Motor City Residents Move Fashion Forward

Detroit was once known as an industrial capital because of the rise of the auto industry. But now, fashion designers are looking to tap into the city's creative potential. Host Michel Martin takes a look at the fashion scene in Detroit. She speaks with Brian Heath, founder and producer of Detroit Fashion Week, and Stefanie Dickey, the owner and designer for the Detroit-based clothing line, Stef-N-Ty.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we go from food to fashion in the Motor City. Even as Detroit's auto industry evolves with new ideas and technology, Detroit fashion designers are looking into the city's creative potential and develop Motown as a destination for fashion.

We wanted to talk more about that, so we've called two guests. Brian Heath is founder and producer of Detroit Fashion Week. That's an annual showcase for local and national designers. Also with us, Stefanie Dickey, the co-owner and designer of a clothing line, Stef-n-Ty, which recently relocated to Detroit. And they're both with us from member station WDET.

Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. BRIAN HEATH (Founder and Producer, Detroit Fashion Week): Glad to be here.

Ms. STEFANIE DICKEY (Co-owner and Designer, Stef-N-Treasury): Good to talk to you.

MARTIN: Now, Stefanie, you've previously run the business from New York, Chicago and Baltimore, Maryland, and you recently moved the business to Detroit. Why did you move to Detroit?

Ms. DICKEY: Well, one of the reasons why we moved to Detroit is it's - we've had a good market here. We've been selling out in Detroit since 1992. We've gotten a good response here, and it's been one of our highest selling markets. Also, we wanted to be in an area where we could expand our business and perhaps open up our own retail location. And as you know, the East Coast is not very affordable for independent designers right now. You know, everything is up and a little gentrified out of the budget of people who are just starting their business or trying to expand their business, and Detroit has a lot of potential. Detroiters love to dress, and we love to make them look good. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, tell people and I should mention in the spirit of full disclosure, I am familiar with your work and I actually have a couple of new pieces.

Ms. DICKEY: Mm-hmm. Yes.

MARTIN: But why don't you describe the Stef-n-Ty style for those who haven't been fortunate enough to be acquainted with it so far.

Ms. DICKEY: Well - right, right. We do what we call dressy casual wear for grown folks. So it really appeals mostly to, like, a 30-and-over crowd for you to do...

MARTIN: Oh, you didn't have to tell everybody that.

Ms. DICKEY: Well, well, I'm sorry, except for Michel...

MARTIN: Absolutely.

Ms. DICKEY: ...who is not 30 yet, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It's okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKEY: But, you know, we do very clean-line clothing, very comfortable clothing. It has kind of an Afro-Asian influence to it, but we also do work with a lot of texture - not really traditional African fabrics, but a lot of texture and a lot of earthy colors for that kind of...

MARTIN: And why do you think your work does so well in Detroit?

Ms. DICKEY: That's a good question. That's a good question. I think people -because people still like to dress. You know, I found that a lot of the East Coast has become a very - variations on a T-shirt, you know what I mean? It's -the new designers are really kind of specializing in graphics that they're putting onto T-shirts or trying to make a more comfortable T-shirt. And to me, I still like to make clothing - quality clothing that is going to last you for a while and that's not that disposable and that is going to keep their style over the years and you'll be able to wear it, you know, for years to come.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. DICKEY: So, yeah.

MARTIN: Well, Brian, this must be music to your ears, as the...

Mr. HEATH: It is.

MARTIN: ...founder of Detroit Fashion Week. And it's held in September, in between New York's Fashion Week and the fashion weeks that are held in Paris, London and Milan. What's the goal of Detroit Fashion Week?

Mr. HEATH: Detroit Fashion Week's goal is to help designers in Michigan to become designers on a national level. We'd like to see Michigan become a Midwest fashion hub. And so, over our years - which we're going into our seventh year now - we really have set focus on helping designers to understand what the fashion industry expects from them as designers in the process of fabrication, choice of fabric, trends, meeting the standards on a national/international level, so that they can actually expand their businesses beyond the Michigan borders.

MARTIN: Well, you know, Chicago is already a fashion hub in the Midwest, as we know incredibility stylish people like - including former White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, for example...

Mr. HEATH: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...just known for her, you know, fierce style. What do you think Detroit has to offer that Chicago does not? I'm not trying to start any mess here, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEATH: Oh, no. Well, there's been a discussion about Detroit and Chicago and the styles and fashion. And I think what Detroit has two offer is exactly what Stephanie relocated here for: the opportunity to be able to grow and expand and have the ability to finance the process in the right way. Here in Michigan, we gotten, you know, a lot of national/international press. We've been recognized by the fashion industry - from Women's Wear Daily to CNN Money - as being a new fashion hub.

Chicago has been a fashion hub for quite some time. I don't want to knock Chicago, but at the same time I think Michigan has so much more to offer now. Everyone looks at the economic situation across the country. And when you look at the designers who are actually presenting their lines, a lot of those designers are either presenting locally or they're looking for new locations to move to, and Michigan happens to be that single place. The designers here in Michigan have a great opportunity to make themselves the new faces - the new businesses that the industry wants to look for and to pull them from here and push them back into New York.

MARTIN: If you just tuned in, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE. And we're talking about the burgeoning fashion scene in Detroit. We're talking with Brian Heath, who is the founder and producer of Detroit's Fashion Week, and Stephanie Dickey, who is the designer of the clothing line Stef-n-Ty. And she just relocated to Detroit.

There are Detroit natives who've - are already making a name for themselves on the fashion scene - of course, in addition to Stephanie and Stef-n-Ty. But Tracy Reese, for example, is a, well-known designer who's a Detroit native, Ann Sui, who started the business. But they're in New York. So is it your hope that people can stay in Detroit and base their businesses in Detroit? Or is it your hope that in the same way that some designers, you know, maybe have their offices in New York but the actual manufacturing operations are overseas...

Mr. HEATH: Well, we're...

MARTIN: ...that people will keep the manufacturing in Detroit?

Mr. HEATH: Absolutely, because, I mean, there's so much opportunity in Detroit for manufacturing process, and that's been a lot of discussion. We've had discussions with various developers about - and various universities about the possibility of actually starting up a manufacturing process for denim here in Detroit. There are companies locally in Michigan that actually manufacture uniforms for the military. So the process is being done. There are companies here who actually are looking into a changeover. I think that Michigan is one of those places that, you know, we've concentrated so hard on the automotive industry that we've overlooked another opportunity for financial gain, for employment, for families to actually thrive.

MARTIN: But is there...

Mr. HEATH: Yes.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying, because that's partly why Stephanie said she moved she and her husband and partner moved to Detroit...

Mr. HEATH: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKEY: Right.

MARTIN: ...for the lower costs. But is the skilled labor there to do...

Mr. HEATH: The skill yes.

MARTIN: ...the work you need to do?

Mr. HEATH: Absolutely. The skilled labor is here. We actually had a number of manufacturing places here in Michigan years ago, and those places actually shut down, I'd say, over the last 10-15 years. Michigan was a major fashion hub. If you think about the Big Three being here for so long, and in their heyday. So we have the opportunity. We have the seamstresses. We have the manufacturing ability. We simply need the opportunity and the finances to put behind those types of facilities.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Well, you're a good salesman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEATH: I try.

MARTIN: I'm ready to go. So, Brian, what are you wearing?

Mr. HEATH: I'm wearing jeans and a sweater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Or I should say or as I should say in the fashion world, who are you wearing right now?

Mr. HEATH: I actually just wear local design I wear a lot of local designers. I'm wearing some Levi jeans right now. I'm not wearing any couture or any designer.

MARTIN: He's not wearing any Stef-n-Ty?

Mr. HEATH: No.

MARTIN: Stephanie, You need to fix that.

Mr. HEATH: I'm wearing my black sweater(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKEY: Well, actually, no, I just met Brian this morning. So this is my first time meeting him. I've heard a lot of wonderful things about what he's doing with Fashion Week, and he's really been promoting Detroit. And actually, that had a lot to do with my decision to come here, was this, you know, the research that I was doing online about what's going on in Detroit - not just with fashion, but creatively, in general. There's so much creativity here, you know. Even though Detroit's known for manufacturing automobiles, you know, Detroiters seem to have a wealth of creative talent, and they seem to be focusing on that now that the situation has turned where maybe they can't just depend on the auto industry.

But there's lots of opportunities. There's lots of buildings, like where I'm living now is a warehouse building that's got a lot of different artists that are in there graphic artists and designers and photographers and people doing all kinds of things. There's still a market here, you know, a customer base here. People want creative things. And then it gives us an opportunity through groups like through Brian's effort to market ourselves to, you know, the outside world, to the greater community and to make people focus on the fact that Detroit has a lot to offer.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we have to leave it there. Can't wait to get there.

Ms. DICKEY: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Stephanie Dickey is the co-owner and designer of the clothing line Stef-n-Ty, which recently relocated to Detroit. Brian Heath is founder and producer of Detroit Fashion Week. And they were both with us from the studios of member station WDET in Detroit.

Thank you both so much, and good luck to you both.

Mr. HEATH: Thank you.

Ms. DICKEY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow from Detroit.

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