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Handmade: Forecast -- Detroit the new apparel mecca

Jocelynn Brown
The Detroit News
Benson Roberts III stands in the showroom of the Detroit Fabric Company in Detroit.

Benson Roberts III is a man who knows his way around the fabric and fashion industries.

And, after 17 years of honing his craft as a fabric store owner and apparel manufacturer in Austin Texas, where he designed his own collection (Atelier Benson), he doesn't hesitate to share insightful thoughts about his profession.

Born in Garden City, Roberts moved back to Detroit in April, and just a couple months later opened Detroit Fabric Company, a three-fold operation located at 4381 Central in southwest Detroit. "We sell retail fabric, we do wholesale and sourcing, and we do product development for designers." 

And, if his predictions are correct, Detroit is headed toward becoming a major source for fashion and apparel manufacturing.

"The apparel market is wanted here," he said. "There are fewer walls to break down. The menswear and swimwear market want the apparel market here. I think the apparel market will be the new auto industry. We could create 5,000 jobs. New York is bleeding out, and L.A. is beginning to hemorrhage. We have property and land here. Texas was not manufacturers. It was hard to find people who could sit and sew all day."

Shimmering fabrics hang in the showroom at the Detroit Fabric Company in Detroit.

Roberts, 55, describes Detroit Fabric Company as "a high-end apparel fabric store with affordable prices." He said, "I have things that are $7 a yard that should be $30 a yard. And, I have some that are $85 a yard. They're digitally printed or hand-dyed imported French and Italian silk fabrics that normally would be between $285-$325 per yard online. I got an amazing buy, and I passed along the price savings."

He "hand-pick(s) and curate(s)" every piece of fabric that comes into the store. "I get 95 percent from the fabric district in Los Angeles. The majority of fabric in our country, whether it's in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, or Detroit, is sent to Los Angeles, so I get it off the ships," he stated. "Over the years, I've made it up to the top table. I work with the men behind the names and stores that finance the fashion industry."

And, before the fabric enters his store, it's been put to the test for strength and content. When shopping for fabric, Roberts does "a high-heel" test if the fabric is for a full-length dress or gown, because it could get stepped on in a large crowd. If the heel pierces the fabric he won't purchase it. He also does burn and chemical tests to make sure it's what it's being sold as. The fabrics he purchases are "European dress width that's always 60-72 inches wide."

During the next 6-12 months, he plans to have African fabrics hanging in the store, and "not just waxed prints." He said, "We're going to have mudcloth, kente fabric, akwete cloth, Ukara cloth, Aso Oke, and Adira. I've reached out to African manufacturers. We will probably be the premier source for African-made African textiles here in Detroit. I really think Detroit is the place for all that to come from. That should be in Detroit's crown. We should be the place North America turns to for a source of African fabrics."

In addition to 4,000 fabrics, Detroit Fabric Company also sells appliques, trims, buttons, and supplies for making bras and corsets. And, sewing lessons, ranging from basic to couture, will also be available, beginning Nov. 15. The fee will be roughly $30 an hour, depending on the class. 

Roberts hopes his business will attract everyone -- "from someone who wants to make their first pillow to companies who need 100,000 yards. And, there are apparel companies that will need that amount," he stated.

Benson Roberts III, left, talks with apprentice Christian LeRone in the workshop of the Detroit Fabric Company in Detroit.

Working with him are five individuals pursuing a career in the fashion industry. "They become junior partners," said Roberts. "Among them are two apprentices who are learning the business from the bottom up. They came to me wanting fashion knowledge. I'm helping them develop their own collections and brands. We're also looking at partnering with some of the sewers that were let go at Shinola."

Roberts found the more than century-old building, which had been used as a creamery until the '70s and later by several auto companies, "after months and months of searching in both the suburbs and the city, with a preference for the city," he said.

"I finally found a space big enough to fit the fabric and my other businesses. Detroit has a unique spirit for me, and coming back to the city proper was coming home. Nothing else was going to be home."  

I asked what he thinks of the noticeable changes taking place in downtown and its surrounding areas. He said, "I think the changes are astounding. I think the people of Detroit deserve an astounding place to live and play in. I think it's beautiful -- but, I am concerned with what gentrification is doing. I lived in the Cass Corridor in the mid '80s, and I don't know where the people who have been displaced have gone!" 

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or Facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Detroit Fabric Company at detroitfabriccompany@gmail.com, or on Facebook. 

Fabric and materials on display at the Detroit Fabric Company.