July 14, 2020
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After working as a bond trader at the Chicago Stock Exchange for eight years, Rob McMillan ’07 took a risk: He left his job and launched Dearborn Denim & Apparel, an American-made apparel manufacturer based in Chicago (the website boasts “quality denim + slight stretch = incomparable comfort”), in 2016. Everything is cut, sewn and crafted at Dearborn Denim’s Chicago factory, using materials sourced from the U.S. We talked with McMillan, a political science major and mathematics minor at Kenyon, about the ins and outs of entrepreneurship, e-commerce and more.
How did you transition from bond trading into entrepreneurship?
I knew I didn’t want to be a bond trader for my whole life. I had only planned on doing it for a couple years. In high school, I started a silk-screening company out of my parents’ basement, making shirts for my high school and that kind of thing. So I thought, what about apparel manufacturing? What would that look like? I realized I could set up an apparel manufacturer for relatively cheap — and the bottom line was that there are all these American-made products that are wildly expensive. It’s the cost of goods sold that gets amplified, four or eight times over, through the traditional apparel supply chain. Combining a manufacturer with an online retailer, I could make jeans from really nice, top-line materials and pay people fair wages, all for $59 a pair.
What is the online retail market like?
We’re competing with everybody else who makes jeans. We’re just doing a better job of it, and that’s where we’re finding success. At least I think we’re doing a better job. We do have two (brick and mortar) stores, but we stand out because we have a fabulous product for a fair price, because it’s straight from the manufacturer to the consumer, through e-commerce.
Was “American-made” always part of the plan?
Yes. Part of what I like about Dearborn Denim is that for a small company, we’ve got a giant payroll. That’s one of the attractions of apparel manufacturing, that it’s a big source of job creation as an industry. I wanted to do that in Chicago, and by using American-made materials you can also promote that as a source of opportunity in the other industries leading up to it, whether it’s weaving the fabric or spinning the yarn. Then there’s the question of supply-chain times — there are just shorter wait times. If I’m getting my materials in the U.S., I don’t have to deal with customs. Oddly enough, with clothes, there’s a lot of hullabaloo about American-made right now. It all can get really political, especially in the comments section on our Facebook page, but we’re just trying to make jeans.