Fashionista Feature: Why The Fashion Industry Should Be Paying Attention to Detroit

Once the "Paris of the Midwest," entrepreneurs are reviving Detroit's fashion industry with style, substance — and a little grit.
Written by Erin M. Miller
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 SandersDeviate, 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 has 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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