Mention Detroit to anyone, and the first thing on their mind probably won't be fashion — instead, they'll likely think of automobile factories and assembly lines, Motown legends or even abandoned buildings, a city on the brink of ruin. Whichever version of Detroit comes to mind, it's likely at least partly accurate: The city's varied history and parallel creative and manufacturing sectors have made it a center for continuous transformation and reinvention for decades. And right now, that's happening to its fashion scene.
Last year, Tracy Reese made headlines when she announced she'd opened a studio in Detroit, where she's originally from, to launch her latest venture, Hope for Flowers, a collection with an eye toward responsible design and production. A longtime player in the New York fashion industry — having shown at fashion week, dressed First Ladies and sold at retailers across the country — the designer returned to her hometown specifically out of her concern for manufacturing.
"When I started Tracy Reese [in 1996], we were producing in New York and everything was domestic," she says. But over time, more and more of the production for her namesake line and subsequent sister brands were moved outside of the U.S. "That was the trend — it was becoming more challenging to produce in New York and some of that infrastructure was drying up." Ultimately, Reese says, she produced offshore for around 15 years. "I knew that if I were to remain in the industry, I'd have to be designing more responsibly," she adds.
Reese is a graduate of Detroit's Cass Technical High School, part of the the city's public school system. After completing an elective course in fashion through its Science and Art program, the fashion department's director took notice of Reese's natural talent and suggested she apply to the Parsons School of Design in New York. She ended up receiving a scholarship to the renowned school and because of her advanced portfolio, started her coursework as a sophomore. She landed her first fashion job at a contemporary brand while she was still a student.
In 2018, a year after purchasing a house in Detroit, Reese began to actively consider the city as a location for a new clothing line. "I realized I didn't have to be tethered to New York for all of my work — I could work from virtually anywhere," she recalls, noting that Detroit offered her the chance to focus on her product again. "I don't want to just be creating a textile and emailing it off to a factory and waiting for a sample to come back. I want to be more involved in the process itself."
Reese believes Detroit has a chance at replacing some of what was lost in the decline of New York's Garment District. "I think for people who are sincerely interested in finding ways to produce in the U.S., Detroit could be a truly viable option," she says. "It's an hour-and-fifteen-minute flight to Detroit [from New York] — you can go on a day trip."
The designer admits it's a work in progress — Hope for Flowers' Spring 2020 collection won't be exclusively manufactured in Detroit, for example, due to a lack of fully-developed infrastructure — but her long-term goal is to produce everything in the city and create opportunities for Detroiters.
Reese's move brought more eyeballs to Detroit's already-fledging fashion scene. But many were already familiar with the work of Roslyn Karamoko, a Seattle native who moved to the city in 2013 and founded the renowned boutique Détroit is the New Black.
"It was a really exciting time in [Detroit] and things were changing so rapidly," she says. "I knew that Detroit was really becoming its own sort of brand, but I thought there was sort of a different perspective or narrative that maybe could be represented within that overall city narrative."
Détroit is the New Black began with a simple T-shirt, which Karamoko sold at the city's Eastern Market and at other popular local events. As it gained recognition, she opened a small pop-up in a Midtown space. When that proved to be a success, Karamoko began to invite other local designers, small businesses and artists in, inspiring the retail venture's unique co-op business model. Tracy Reese was one of the first designers to sell there.
By 2016, Détroit is the New Black was given the opportunity to move to a massive 6,000-square-foot space downtown, which provided Karamoko an "opportunity to bring in more partners." The new location became a mixed-use space that housed an art gallery, a record store and even a barbershop. Last year, the flagship moved to a slightly smaller space nearby on Woodward Avenue, where it still stands, alongside other trendy destinations like Madewell, Le Labo and the Shinola Hotel. It still carries Tracy Reese (and Hope for Flowers), as well as other noteworthy Detroit brands like dandy by Nelson Sanders,Deviate, K. Walker, Kenna Nicole and Genusee, which makes eyewear in Flint from recycled water bottles in an effort to offset their use after the city's water crisis.
"I think there's a really robust entrepreneurial startup ecosystem [in Detroit]," Karamoko says. "When you get started, there's a ton of support to help you pop-up and meet different people, and I think that the barrier to entry is definitely lower here." She admits there are limits to being successful as an entrepreneur in a developing city. However, "it's been a blessing to be [in Detroit] and incubate this brand here and have the support of the city for an idea that I just kind of came up with. It's humbling in that way, and it's one of those cities that feels like a city, but sort of a small-town community — I think that's a really special thing."
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That sense of community seems to be a foundational element of the city's fashion industry. It's what inspired designer Loren Hicks to found Michigan Fashion Week and the Michigan Fashion Summit, when she felt "there wasn't an appropriate [local] platform to really showcase what I had done," when she launched her first collection in 2012. "I didn't want to have to go to New York or Chicago to showcase my talent — I wanted to be able to do that right here in my home state."
Hicks started Michigan Fashion Week that very year, with a goal of not only furthering her own brand but also helping other local designers market their collections. Since then, the multi-day event has taken place annually. (In 2020, it took place on Feb. 26 through 29 at Detroit's Masonic Temple.)
Because talent retention is a priority for Hicks, the annual event also focuses on recruitment from fashion programs at colleges around the state. "Michigan has a lot of fashion design programs for college-aged students – so it's [about] talking to those students and making sure they understand they can stay here in Michigan and fulfill their fashion career, instead of having to go to New York or California or Chicago," she explains. That's where the Michigan Fashion Summit comes in: It's a separate, one-day conference offering an array of workshops to educate local fashion professionals about the business side of the industry.
And Michigan has a lot to offer in terms of industry.
Detroit has been the home to a handful of nationally-recognized brands that have remained committed to the city for years. Shinola is one, having built a solid reputation for style and quality since it moved from Dallas to Detroit almost a decade ago.
"Detroit is our home. […] We came here for a reason," Shannon Washburn, CEO and president of Shinola, says. The brand began construction on its watch assembly factory at the College for Creative Studies' Argonaut Building — now the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Creative Design — in 2011. It remains the company's headquarters for watch assembly and leather strap production. Through the College for Creative Studies, Shinola also offers a formal internship program; plus, it has a history of hiring graduates from local colleges.
Last year, the company opened the luxurious Shinola Hotel in downtown Detroit, which "[has] been a real anchor for us and downtown," Washburn explains. "It's established what I feel is one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, that we do – and that's having very meaningful guest relationships. Hospitality, to us, is of the utmost importance."
The other most well-known brand to come out of Detroit, arguably, is Carhartt, famous for its hardy workwear and rugged, working-class appeal.
"Carhartt is about as 'Detroit' as it comes," says Ben Ewy, its vice president of global product design. Founded 131 years ago by Hamilton Carhartt, the company started with two sewing machines in a loft in the city. Today, it has stores around the country and its products are available (and coveted) internationally.
Beyond the heritage utilitarian apparel Carhartt has built its enduring reputation on, Ewy gives a nod to the renewed interest of younger consumers in the company's collaboration with WIP, a European licensee of the brand. "We have a longstanding relationship with WIP. […] They're rooted in our authenticity and they bring a great perspective to a lot of our classic and heritage products," he says. Beyond that, though, "we have great value to what we do — [there's] a real authenticity and durability and I think the younger consumer appreciates functional, purpose-built product that is transparent and does what it says it's going to do."
Carhartt is also committed to giving back to its hometown, through programs like its Annual Day of Giving, when employees are given a day off from work to volunteer with local nonprofits in the community, and a secretive, yet-to-be-announced project on the second floor of its Detroit flagship store. The latter will be unveiled this spring, as will a 13,000 square-foot space on the third floor of that same building dedicated to the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC), which will be used to provide educational programming and training to Detroiters, so they can gain skills in sewing and advanced fashion manufacturing.
While Carhartt doesn't currently manufacture all of its products in Detroit (like Reese, the company cites lack of infrastructure), Ewy says it hopes to make more of its products in the city through ISAIC. "It's pretty cool that [Carhartt] started with two sewing machines in a loft in Detroit and here we are, 131 years later, putting a bunch of sewing machines in a loft in Detroit," he adds.
Reese, in addition to launching Hope for Flowers, sits on ISAIC's board of trustees. She views the organization as an opportunity to help shape the city's fashion industry in responsible ways, at the grassroots level.
She's still dividing her time between Detroit and New York, noting: "New York is incredibly important in terms of market, research, inspiration, meetings and all that. But I realized that there is so much talent in Detroit, and so much excellent real estate — but also a lot of work that needed to be done and a lot of talent that needed to be championed and supported."