TD Industrial Coverings in Sterling Heights, Michigan, uses industrial sewing equipment to make nylon coverings for the robots used in auto assembly plants.
But when the three major American auto makers nearly went bankrupt in 2008, President Mark D'Andreta had to lay off more than 75 per cent of his workers.
“After that experience I never want to go through that again,” said D’Andreta. “So we decided to take what it is we do really well and try to map it outside of the automotive industry which, as a cut and sew shop, led us to apparel.”
With help from a business partner, D'Andreta retooled his factory floor and launched Motor City Denim, a clothing line of jeans and other urban apparel that styles itself as “industrial couture.”
He is among a small but growing number of Michigan business people venturing into the garment trade as a way to diversify beyond the auto sector.
Today, D’Andreta divides his factory floor space to create a distinction between his automotive and apparel production lines.
“We actually move sewers in and out depending on work load and how much volume we’ve got," he said. "It’s that balancing of the resources that is allowing us to really get a diversification effort [and] to get into the apparel business."
Yelena Gaziyan was one of the lucky few who kept her job at TD Industrial during the auto industry downturn.
These days she is interviewing applicants for seamstress jobs but says the company is having trouble finding skilled workers.
Gaziyan says she has more job security today because the company has work in more than one sector.
“It’s an opportunity to have more customers,” said Gaziyan. “More jobs, more workers, so it’s better for us.”
And better for Michigan, says Eleanor Fuchs, an economic development planner who helped launch the Michigan Garment Industry Council in 2011.
The Council helps small garment operations across the state connect with each other to develop their business.
Fuchs says auto workers who were laid off in Michigan’s auto industry downturn are now being retrained for the state’s growing garment sector.
But she adds the garment industry needs to be one of many sectors that eventually lead to the diversification of Michigan’s economy.
“Those that are involved are incredibly committed to the revitalization of Michigan,” said Fuchs. “They want to see this succeed. They can see that it’s not the answer but that it’s part of the answer for the state as a whole.”
Michigan’s native clothing designers agree.
Bonnie Foley is founder of Christian LaRue, an upscale fashion label based in the affluent town of Birmingham north of Detroit.
She concedes that Michigan’s garment industry doesn’t employ many workers today but believes apparel manufacturing could one day provide more jobs in the state than many other non-automotive industries.
“We have the music industry, Motown. But that doesn’t really bring any jobs to anyone. So the only viable industry right now that I see growing all around me is the garment industry,”said Foley.
It’s unclear how many jobs have been created by Michigan’s burgeoning garment sector.
The industry includes family owned sheep farms and textile mills in the more industrial northern part of the state, as well as pattern makers, cut and sew operations, and fashion designers based around Detroit.
Eleanor Fuchs says apparel manufacturing accounts for less than $5 million of Michigan’s economy.
But she says the state wants to rebrand itself, eventually, as a manufacturing center for clothing made in the United States, and it plans to get there one stitch at a time.