Detroit Denim Co. pivots from custom-fit jeans to health care workers

Robin Buckson
The Detroit News

After Michigan's stay-at-home order was issued, "everything just stopped," said Detroit Denim Co. co-owner Eric Yelsma.

That's when the company on Franklin Street in Detroit knew it had to change business quickly if it wanted to survive. Enter the idea of manufacturing face shields for health care workers, who were desperate for supplies to stay safe when the coronavirus struck in Michigan in March.

"It was a pretty scary couple days while we saw that happen and wondered ... 'What, then, do we do?' We became aware of the needs that were out there. Honestly, we had about, in the course of two days, pivoted from what we were doing to starting with the face shields."

Industrial sewing technician Kaila Redfield, 24, of Lansing sews a disposable medical gown at Detroit Denim Co. in Detroit on Thursday. The company has pivoted to producing medical gowns and other supplies for Detroit medical facilities.

The company worked with other local groups to make face masks and decided to focus on face shields. They also worked with Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center on Cass to produce hospital gowns in a move Yelsma described as "basically supplying your neighbors with protective gear."

The work kept workers busy and also addressed immediate needs of the pandemic.

Now, as the state makes plans to reopen, the company will provide restaurants and small businesses with protective equipment.

We're doing a lot of things; we are scrambling like crazy but our existing business as we know it is ... we call it hibernating," Yelsma said. "It's asleep, it's not doing anything and we don't know when it will wake up.

"So until then, we have all of this to focus our effort and resources and blood, sweat and tears on."

Ian Dixon, 36, of Dearborn folds and packages the disposable medical gowns Thursday. They'll go to Detroit medical facilities, from hospitals to nursing homes.

Yelsma said the company loves making jeans and called it "a personal point of pride." But stretching their abilities to accommodate a generational crisis is equally important, he said.

"This is every bit as meaningful to know you're helping people that need it so badly. "