Motor City Denim

Joe Faris is a T-shirt-and-jeans kind of guy. He's originally a Metro Detroit guy, having grown up in the Lathrup Village/Southfield area. He's also kind of a famous guy, having made it to the top six contestants of season five of Project Runway, a reality show that pits fashion designers against each other.

Enter Mark D'Andreta. Over 30 years ago, Mark's father, Tommaso, founded TD Industrial Coverings, a Sterling Heights maker of coveralls for auto industry assembly line robots to keep them clean and free of dust. The elder D'Andreta began his career in the United States as a tailor, after moving from Italy, and had considered starting a line of jeans a few years ago. Mark D'Andreta, who is now president of the company, was looking to diversify his production, especially after being hit hard when the automotive industry faltered last year.

What happens when a well-known fashion designer wants to start a line of denim wear in his hometown community? When he gets put in touch with an automotive supplier who just so happens to have roots in the fashion industry, and nearly all the machines necessary to create that clothing line? And when both those men want to bring an industry, and more jobs, to Detroit?

The Motor City Denim Company happens.

Faris calls it "industrial couture," locally made jeans, t-shirts, accessories, and other items that would appeal to the T-shirt-and-jeans crowd sporting a bit of fashion sense, too.

"I eventually got this sense of, why aren't we doing this here?" Faris says of Metro Detroit. "I had this vision of starting a small factory here, being able to control production, to have a lot more versatility in doing it here. It was something I had wanted to do for many years."

Two backgrounds in fashion

Faris has been designing clothing for decades, having attended the Parsons School of Design in New York after growing up in the Lathrup Village/Southfield area. He began in the fashion industry designing for Bugle Boy, and his resume also includes Ralph Lauren, Pele Pele, Perry Ellis, Schott NYC, and Made In Detroit. He made it to Project Runway two years ago, which helped raise his profile as a designer.

His whole career has focused on designing jeans, t-shirts, leather jackets, and combinations thereof, such as denim dresses. Last year, he and a few other designers and committee members created the "Fashion in Detroit" show; the second annual event was held at Motor City Casino last month.

Working on "Fashion in Detroit" got him thinking about the potential for a fashion industry here. "I saw a want and a desire and a need for an event like this," he says. "In doing so I started to realize on a broader scale that we have a lot of really great, creative, talented people, designers and garment companies, who have nowhere for them to go and get these goods produced. I think we are on the cutting edge of being able to do that."

Not too far away in Sterling Heights, Mark D'Andreta took over TD Industrial Coverings about 15 years ago when his father retired, and started thinking about diversification when the economy and auto industry started declining. D'Andreta explains that the company excels at pattern and design work, and has a quick turn-around time.  If his company gets a call from an assembly line, they can have a new design by the next day, not far off from when a tailor needs to turn around a shirt or suit for someone by morning, he points out.

It didn't take long for Faris and D'Andreta to find each other through a mutual acquaintance, a designer for whom D'Andreta was already doing work. With the exception of a few specialized machines, TD Industrial Coverings had everything in place for Faris to produce his denim-wear right there.

"I thought it would be a great idea," D'Andreta says. "We started designing the line and doing the prototypes and getting everything set for the fashion show."

Faris says that before finding D'Andreta, he had the idea of going to the state or city for money to build his own facility, and hire his people to run the project. "I never thought about it from the standpoint of going to an already existing company and working with their current business model," he says. "Taking an existing factory really was the best way to go about it."

In addition to the diversification, D'Andreta also likes that the family business has come back to its roots. He adds that although he has an interest in fashion because his father was a tailor, he connected with Faris for the business end of the collaboration, and not because he's a closeted fashionista.

"The partnership worked out perfectly," he says. "Joe's a designer, but running a shop -- those are skill sets he didn't have. He brought to us some star power and marketing, and he understood the apparel industry, which we did not. When we formed Motor City Denim Co., it brought all the pieces to us."

Detroit's fashion future

The goal for Motor City Denim Co. is to ramp up production now to have clothes in stores in time for the holidays, an aggressive goal considering that Faris and D'Andreta only met about six months ago, hammering a partnership a mere two months later. D'Andreta expects that the clothing production will outpace the robot covering production, which TD Industrial Coverings continues to make, within three years.

Faris says there's not one group in particular for whom he designs, and he makes several different fits for different audiences. "Men's, women's, young, old -- I think we can capture anyone who wants jeans," he says.

It's also important to both men that they are creating more jobs in the area with their Michigan-made product. Before GM and Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, TD Industrial Coverings had 130 employees, of which it had to lay off nearly 100. The company cut costs where it could and rode the recession out. "It was horrid," D'Andreta says. "For a while, I thought we were going to lose the business." But between the auto industry's resurgence and the company's new partnership with Faris, things are looking more promising for TD Industrial Coverings.
The name, Motor City Denim Co., was not chosen randomly. It's both a declaration of and commitment to place. Taylor-based Arrow Uniform serves as the company's denim-wash vendor, and local screen printers and embroiderers complete the production team. Small touches, a belt loop of seat belt material and American flag-patterned pocket, underscore the line's local origin.

"Michigan is a phenomenal place," D'Andreta says. "We've got great workers. Watching my company get decimated like it did with the decline in automotive, it hurt me personally."

Faris says staying in the Detroit area was essential to creating his own line of clothing. "I was at the point where it was now or never," he says. "I just decided to focus on this and try to do it here."

His goal is to build up Motor City Denim Co., to eventually make it an international company, while capitalizing on the mystique surrounding Detroit. "We are an industrial town," he says. "We get things done. The auto industry being so prevalent here, we have reach all over the world. I want to incorporate our spirit in jeans."

"I think I really captured that with this collection," he continues. "Denim, dresses, corsets, denim and leather mixtures -- I'm taking the area as an inspiration, as an influence on my design work."

Kristin Lukowski covers development news for Metromode and Concentrate. She is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Her previous article was Sacre Bleu, The French Are Here.

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