MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The city of Detroit is still feeling the glow from a Chrysler commercial unveiled during this year's Super Bowl.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
Unidentified Man: What does this city know about luxury? Hmm? What does a town that's been to hell and back know about the finer things in life? Well, I'll tell you, more than most.
BLOCK: Many in Detroit say that commercial perfectly captures the spirit of Detroit and its history with the auto industry.
(Soundbite of TV ad)
EMINEM (Rapper): This is the Motor City and this is what we do.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: But business and government leaders say for Detroit to survive, it has to do something beside build cars, as NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.
SONARI GLINTON: In recent months, the U.S. auto industry has shown signs of a resurgence. Ford and GM are posting profits and there's Chrysler with its new cars and that Eminem commercial. But nearly everyone says for Michigan to thrive, companies need to think about something other than cars.
Here's Michael Finney. He heads Michigan's Economic Development Corporation.
Mr. MICHAEL FINNEY (CEO, Michigan Economic Development Corporation): Not to suggest that they should ignore their current specialties. In fact, I would encourage them, especially now, since automotive is making a very nice comeback, to stay focused there, but to not make that the only area that they commit resources to.
GLINTON: It's not hard to encourage auto suppliers to try to think beyond the cars. The memory of the near collapse and government bailout of the auto industry is still very fresh.
Mr. MARK D'ANDRETA (President, TD Industrial Coverings): It was like being in a lifeboat.
GLINTON: That is Mark D'Andreta. He's the president of TD Industrial Coverings, just north of Detroit, an auto supplier.
Mr. D'ANDRETA: And every Friday I got to look at somebody, you know, and say, OK, I got to throw you into the icy water.
GLINTON: D'Andreta went from 130 workers at his plant to 30. They've been hiring more workers and business has picked up. He showed me around the factory.
Mr. D'ANDRETA: This protects the robot itself from the environment that it's in. I'll lift up and show you, for example.
GLINTON: D'Andreta's company makes protective covers for car assembly line robots - robot clothes. Apparently robots, like humans, have delicate parts. And they need to keep their delicates protected with clothes, especially in a messy factory.
Mr. D'ANDRETA: Paint can collect and dirt and dust can collect and it will fall onto the painted car, and that would be a problem. They would have to repaint the vehicle.
GLINTON: Until recently, 95 percent of D'Andreta's business was in automotive.
Mr. D'ANDRETA: I didn't want to be beholden to one industry like that. So we made the decision that we needed to reach out and try to take what we do really well and map it outside of automotive.
GLINTON: D'Andreta thought, why not make clothes for robots and people? D'Andreta needed a partner to help translate robot fashion to people fashion. He turned to Joe Faris, a reality TV contestant.
(Soundbite of show, "Project Runway")
Ms. HEIDI KLUM (Host, Model): Joe, you're out.
Mr. JOE FARIS (Fashion Designer): And I have to say, when I got off the show, I was ready to get off the show. I had had enough.
GLINTON: Joe Faris is a former contestant on cable's "Project Runway," a fashion design competition. He says once he got his auf wiedersehen from model host Heidi Klum, he was looking for a place in his hometown of Detroit to make the clothes he loves - blue jeans.
Mr. FARIS: The jean captures what Detroit is. We could dress up the jean all we want, but there's a production element of it. And that's where I felt like we could do this here.
(Soundbite of factory)
GLINTON: At the factory where they make robot clothes, Mark D'Andreta and Joe Faris will make jeans. Stiff, dark blue, high quality dress jeans inspired by the Motor City.
Mr. D'ANDRETA: The center back belt loop is a seatbelt. There's the wheel rivet - it looks like a wheel rim.
GLINTON: Their jeans go on sale for $150 next month. Mark D'Andreta says he hopes to bring on other designers. He'll still make robot clothes, but he wants to make people fashion 50 percent of the business in five years. That way, if the auto industry collapses again, at least he'll have another leg to stand on.
Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Michigan is encouraging companies to look beyond the auto industry to help the state thrive. So one supplier who specializes in making protective cloth coverings for the robots used in auto plants is expanding into the fashion world — producing blue jeans inspired by the Motor City.
Detroit is struggling to revive its once-dominant auto industry. But if one businessman has his way, the Motor City could soon be known for a different kind of sleek line — fashionable blue jeans, made with the same technology used to clothe robots.
This tale of transformation begins with Mark D'Andreta, a tailor's son who runs a company that for years has fed off the auto industry. TD Industrial Coverings makes protective "clothing" for the robots that are used to make cars.
Apparently robots, like humans, have delicate parts. The machines need to keep the oil, dust and grime away in order to function properly.
Until recently, 95 percent of D'Andreta's robot-clothing business was in the automotive arena. But then the car business crashed and he had to slash his workforce by 100 people, to just 30.
"It almost took us out completely," D'Andreta says. "So, we made the decision that we needed to reach out to take what we do really well and map it outside of automotive."
The company's strength is that it can make patterns and prototypes for garments very quickly. And D'Andreta has a love for fashion — his father, who started the company more than 25 years ago, had been the chief tailor at a department store in Detroit. So, D'Andreta began thinking about making clothes for people, too.
A Partner From 'Project Runway'
D'Andreta needed a partner to help translate robot fashion into fashion for people. So, he turned to Joe Faris, a former contestant on Project Runway, the cable TV fashion design competition.
Faris was looking for a place in his hometown of Detroit to make the clothes he loves — blue jeans. So, he and D'Andreta joined forces and established Motor City Denim Co.
"The jean captures what Detroit is," Faris says. "We can dress up the jean all we want, but there is a production element of it. And that's where I felt like we could do this here."
At the factory where TD Industrial Coverings makes robot clothes, workers are making stiff, dark blue dress jeans inspired by the Motor City. The jeans will go on sale in March for $150 a pair at retail stores.
A New Fashion Capital?
Faris says Detroit has the design, engineers and production expertise to make it a fashion capital.
D'Andreta says he's hoping to attract other designers with ideas. He hopes he can provide them with a space and the facilities to make all sorts of garments on large and small scales.
He says he'll still make robot clothes. But D'Andreta hopes people fashion will account for 50 percent of TD Industrial Coverings' business in five years. That way, if the auto industry falls again, he'll have another leg to stand on.