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Creating a fashion industry out of old auto supplier factories

With the New Year, Michigan Radio began a new series called, "What's Working." Every week, we'll take a look at an idea that's helping to improve the state's economy and our lives.

Today, we hear from Joe Faris, founder of Motor City Denim. When the auto industry downsized, auto suppliers were affected. Many of them lost business, got rid of employees, or even went into bankruptcy. What’s left are the suppliers' factories, and a highly-skilled workforce. Faris is working to mold the infrastructure of former, or smaller, auto suppliers into one that can support a fashion industry. Motor City Denim is now a subsidiary of TD Industrial Coverings. TD Industrial Coverings used to only manufacture protective coverings for the robots used to assemble cars. Now, TD industrial is getting ready to also make jeans.

You can listen to the interview here:


Before the collapse of the auto industry in Michigan, TD Industrial Coverings manufactured protective coverings for robots used to assemble cars. After losing much of their business due to the shrinking of the Detroit-area auto manufacturers, TD Industrial Coverings branched out. Through a partnership with Joe Faris, Motor City Denim was born, and now TD Industrial Covering’s Sterling Heights warehouse is producing clothing for both robots and people.

With Motor City Denim, Faris is hoping to show others how the manufacturing resources of the Detroit area can be used to produce other goods. “There is just a huge infrastructure in the Detroit area because of the Big Three,” says Faris, “There’s talent, there’s a tremendous amount of suppliers that supply products to the auto industry, and TD Industrial Covers is one of those suppliers.”

For Faris, the collapse of the auto industry provided the area with an opportunity to explore other possibilities. Faris says, “When the industry went down, they realized that they basically had all their eggs in one basket, in one market… And I think that’s kind of what happened to all of the Detroit area and Michigan in general.”

Whether people recognize it or not, Faris says the artistic talent displayed by the designers and engineers of automobiles is a very valuable resource for other industries in the area. “It takes an incredible amount of talent to actually design the cars, and that’s a very artistic industry,” says Faris, “When you look at the talents of people here, the pool of talents of people here, of engineers, of designers, it’s all here. They’re all here. And so, if you were doing something on the scale that we’re trying to do, as far as developing a garment industry and fashion, you have all of those creative people and talented people here already.”

In addition to trying to create a garment industry in Detroit, Faris is hoping to set an example through his choice of suppliers. More than simply making his product in the United States, Faris is dedicated to exclusively using products made in the United States for all his clothing. “My rivets that we’re purchasing are made in U.S.A., the fabric we’re buying is made in U.S.A.,” he says, “If there was a factory somewhere in Michigan that was making fabric, or weaving fabric, we would be utilizing that.”

Similar to the way the auto industry created a need for local suppliers, Faris says that a Michigan garment industry would create a market for Michigan-based businesses producing goods needed to manufacture clothing. “I guess the best way to describe it would be spill-off,” Faris says, “So as that industry grows, you’ll have other industries coming around and supporting it. You’ll have fabric people coming in and companies that will want to start making fabrics here, and zippers, and accessories, and labels, and all the other stuff that it takes to support that industry.”

As for how his experience as a contestant on Project Runway has influenced his approach to Motor City Denim, Faris says the mantra of the show’s fashion consultant, Tim Gunn, continues to serve him well. “It’s Tim’s catchphrase, you know: make it work,” says Faris, “We have so much here that we can make it work.”

Imagining his current endeavor as a challenge on Project Runway, Faris jokes, “If somebody said, ‘Move to Detroit and make a pair of jeans,’ there’s nobody making jeans here. I think it made me believe that I’m up to the challenge and we can do it.” 

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.