When Dearborn Denim first burst onto the business scene in 2016, it was a novelty. A clothing manufacturer making jeans right here in the city was not something Chicagoans were used to, or even expecting. But since then Dearborn Denim has exploded in popularity and has continued to successfully build its brand.
Founder Robert McMillan is an unlikely entrepreneur: he started his career as a bond trader and had no prior business experience. Below, he speaks about what sets Dearborn Denim apart, why he kept it local, and future plans for the business.
Tell me about yourself. What did you do before starting Dearborn Denim? Why did you decide to enter the denim/apparel industry?
Before starting Dearborn Denim I was a bond trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. I didn’t love trading. I knew I wanted to start my own business and I knew I liked making things from my time as a home brewer. I had started a T shirt printing business in high school, so I decided to look into apparel manufacturing. Went deep down that rabbit hole for a couple years in my off hours from work and came out with the conviction that you could manufacturer a well made pair of jeans, use fabulous materials, pay fair wages, and sell them directly to customers for a great price. I wanted that product and that company to exist, so I thought other people would as well. Three years in now and haven’t regretted a thing. Love the work and the folks I work with.
Jeans are a tried and true article of clothing. What niche did you see in the market that Dearborn Denim fills?
$200 designer jeans. $20 fall apart jeans with questionable labor practices. Not a whole lot in the middle there. We have customers from all over looking for a good pair of jeans that they feel good wearing and can feel good about wearing. One day I hope to have a cut for everyone.
Your tagline is "Made in Chicago. Paying fair wages." Can you explain how you came to realize that you could keep your entire business in Chicago and still be successful?
Traditional retail model is inefficient. 80 to 90 percent of the final retail price has nothing to do with the direct cost of goods sold. It is primarily markups (from manufacturer to brand to retailer to customer) to cover expenses and profits at each step. We are able to incur a higher cost of goods sold as a percentage of each pair sold because we go direct to customers though our website or through our stores. That lets us provide a better product with better materials and pay better wages for a product at that price point. This meant I could manufacture in my home town of Chicago. Having local manufacturing has significant benefits which help balance the significantly higher direct labor costs when compared to Bangladesh or Vietnam.
Since you started Dearborn Denim in 2016, what kind of reception have you found in Chicago? Have you been surprised?
Amazingly positive in Chicago and outside of Chicago. A majority of our customers live outside of Illinois! We have happy customers in all 50 states, and a handful of internationals.
If there was one thing you want people to know about owning an apparel business, and denim specifically, what would it be?
Don’t plan on taking very many days off.
What are your plans for the company in 2019 and beyond?
Our plan never really changes. How can we make better jeans and provide better service? Do that and our amazing customers will continue to support us. We do have ambitions to grow from a small apparel manufacturer to a large apparel manufacturer. We will be opening 2 new stores and expanding our factory in 2019. If we keep our heads down and sleeves up, I think we will be doing more of the same in 2020 and beyond; make good jeans, give customers a great experience and hope to grow some more.