With years of corporate America under her belt, Shelley Van Riper left her office job to pursue fashion design, making the professional apparel she couldn’t find, by designing it herself. I took Shelley on a style date to the place where she’s most inspired, the Detroit Public Library.
Nancy Nguyen: How did you begin Alchemy Detroit?
Shelley Van Riper: For years I was working in corporate America, doing business planning and strategy. Starting out in 1990, I was wearing Kasper suits, which was what I could afford at the time, then eventually moving onto Theory, Hugo Boss, and Escada. By the time I left corporate, I was in Armani and Dolce and Gabbana. I was suited up and wearing 5 inch heels to work every day. By the time business wear led to the era of business casual, I was in a leadership position and not a fan of wearing cardigans to work every day, so with my jeans, I’d throw on a great jacket. Eventually, a few years back, I found myself sitting behind my desk and saying to my husband when I’d come home from work, “I have a really good job and I’m making really good money … but I’m 40 and I hate what I’m doing, and I don’t care how much money I’m making anymore.”
It took until I went shopping at the mall and went to every store to find an investment worthy black blazer and when I couldn’t find one, that’s what led me to begin Alchemy. All I wanted was a black blazer, in light weight wool, preferably made in America…and I couldn’t find it. Something so simple. So I decided I was going to make it. That was 4 years ago.
NN: Are you saying your fashion influences stemmed from your working in corporate America?
SVR: Absolutely. I was and am my best customer! Anything I make is exactly what I would wear myself. Even adding ‘Detroit’ to the name of my company was my influence. Consultants from NYC would tell me to drop it from my name saying, “That city is hopeless, no one would want to buy anything from Detroit.” But for me …Detroit is my identity. Three months after I launched Alchemy Detroit, Shinola opened in Detroit, and the phone calls started coming in. Detroit turned cool. I always knew it was.
NN: How does your brand transcend to the clothes you make?
SVR: I have a very clear vision of who I am. I like my uniforms, and I’m not influenced by trends. I want my pieces to be trendless. The history of Alchemy is about taking raw materials and turning them into precious metals. So Alchemy Detroit is about taking these beautiful fabrics, Italian cashmere and wool, and turning them into something beautiful. I want the clothing to reflect my lifestyle – from brunch to board room. I want the pieces to be so flexible that even the working mom can throw a jacket over a pair of jeans and sneakers and be comfortable.
NN: So who’s your typical consumer?
SVR: We’re a luxury basics company with our pros and cons. Most people don’t want to spend $700-$1200 on a jacket. But I didn’t go into the business of fast fashion, and I think that attracts like-minded women as my customer. If you want a piece to last 10 years, Alchemy is where you go. My consumers are both young professionals and mature shoppers. But, rather than an age demographic, Alchemy attracts those with a similar mindset as myself, someone who wants an investment piece that’s made in America and will last.
NN: Do you have a favorite fashion decade?
SVR: I’m intensely inspired by menswear. My absolute favorites are borrowed from the boys; menswear suiting in particular. The height of elegance, personified in the 1930s by Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper and conversely, the minimalist grey suits of the 50s both represented a “uniform” style that I love. Then there’s the rebellious 60’s ushered in by the British invasion of The Beatles and other musicians. The transformation of the conservative business suit into clean lines was revolutionary.
NN: What’s your perfect outfit to wear on a date or a night out?
SVR: My staples are a black tee, a black blazer, black waxed jeans, and the highest of heels. Or my Converse. I’m a real uniform, monochromatic, minimalist shopper. When I find a piece I love, I buy multiples of it. I’m sure those around me think I wear the same thing everyday. Well, I guess I do. It’s just a multiple of a beloved cut or style and almost always in black. I’m often chilled, so having a scarf around my neck or in my handbag is very comforting for me.
NN: Do you influence what your daughters wear?
SVR: My younger twin girls wear uniforms to school, which of course I love. What could be better than plaid skirts and jumpers, Dr. Martens Mary Jane shoes, and white knee-high socks? But, at seven years old they certainly have their own strong sense of personal style. One of my girls is obsessed with her coordinated outfit selections and will change her style several times a day if we let her. Her twin is equally obsessed with the messy hair, I don’t care thing. She’s into mixing colors, patterns, styles, and even seasons. Input from Mom doesn’t hold much weight. They both already say I layer too much.
NN: Was the younger you someone who planned her outfit for the next day before you went to bed?
SVR: I’m not going to lie to you, I coordinated my outfits from my scrunchie down to my socks.
NN: And now?
SVR: Someone recently called me the Johnny Cash of fashion! I know this sounds so boring for many, but I really do have my uniform down to a science. I’m literally 50 shades of black. If I’m feeling adventurous, I throw on a red lipstick, and that’s all the color I need. I do admire those women who have time to pull together these amazing ensembles, but for me, less is more. I prefer to keep it simple from my jewelry to my clothing.
NN: What’s that one “must have” piece?
SVR: I am really into hats. I’m particular about them. I have a NY baseball cap that is with me at all times. Of course it’s black on black. I alternate that with my Detroit baseball cap. And I still do love a good suit. It always feels good to be pulled together, I think a jacket does just that.
NN: What tip would you give to someone just starting to dress more ‘intentionally?’
SVR: Choose authentic mindfulness. Be mindful of your clothing investments, who made your clothes, of the fact that each of us throws 81 pounds of clothing away a year, mindful of what fast fashion is and how it impacts retail and the greater economy and lastly mindful of your own style. Find your voice and be true to who you are. Being authentic is beautiful!