Detroit Built the Automotive Industry, But Can It Build a Fashion Industry?

Could a city known for building automobiles one day, in the not too distant future, become known as the “silicon valley” of clothing manufacturing? Bottega Veneta recently presented its Summer 2022 collection directly from Milan to the Motor City. Is it Detroit’s next fashion destination?

Some believe so, so we’ve decided to take a deeper look at the realistic opportunities, roadblocks, implications, and future of Detroit fashion through an upcoming series of articles focusing on possibility.

Let’s start here with the how and why.


When we think of “industry” in Detroit, we think of automobiles. For better or for worse, through innovation and growth, decline and crisis followed by regrowth, there is a deep and rich history in this space.

After overcoming the auto industry crisis and the Great Recession, the auto industry rebound over the past decade has driven a new demand for engineering talent in Michigan, and now the state is the leading employer of industrial engineers, employing nearly twice as many mechanical engineers as in any other state.

Meanwhile, Detroit has also expanded into the tech and financial sector with big companies like Google and Microsoft, along with Quicken, settling down and calling in white-collar workers. At the same time, technological innovation in range and mobility is significantly framing the future of the auto industry in Detroit. A case in point is Ford Motor Company’s purchase and refurbishment of Michigan Central with the aim of developing a mega mecca of design and technology in Corktown, within walking distance of downtown.

“What Rouge was to Ford in the industrial age, Corktown may be to Ford in the information age,” former Ford president and CEO Jim Hackett said in a statement released. “It will be the testing ground where Ford and our partner design and test services and solutions for the way people live and travel tomorrow.”

While fashion doesn’t come first when we think of the Detroit industry, when we peel off the layers, it’s not all that strange to think that the technology used in automobile construction could be transferred to clothing manufacturing. In fact, it becomes pretty obvious.

Manufacturing is part of our DNA in Detroit, says Bailey Zurawski, Shinola’s VP of Operations. People here want to do things – we grew up with parents and grandparents doing it. Every person in our building here in Shinola has some connection with the automotive industry and takes pride in making great things that last.

There seems to be a movement underway, a new fashion ecosystem developing that begins with technology and manufacturing, areas where Detroit shines.


Says Aki Choklat, Fashion Design Chair at the Center for Creative Studies, “What’s really unique about Detroit is that whatever production is needed regardless of the industry, there is someone who knows how to make it within a 20-mile radius of the College. things go into a car that translate into other industries. A simple example is rubber … which translates directly into the soles of shoes. The list goes on. We have the infrastructure and the talent, it’s just a matter of harnessing them to other things”.

Jen Guarino, President and CEO of ISAIC echoes this sentiment, saying

The experience we have in supply chain management, digital transformation, automation, technology is knowledge we can use to review, evaluate, critique and validate to create new processes for a garment industry here.


There is a convergence of existing and emerging cultural dynamics that uniquely position Detroit as – most likely – the future epicenter of a new type of fashion industry in the United States.

Consider the following …


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Detroit’s unique stock of architectural landmarks and historic sites exemplifies a rich history of design. The city has long been a creative hotspot, with legendary product designers and architects such as 20th-century icons Eames, Knoll, Saarinen and Yamasaki.

In 2015, Detroit earned the honor of being the first and only city in the United States to be designated a UNESCO City of Design, joining a network of 31 design cities and 180 global network cities that focus on exploitation of creativity as an engine for sustainable and equitable development.


Detroit has always been a symbol of and for American culture, particularly in music, with the city giving rise to the genres of Motown and techno and playing an important role in the development of jazz, hip hop, rock and of punk.

1991 led to a unique cultural phenomenon in Detroit that began among hairdressing salons and evolved into the Detroit Hair Wars. The city’s trendy salons ushered in this trend that still exists today.


In the 1960s Detroit was definitely a shopping destination, with Woodward Avenue hosting iconic brands like Hudson’s, Crowleys, Kresge’s and others, and Avenue of Fashion in Livernois, advertising big retail names like B. Siegel, Billy’s Clothing Store, Mamzell’s custom hats, Hudson’s, Sibley’s shoes and Jacobson’s.

During the 1950s, the Northland Center, located in Southfield, MI, less than 30 minutes from downtown, was the largest shopping mall in the world and the first regional shopping center when it opened on March 22, 1954. Although, for many, its construction marked the beginning of the end for the downtown Detroit shopping district and the beginning of suburban malls, this was yet another indicator of Detroit’s relevance to retail.

During the 1980s and 1990s, many of these retailers suffered and closed their doors due to the demographic and financial losses that accompanied the recession.

In recent years, some have been significantly rebuilt.

Today on Woodward Ave independent retailers such as Detroit is the New Black and House of Pure Vin among the large recently opened stores such as Nike, H&M and Under Armor. In 2019 the Avenue of Fashion in Livernois, located between 7 and the famous 8 miles, underwent a massive road renovation project and is starting to thrive again, anchored by small African American-owned businesses.


Just shop around for to read this message. “Detroit Hustles Harder”, “Nothing Stops Detroit” and the most diehard mission statement that is “Detroit vs. Everybody” are slogans written on the city’s fashion label t-shirts and hoodies. The murals of the city scream it. People exemplify this. Detroit is a community that builds and rebuilds.

Coming to Detroit from such a different culture in London I was blown away, Choklat said. There is a sense of opportunity, fantastic design and architecture, and it feels pristine, energetic and new. In Europe, everything is done: well-finished, perfect. I drive around Woodward and see something new every day. It is a constant state of new development and this generates further development.

Kelsey Tucker, co-founder of DEVIATE steps in, saying that “the energy of the Midwest and the pride of Detroit are palpable, you can feel it. And it’s our superpower.”


“There is an interesting factor here that cannot be denied,” says Choklat. “The Carhartt ‘Detroit Worker Brand is all over Europe.”

It points to a story that says it all… “I recently went to New York on public transit and there was a woman who kept looking at me. Finally she came up to me and said, “I noticed your bag is from Detroit, do you live there?” I said yes, and she just frowned and said, “It must be so beautiful.”


Detroit seems to do things differently. Those involved in building this fashion foundation share a common goal toward developing an inclusive, equitable and socially sustainable fashion industry in Detroit that doesn’t exist anywhere.

Says Olga Stella, President of Design Core Detroit, What is happening in Detroit is not just the growth of this new industry, but a movement towards one that is more humane and inclusive and promotes sustainability for artists, people, the community. , his health and he is wealth. There is no other place in the world that can drive this like Detroit. We can learn from the automotive industry to apply technology in a different way and this is truly unique in our city.

Both designers, educators, retailers and local manufacturers are putting the groundwork in place to embrace and use green products and materials, close to shoring up and developing the workforce to redefine how this industry operates.

One of the key spokes of the wheel is definitely the Center for Industrial Sewing and Innovation – ISAIC. Developed in 2017, ISAIC is a fundamental new approach to talent strength development and economic stimulus, providing education and apprenticeship in advanced clothing manufacturing towards upward mobility for workers.

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The emergence and support of ISAIC and the work done are a strong indication that apparel manufacturing in Detroit can exist, grow and thrive in this new way.

“Carhartt investing in ISAIC and offering this beautiful human-centered space for our work was a game changer,” says Guarino. “We have this tremendous opportunity to develop an industry that is successful by treating people better and we are joining together to do so.”

A prime example is DEVIATE, launched by sisters Cassidy and Kelsey Tucker, who offer complete collections produced exclusively by the hands of Detroit artisans. “Detroit has the potential to be a thought leader in this industry – a role model for other cities when it comes to growing this new type of fashion industry – one that elevates its people.”

This shared vision is strong and the list goes on.

Says Guarino, “The great thing about this is that to achieve and grow these socially sustainable standards here in Detroit, we don’t have to deconstruct an archaic system and rebuild it, as would happen in New York. Here, we can build it from scratch as it could and should be. We can turn the model upside down and instead of exploiting women’s work, invest in it. There is no other place in the world that is focused on this or positioned to do so today ”.

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