Updated: Feb 23
Detroit is not only home to business opportunities in the fashion industry, but also home to some of today’s most respected designers, and is a hub for fashion talent.
Growing Opportunities for Fashion Businesses in Detroit
Nightlife isn’t the only thing that’s been flourishing in Detroit in recent years. We have seen many venues and high-quality restaurants grow in Detroit's entertainment sector in recent years, providing an ideal nightlife hangout scene for influencers. Detroit has also been home to a booming fashion industry, and in this post, we’ll break down everything you need to know about fashion in Motown.
According to McKinsey’s State of Fashion 2019, the global fashion industry was valued at $2.5 trillion in 2017. But in the wake of economic unpredictability and the 2018 rezoning of New York City’s famous Garment District that relaxed a 31-year-old rule requiring landlords to lease space to garment makers, the underpinnings of the industry have begun to shift. While the company says major cities with mature markets are still relevant, McKinsey’s FashionScope — a separate report that analyzes market data down to the city level – predicts a looming era of disruption where "70 percent of the top growth cities for women's apparel sales by 2025 [will be] emerging market cities."
Beyond sales, opportunities in fashion also extend to manufacturing - an industry Detroit is no stranger to. According to a report from the U.S. Joint Economic Committee, the apparel manufacturing industry employed roughly 123,000 workers in the U.S. in 2018.
While Michigan’s industry remains humble compared to places like New York, the number of apparel manufacturing establishments in the state has nearly doubled - up from 72 in 2009 to 120 in 2018. The number of people employed in the state’s apparel manufacturing and cut-and-sew sectors has also increased from 793 in 2009 to 1,471 in 2018, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cal McNeil, program manager for the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), a nonprofit that works to connect its members with manufacturing options in the U.S., says he made several visits to Detroit in 2018 to explore the city’s potential with CEO Steven Kolb and director of education and professional development Sara Kozlowski. Those visits left a positive impression.
“Detroit is one of the only other markets […] that I feel has the strength to become a really strong player within fashion manufacturing in the United States,” McNeil says. Echoing a common objection of the American fashion industry, he says that the U.S. lacks skilled fashion manufacturing workers. “After that [first] trip, we thought Detroit was one of those cities that had a much more skilled workforce.”
While Detroit is garnering interest from others in the industry regarding its fashion sector potential, the most credible organization that seems to have an eye on the city right now is the CFDA.
Ensuring manufacturing skills translate to fashion requires training with an eye toward the future - principles Jennifer Guarino is well-acquainted with. The former vice president of manufacturing at Shinola has worked in fashion manufacturing for 30 years and is now CEO and chair of the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center in Detroit.
Guarino says Carhartt, the Metro Detroit-based work apparel company, recently donated equipment and a 12,000-square-foot facility above their flagship store on Cass Avenue to ISAIC, which Carhartt is building out in kind.
Once renovations are complete, Guarino says the facility will be used by ISAIC to “train people not only in traditional skills, but also skills that are going to be required for advanced manufacturing - things that include robotics and automation.”
Getting to Know Detroit’s Latest Fashion Trends
Retail is another area of Detroit’s fashion industry that is benefitting from restructuring. Amid the recent retail meltdown of 2017, which saw many brick-and-mortar retailers closing up shop, Seattle native Roslyn Karamoko challenged shifting consumer trends favoring online shopping and opened Détroit is the New Black on Woodward Avenue in 2016 after experimenting with pop-up versions of the store.
Armed with a B.A. in fashion merchandising from Howard University and experience as a retail consultant in Singapore, Karamoko says, “The idea was always to have this almost co-op model, renting out blocks of space to different brands. […] But I found that some small businesses couldn’t afford that rent.”
Dedicated to creating opportunities for emerging designers, Karamoko recently partnered with Pure Michigan Business Connect to launch a year-long accelerator, offering local brands a chance to test their products on the market for free.
One of the most recent brands accepted to the program is Deviate, founded by sisters Cassidy and Kelsey Tucker. The pair describes their line as “edgy feminine,” emphasizing that all of their products are American-made, ethically sourced and manufactured in Detroit. “One of our core goals was to redefine fashion by empowering people, and we do that in a couple of ways,” Cassidy says. “One is through the clothing itself. […] The other way is really being part of the community and supporting that community.”
Part of fulfilling that mission includes mentoring fashion interns from creative director Kelsey’s alma mater, Wayne State University. Another facet includes offering much-needed services to other small brands, like garment dyeing – a science Kelsey learned while at WSU.
Cassidy recalls, “Other brands approached us like, ‘Hey, we need this, can you do this for us?” She says Kelsey’s specialized knowledge enabled them to fill a regional industry gap they were previously unaware of. Since Deviate began offering the service in October 2019, the company has already dyed over 1,000 garments for seven local and national brands as of January 2020. Cassidy adds, “We are currently fundraising, and with a new investment plan to double our capacity by [the second quarter of] 2020.”
Having each lived in places like Los Angeles and Australia, the sisters say there’s nowhere else like Detroit. Adamant that the key to bringing the city’s fashion industry to the next level is building a supportive community with diverse talent and style, Cassidy says, “The ideas are here. The talent is here. It's just a matter of bridging that gap – and working together towards it.”
Detroit-Based Fashion Designers Making an Impact
Detroit is not only home to business opportunities in the fashion industry, but also home to some of today’s most respected designers, and is a hub for fashion talent. Tracy Reese, for example, is an acclaimed designer and hometown fashion icon of Detroit. Reese, who serves on the boards of both CFDA and ISAIC, is a Detroit native who attended Cass Technical High School. As a student, she took advantage of the school’s fashion program and compiled a portfolio so impressive she was awarded a full scholarship to Parsons School of Design. She is an ardent believer in creating opportunities for arts education. “I’m hoping the day will come again when there’s arts education in [Detroit] schools that’s accessible to everyone, and that we’ll have a budget again that supports the arts - that supports fashion,” Reese says.
Following the natural progression of a young designer carving out a serious career, Reese moved to New York to attend Parsons. After graduation, she worked under designers like Perry Ellis before creating her own label with boutiques in New York City and Tokyo. Last year, Reese’s career came full circle when she decided to divide her time between New York and Detroit, bringing her talent and expertise back home to launch a new collection.
Working from her light-filled studio in the Elevator Building, Reese created Hope for Flowers with an emphasis on sustainability and local production. The line is currently available at Anthropologie and Détroit is the New Black.
“The advantage that we have building this industry in Detroit now is that we’re building it with the knowledge of where our industry needs to go …” Reese says. “It’s challenging to restructure [around] a growing concern to become sustainable. It is one step at a time – but when you’re able to start with a clean slate, it’s easier.”
Another Detroit designer that has recently come onto the scene is Evan Sparrow, a recent CCS graduate who respects and understands sustainability and the importance of upcycling. He has a unique perspective on design, with a focus on the skateboarding lifestyle:
“I want to have an aspect of sustainability in my collection, but sustainable materials can be really expensive, so I thought that I would go more for upcycling instead of new sustainable materials. Denim is a storytelling fabric. When people wear denim, they fall in love with it and they keep their denim for a long time.
In terms of skateboarding, I don’t want to be put into that box, but skateboarding does have a huge influence on pop culture right now. Louis Vuitton just made their first skate shoe and are sponsoring their first pro skateboarder. I just want to show that skateboarding is more than flipping a piece of wood. It inspires a lot of trends and styles in fashion and it’s also a lifestyle. Skateboarding got me into fashion because skateboarding encouraged me to travel and learn the landscapes of big cities, and that opened my eyes to the world of fashion.”
The Bottom line
Detroit has experienced significant growth in recent years, from an explosion in nightlife options like restaurants and music venues, and now the fashion industry is no exception. As designers and brands continue to grow out of Detroit, it will establish itself as an international fashion hub.
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