EAST GARFIELD PARK — The idea behind Rob McMillan's startup was simple, but not widely considered: most jeans don't last long enough.
"The average American throws out 68 pounds of clothing every year, and that's not an accident," McMillan said. "Jeans are made so that they last for a few wears, then get thrown out so people will buy more."
McMillan had another model in mind, and this year, he put it to the test with the founding of Dearborn Denim. In a modest factory at 3333 W. Harrison St., McMillan and a small team are pumping out pants with the trademark "all day denim."
Dearborn Denim launched an online shopping portal last week, and McMillan is in early talks to start selling his product to outlets and department stores around the city. Depending on the demand, he said, his company may branch out to other apparel, like belts and shirts.
But for now, they're laser-focused on perfecting one item: ladies' jeans.
Sometime in 2014, after McMillan had spent more than five years working as a bond trader, it was his wife, Katy, who gave him the idea to branch out into his own venture.
"She'd get a nice pair of designer jeans, and after a couple washes, wrinkles and ripples would start to appear on them," McMillan said. "You'd put them on in the morning, and they'd start sagging by lunch. So that's where this idea of 'all day denim' came from."
He spent the next two years raising money, sketching out his brand and building manufacturing equipment, working nights on the trading floor and leaving little time for sleep.
By spring 2016, when he secured his factory and started to hire his staff, his work was already paying off.
One of McMillan's first hires, Vigneswaran Rajagopal, had spent more than two decades working in large garment factories in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh before emigrating to Chicago.
When Rajagopal saw the fabric he'd be working with, he said, he was immediately impressed.
McMillan custom-orders massive rolls of fabric from a factory in Georgia, which can modify its denim recipe by request.
"A lot of times you look at fabric from China or India, and you can tell it was made cheaply," Rajagopal said. "But I could see real firmness and the stretchability of this [custom-made] fabric, and no runs or defects."
The secret, McMillan said, is leaving a material called rayon out of the denim recipe. Rayon has been used as a cheaper substitute for cotton, but it doesn't hold up as well over time.
With the help of four seamstresses, the denim gets cut, pressed, sewn, washed and stamped with a leather patch sporting Chicago's iconic six-pointed star.
McMillan said he's proud of the made-in-Chicago label, but it shouldn't be at the heart of his brand's appeal.
"Yes, we want people to be able to buy something they know is an American product made with quality and integrity," he said. "But we don't just want people to buy jeans because they're from Chicago, we want people to buy them because they're proud that the best jeans in the world are made in their city."
Sales for the $70 jeans are off to a sluggish start, McMillan said, but so far everyone who's gotten a pair has offered rave reviews.
But the best review of all was his first.
"My wife got the very first sample, and she loved it," he said. "That was more than a year ago, and she still wears them all the time. And they've held up great."
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