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Fashion Retail in Detroit Can Feel Like One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

How Foot Traffic, Phones, and Fragmentation Effect the Growth of Fashion Retail in Detroit

EUGENIE - OFFERING SUSTAINABLE FASHION IN MIDTOWN DETROIT

In our Detroit Fashion multi-part series we’ve looked at the how’s and why’s of building this new industry of fashion in Detroit. We dove into the work being done to develop the ecosystem, the trials, tribulations, and opportunities. We’ve looked at the workforce and accelerator programs and the collaborations and education surrounding all of it.

Now we take a look at those on the front line. The retailers.

As the revitalization of Detroit moves forward – stymied albeit by COVID-19 – it will seemingly bring along with it the demand for a more vibrant retail climate. This was, in fact,  beginning to occur pre-COVID. National retail brands including H&M, Nike, Moosejaw, Lululemon, Madewell, Bonobos, and Warby Parker have shown staying power.

WHERE ARE WE NOW?

So where are we today and what does the fashion retail landscape look like for the near future? There are varied answers and unknowns loom.

“Detroit is in such a transition stage, it’s changing and that requires patience, resilience, and being proactive,” says Darryl Humes Jr., co-owner of Mature, a menswear clothier located in the Fisher Building. “Consumers may not even know your store is there yet. It takes time to get established and “known.”

Shares Carli Goltowski, owner of Good Neighbor downtown,

The community in Detroit is so supportive, and in a lot of ways, things have been great since we opened here in 2019. But at times it feels like it’s one step forward two steps back. We start to gain momentum and then find out Under Armour is closing, and that feels like a step back because we need the national retailers to help establish the area.

GOOD NEIGHBOR IN DOWNTOWN DETROIT

“We have been seeing pretty strong foot traffic, but are experiencing the same challenges our fellow retail store owners are overall, and we are all working together to support each other and the community,” says Amy Fencyk, Director of Brand Strategy and Development at Carhartt.

From Under Armour’s closure to the many start-ups and independent stores that opened their doors only to soon after be hit with a pandemic, it’s been a bit of a wild ride for fashion retail over the last few years.

Laura Horwath, Owner of Ferne in the New Center area said, “To be sure there is a strong sense of diversity regarding the types of fashion retail businesses. Compared to 10+ years ago it’s a totally different landscape.  There are so many cool creative artistic people doing things in the city. There is great opportunity here.”

WOMEN’S CLOTHING BOUTIQUE, FERNE, LOCATED IN NEW CENTER

The question is …can the city host and sustain a thriving fashion retail presence, offering diverse and varied apparel and accessory options going forward in a more robust way than it has over the last couple of decades?

To that end, there is no lack of passion. There certainly isn’t a lack of talent, hard work, and commitment. But there are significant challenges.

FOOT TRAFFIC, FRAGMENTATION, AND PHONES

Says Gretchen R. Valade, Owner of Eugenie on Willis in Midtown “One of the most charming – and cool – things about Detroit is the number of unique “pockets” and neighborhoods it has. The issue is, Detroit is an automotive city. People drive. There are not a lot of options to get from pocket to pocket versus driving. The pockets are starting to grow, and offer destinations – options for people to come and stay a few hours and shop and dine, but it’s not quite there yet so foot traffic can be an issue.”

Humes echoes this, saying, “Detroit retail is not connected. Yet. We need more concentrated areas for people to come, park, and spend some time.”

MATURE MENS CLOTHIER

Even in downtown proper, this is an issue.

Goltowski says, “In Chicago or NYC you can walk out your door and get your mascara, lotion, a new sundress, and a plant for your apartment all while on foot. This generates traffic for the establishments. We have super talented people here and great stuff coming from local makers, we need more development and a higher concentration of establishments to support it. In that regard, we are behind.”

But the biggest competitor for retailers? Phones. We’re seeing a total paradigm shift in how we all purchase and interact (or not) with retail.

Says Angela Wisniewski, Owner of Coup de tat in New Center

I grew up going to boutiques to look for new things. Our favorite boutiques guide the way for what we like to see and buy. People now are spending so much time looking to their phones for their purchases, their fashion choices have become homogenized.

Midwest retail comes with many complications at the starting gate. Securing the rotation of inventory to align

COUP D'ÉTAT MIDTOWN DETROIT

COUP D’ÉTAT MIDTOWN DETROIT

with the seasons is one of them. The weather is another in that it can keep people away, indoors, at home. For a small store, housing enough inventory to offer a variety of enticing items in a range of sizes can be a huge challenge. On top of that, layer in light foot traffic, and it does seem a bit like trying to put together a colossal-sized puzzle with a blindfold on.

WHY RETAIL?

It begs the question …with this many roadblocks, why make the choice to open a fashion retail store in Detroit now?

“I have yearned to own a brick and mortar store for as long as I can remember,” says Wisnieski. “For me it’s about the experience, the relationships, being face to face, seeing true joy when a woman walks out of the dressing room looking great. That is why I do it.”

“Retail is by far and away the best way to cultivate a relationship with the consumer, help understand what the community needs, grow loyal customers,” says Humes.

It’s so refreshing seeing people being thoughtful about their purchases, says Valade. These retail stores and brands are expected in New York and Chicago, why not Detroit?

GETTING CREATIVE

During this unusual time of owning a business in a city that’s experiencing revitalization, but also a pandemic, the retail owners have gotten creative.

Eugenie opened in 2020 and showcased outside art through collaboration with Simone DeSousa Gallery, both honoring how the space used to be utilized and drawing people to the location. Valade also offered appointment-only options, which, she says, helped her to establish solid relationships and intimate shopping experiences to build her customer base.

Carhartt has leaned into its Carhartt Workshop, a first-of-its-kind collaborative community space offering access to tools and landscaping equipment, and more.

CARHARTT’S DETROIT LOCATION IN MIDTOWN

Says Fencyk, “Communities and business owners are taking advantage of the free use of tools to execute block cleanups and make areas more appealing for consumers to shop.”

Mature executed pop-ups for nearly two years at the Woodward and Cass Collective (both in Midtown) prior to opening brick and mortar and started ramping up their website in 2017 to establish a brand presence. Ferne did pop ups as well prior to opening.

Goltowski has been establishing partnerships and collaborations.

Eugenie launched a selection of apparel and accessories in The Siren Hotel to offer easy shopping options for out-of-towners and expand their visibility.

“With the amount of talent and creativity we have here, and the diversity of shops with unique options and items that can’t be found anywhere else, we’re getting there,” shared Horwath.

All are looking forward to what Humes says is “the evolution yet to come.”

 

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