right motif to embroider onto the limited run of jeans was critical not only for defining the look of the run, but also for producing the jeans within a realistic timeframe — a challenge Johnson had to keep in mind when developing samples during the planning stages of the run.

Beyond the constraints of aesthetics and time, Johnson also faced the unique challenge of finding a design that could be created, and recreated, on the vintage Singer 114 machine he would use to embroider his chain-stitched artwork by hand onto every pair of jeans in the run that sold.

“I tried to figure out what designs work best on this machine […] It goes in a straight line, but it works in curves. So me, as an artist, I'm trying to think not as a fabric designer, but as an artist with spatial awareness. So it's not what is easiest and quickest for me, but it's like a simplification of what a line can do,” Johnson says.

Ultimately, Johnson and the co-owners of Detroit Denim settled on the concept of flames — a motif that not only worked with the machine’s configuration, but also conveyed a classic aesthetic that complemented Detroit Denim’s old-school quality craftsmanship.

“It took a lot of tries, and proximity is what allowed that to happen,” Yelsma says, explaining that being able to collaborate with Johnson on-site facilitated a process that would have otherwise been tedious, if not impossible, had the same design work been outsourced or sent overseas.

Cut from a different cloth

The final look of the “Torched” run, which launched May 17 and is limited to six pairs of jeans at $395 each available on the Detroit Denim Co. website until May 27 or when they run out, features of a choice of chain-stitched flames in two color palettes — hot (red, orange and yellow) or cold (blue, green and purple) set against black Japanese selvedge denim (a higher-quality, typically harder-to-produce type). Each pair will be made to order in Detroit in the customer’s preferred size and fit, with the flames embroidered by Johnson himself in his studio. (At press time, four pairs were already sold from the run, with two pairs still available.)

For Johnson, whose work has been shown in places like New York, and Melbourne, Australia, initiatives like the new denim run present an opportunity to connect the world to Detroit’s art scene without its artists having to leave the city to find recognition.

“I don't want to export Detroit to New York or L.A. — I want to bring L.A. and New York here,” Johnson says.

While the price point might be a bit higher than some customers are used to for a pair of jeans in an era of fast fashion, Johnson says he views the limited denim run as a way of redefining value based on quality and craftsmanship — a concept that extends beyond Detroit’s borders.

“This is just a great quality that I don’t think people are used to. They’re used to the fast fashion; they’re used to Marshalls and Amazon. So the idea is not necessarily a Detroiter idea, but just a restatement of sale value,” Johnson says.

Because of the time it takes to produce one pair of jeans at Detroit Denim Co. (each made-to-order pair requires 65 steps to complete, in addition to at least two additional work hours for embroidering the jeans in the “Torched” run), customers should expect delivery to take between four to six weeks — a wait that the team hope will be worth it for custom denim collectors and art lovers due to the run’s inherent uniqueness.

“There is nothing like this in the world. You can find a pair of jeans with flames — but you could not find a custom-made pair of jeans, made anywhere, with this artwork and this motif,” Yelsma says.

Detroit Denim Co. Photo Supplied.
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Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.