“Nothing against Bottega, it was wonderful for them to choose Detroit, but I wish people had experienced more of the city itself because there are so many positive things happening that you can’t see in 24 or 36 hours,” said designer Tracy Reese, a favorite of Michelle Obama’s, who moved from New York to Detroit in 2019 to start her sustainable brand Hope for Flowers.
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible to get the work done anywhere,” said Reese, who employs seven people and has open jobs listed for pattern cutters to work in her studio at Franklin Wright Settlement, a Detroit community center where she’s also offering youth programs. “It’s not always convenient, but it’s possible. And there is this movement toward working locally, making the most of local resources, and being more community-minded. That’s something, at least for me, that seems so much more tangible in Detroit.”
She’s not alone. The “Manhattan to Motown” runway show featured several designers who recently moved back home to Detroit to launch clothing lines.
Held at the Ford Piquette Plant, a former auto factory and the birthplace of the Model T, Wednesday’s event was a launch celebration for the online retail platform Maison Black, created by Detroit native Tori Nichel to showcase emerging and established Black designers. Although it’s based in New York, she wanted to take it on the road, starting with her hometown.
“This could be the next hub of garment manufacturing — just look at what Tracy is doing,” said Nichel. “There is so much style in the history of Detroit…and so much inspiration.…These stories need to be shared. And there are so many designers you’ve never heard of leading multimillion-dollar, multinational brands,” she said of wanting to spotlight the talent behind the big names.
One of those is Shawna McGee, a Seventh Avenue fashion veteran for four decades who lost her job at Maggie London Dresses in New York last year. “I was tired of being downsized…it was a painful time, so I started painting,” she said.
McGee’s social media-savvy daughter suggested she start selling some of her scarves and kimonos on Instagram. That grew into the S. McGee collection of garden floral, kente and portrait print resortwear shown on the runway, including gorgeous kimonos, caftans and scarves. “I’m going to evolve this into a lifestyle brand from beach to street,” said McGee, who has also worked at Donna Karan, Anne Klein and Liz Claiborne.
“She’s made a lot of money for a lot of people,” said designer Kevan Hall, cofounder of the Black Design Collective. Also a Detroiter, Hall came in from Los Angeles to show his beaded halter jumpsuits and tulle dresses on the runway.
“We went to the same high school, and Tracy, too,” Hall said of Cass Technical High School, whose arts program produced a number of designers, including Aaron Potts, whose A Potts line was also part of the Maison Black showcase.
“The training we got there was incredible…we all got scholarships to Parsons [The New School],” said McGee of the program, which sadly has largely been defunded.
The designers reflected on Detroit’s sense of style.
“Growing up in a religious family, we dressed to the nines for church, we shopped on what was called the Avenue of Fashion at all these incredible stores. And my mom probably spent more than she should,” Hall laughed. “At seven, we had cashmere coats, and at 15, my sister had a fox fur. It was insane!”
Known as the Paris of the West, Detroit was once an influential fashion and retail hub. Located downtown, Hudson’s was the country’s largest department store behind Macy’s Herald Square, with 32 floors of fashion in its heyday. After 90 years, it closed in 1983, as people moved to the suburbs and Detroit’s population began to decline.
“Motown was so influential,” said McGee, also mentioning the 1975 fashion-filled film “Mahogany.” “Looking at Diana Ross — who also went to our high school — and the Supremes, seeing people of color like that, had a huge effect. And in the 1960s, they all still lived in the neighborhood. I can remember knocking on Smokey Robinson’s door…he was so sweet! There’s a lot of painful history with the riots, but there is still a richness to the city. Coming back at my age, I can appreciate it even more.”
Isaiah Hemmingway worked at Tory Burch for five years before moving home during the pandemic. He used the “Manhattan to Motown” show to launch his eponymous line of impeccably tailored jewel-tone suiting with ribbed ankles and cuffs. “My father is a pastor in Detroit, and the church fashion is amazing.…Guys aren’t scared to wear color,” he said of his inspiration.
Bottega Veneta coming to town “helps to validate that we have something going on here,” said designer Sharryl Cross, who spent 13 years in New York at J. Crew, Macy’s Inc. and Elizabeth and James before moving back to Detroit during the pandemic, and putting all her savings into her new Truth collection of contemporary print dresses.
Following the runway show, the six collections were featured at a pop-up at the Shinola flagship.
Another Detroit-born brand, Shinola has built on the aesthetic of American nostalgia and functionality in a city largely associated with auto industry labor, as seen in Diego Rivera’s monumental Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
As an early engine of Detroit’s fashion renaissance, Shinola has created 500 jobs since it launched in 2011. Like Bottega Veneta’s Daniel Lee, the brand has drawn inspiration from the city’s music and architecture. As an example, a women’s watch launching for Mother’s Day was inspired by the oval inlaid glass ceiling of the city’s famous Book building.
“We’ve always had a fashion scene,” said born-and-raised Detroiter Ruthie Underwood, Shinola’s vice president of creative design. “Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and rock ‘n’ roll…The Motown and electronic eras. Oversized clothing and streetwear — and Carhartt, which was founded here and which is so Detroit. I have worn Carhartt my whole life and it’s been so interesting to see it become so popular,” she said of the workwear staple. “Every time we’re designing I’m asking why, what’s the story behind this? We’re not following trends, we’re following function.”
A year before Shinola opened its downtown hotel on Woodward Avenue in 2019, former New York retail buyer Roslyn Karamoko opened Détroit Is the New Black on the same street.
“Roslyn is a pioneer — a pioneer,” said Reese of Karamoko’s role. “Ten years ago, downtown was a ghost town.” Now there are pricey condos, eateries and shops galore, and a skyscraper is under construction on the former site of Hudson’s department store.
Détroit Is the New Black is the ultimate symbol of the city’s reemerging fashion scene, with 25 Black and women-owned brands, as well as Karamoko’s own logo merchandise, including sweatshirts emblazoned with “Dét” recalling the city’s French origins, and made at her factory in Corktown.
“It’s incredible that brands like Bottega are looking at Detroit, which is a place that produces iconic American culture. But what’s on the other end remains to be seen,” she said of her city. “Detroit has been seeing ebbs and flows the past eight or nine years. At moments it feels like a hot spot and at moments it feels like it stalls,” she said. “To truly produce more equitable opportunity and development, we need brands to be using Detroit not just as a promotional setting.”
In other words, Detroit doesn’t just want to be your trend.