On Thursday night, a community hub on Detroit’s west side became the stage for unveiling new fashions from local designers.
Guests made their way to the auditorium of Durfee Innovation Society, taking in mannequins styling streetwear, dresses and accessories, while a song from Erykah Badu spilled out the speakers. And down a black and white rabbit hole-inspired hallway, folks were transported to a room with a quieter vibe full of fashions and accessories from a new design collective.
The collective, Detroitissimi, features five metro Detroit designers: Detroit Denim Company, Deviate, K. Walker Collective, B. May Bags and Boswell. The group of retailers will make their debut this summer at Pitti Uomo in Florence, Italy, one of the biggest trade shows in the world for menswear and accessories.
Before the trip to Europe, Detroitissimi gave guests a taste of their summer collections during the Drinks and Design event Thursday hosted by nonprofit Design Core Detroit (DCD).
At his table, K. Walker, founder Ken Walker, showed off a yellow puffer coat, black t-shirt and black sweatpants. The Detroit native said he visited Italy for the first time in 2012 when he studied abroad as a student at Michigan State University. Walker, 32, said the trip inspired him to create his own brand.
“It just made me appreciate craftsmanship,” he said. “When I came back, I really wanted to focus on the quality, not just having my name on something. I wanted to make something that people will love and enjoy.”
Walker launched his luxury clothing brand in 2018 and opened a storefront in Midtown last November. With his second trip to Italy coming up, Walker is focusing on growing his brand globally.
“I’ve had success locally and domestically, but this puts my brand on a world stage, to get to meet buyers and make different connections in international regions as I start to really grow this brand in other markets,” he said. “So, I foresee London, Paris and Italy being viable markets for me to grow in.”
Detroit fashion goes international
Detroitissimi is a collaboration between Design Core Detroit, business development organization Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the College for Creative Studies (CCS). The project began last year when Design Core and MEDC went to Italy to figure out the best way to represent Detroit designers, said Design Core Co-Executive Director Bonnie Fahoome. Aki Choklat, chair of fashion design at CCS, has experience working with international fashion brands and was able to help Detroitissimi secure a booth at Pitti Uomo, she said. Design Core then created a matchmaking platform for MEDC to find a designer who could build a concept for the booth as well connecting the organization to local designers.
Detroit Denim will present its hand-crafted jeans and accessories at Pitti Uomo, while Boswell, K. Walker, B. May Bags and Deviate will show off women’s hats, contemporary menswear, high-end designer handbags and sustainable streetwear, respectively.
In addition, Ferndale-based Octane Design has designed the booth where Detroitissimi will exhibit at Pitti Uomo, and Detroit muralist Mike Han will bring street art elements to the show through live painting. A fashion collaboration between CCS and Carhartt will also be presented during the event.
Pitti Uomo’s January show was visited by 13,500 international buyers, 6,500 sales and distributor companies, and 18,000 industry visitors, including international media, organizers noted in a news release.
“When we went (to Italy) last year, what we witnessed was that there’s a lot of people, not just wholesale buyers, but there’s a lot of people from the industry that are visiting the trade show and walking through,” Fahoome said. “We had a lot of conversations with people that might be suppliers, might be buyers, but also might be partners who want to collaborate on something. So, there’s just a lot of opportunity for them to take advantage of; the exposure and the chance to meet all these different potential partners and clients.”
With Detroit becoming the first U.S. city to be designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) City of Design in 2015, Fahoome is excited to see local designers being recognized on a global stage.
“There’s a lot of creativity and a lot of talented people in Detroit and it’s very exciting to see them finally being recognized for their talents,” she said.
Can Detroit become the future hub for sustainable fashion?
Detroit Denim owners Brenna Lane and Eric Yelsma said they are thrilled to be a part of Pitti Uomo. The company, which specializes in made-to-order clothing, displayed their colorful jeans and denim jackets for its spring and summer collection, coming in colors like gold, green and blue. Yelsma said he and Lane will be exhibiting some of the collection at the trade show, which is called Live Vibrantly.
“It’s really just about living unapologetically loud and showing off your total personal style, whatever that is,” Lane said. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, I couldn’t pull that off,’ and we want to help people embrace their total personal style and step outside of it.”
Like Walker, Lane appreciates the level of craftsmanship Italian designers bring to their creations. She said she sees parallels between the Italy and Detroit fashion scenes in that they both manufacture their own items within the country and city. Lane hopes Detroit can be a hub for sustainable apparel manufacturing in the next 10 to 20 years.
“The fashion industry is really starting to kind of reconcile their unsustainable ways with this new consumer push towards transparency and sustainability,” she said. “If there’s one message we can take with us to Italy, it’s ‘Hey, if you want to make your stuff sustainably in the United States, come to Detroit. Do it in Detroit. We have everything we need here to make that happen.’”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the location inside Durfee where the event was held.