When Veronika Scott founded the Detroit-based non-profit The Empowerment Plan, she never anticipated it would lead to rubbing elbows with Diane von Furstenberg.
A former product design student at Detroit’s College of Creative Studies, Scott created the organization in 2011 after working on a design project for winter jackets that transformed into sleeping bags for the homeless.
“When the project wrapped, she had people asking her when they would get the coat, but one person in the shelter told her she didn’t want the coat — what she wanted was a job,” said Erika George, director of development at The Empowerment Plan.
Message received. Today, the Empowerment Plan employs 22 homeless women in the area, who have helped produced more than 15,000 coats to date. Scott’s innovative work drew the attention of von Furstenberg, who nominated the young entrepreneur for the DVF Awards in 2014, the designer’s annual award series that honors women in leadership roles around the country.
Von Furstenberg’s efforts are reflective of a larger drive to infuse designer support into Detroit. Over the past few years, a number of retailers have opened stores downtown, including Nike, Kit & Ace and John Varvatos, breathing new life into the city and attracting shoppers from the surrounding metro area.
“It’s a testament that these brands are taking a huge risk to even open downtown. It shows that they believe the city is coming back and is a profitable decision for them, too,” George said.
A ‘phoenix-like rise’
Jim Hayes was a few months into his retirement in 2013 when he decided to relocate from New York to Detroit. The former publisher of Fortune had previously resided in the Motor City in the 1960s and 1970s, and was eager to use his newfound downtime to embed himself in the city’s civic scene.
His first order of business was to call Keith Crain, chairman of Crain Communications, to pitch an idea for “Detroit Homecoming.” In the call, he described his vision to bring successful “ex-pats” back to the city to share their latest efforts and invest in burgeoning ventures in city, efforts that may be struggling amid the city’s battle with bankruptcy and the collapse of the automobile industry.
Crain signed on, and together with Crain publisher Mary Kramer, they launched the community-building event, now in its third year. To date, Detroit Homecoming has attracted a total of 300 investors and raised $260 million in pending or closed investments for the city.
The event has attracted the interest of high-end designers, including Detroit-native John Varvatos, who unveiled his first storefront in the city at the 2015 Homecoming, and Shinola president Jacques Panis, who announced a new Shinola hotel during this year’s event, held last week.
Detroit is increasingly becoming a popular destination for luxury retailers — who help pump money back into the battered local economy. Yet while Detroit has made strides to rise above rampant poverty, unemployment and crime, dilapidated buildings and shuttered doors are still ubiquitous.
Events like Detroit Homecoming are working to combat the trend, by bringing in brands and retailers that attract consumers to the city and inspiring fledgling designers to open shop. Part of what has been instrumental to the effort is establishing a sense of unity, Kramer said. “This is a big small town and there’s a great sense of community among artists and creatives.”
Shinola president Jacques Panis, who attended Detroit Homecoming to discuss the opening of the new hotel, is adamant that any impact Shinola had on Detroit’s revitalization was merely complementary. The Shinola hotel — slated to open in 2018 with 130 rooms designed by Gachot Studios, the architecture firm behind the private residence of Marc Jacobs — is an extension of the brand’s transformation into a larger lifestyle brand centered in Detroit, he said.
“We would never claim to have brought any style to the city of Detroit. That city is full of style, creativity, big thinking and we’re a part of that — we didn’t start that,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to be there. It’s not about what we’ve done for Detroit but what Detroit has done for us.”
However, the company hasn’t been impervious to criticism. The Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation on Shinola’s “made in America” claims in June following outcry: Part of the production takes place in Switzerland and Thailand, so they had to take corrective measures to disclose that. Other critics have voiced concerns of the company’s role in taking advantage of a dispirited city.
Despite the allegations against Shinola, Crain’s Kramer was quick to laud the company for its role in helping create jobs for members of the Detroit community. She noted that Shinola had a similar effect on the perception of the city as Chrysler’s “Built In Detroit” ad campaign featuring rapper Eminem that first aired during the Superbowl in 2013.
“Suddenly the Detroit brand was being borrowed or extended to cover other consumer products,” Kramer said. “The beleaguered, down in the dumps city was having a phoenix-like rise.”
Capitalizing on resilience
At the Detroit Homecoming Creativity Showcase, held downtown last week, 15 mannequins stood tall, wearing black winter jackets along with signs that read “homelessness shouldn’t be a life sentence.”
The display was set up by The Empowerment Plan, one of 10 companies showcasing that night at Orchestra Hall. A few hours later all the attendees would congregate onstage along with Hamilton producer Jeffrey Sellers, also a Detroit native, for a raucous dance party.
Panis, the president of Shinola, said that since starting the company in 2013, he’s seen significant transformation in the city of Detroit, but noted continued growth is dependent on community efforts like Detroit Homecoming.
“You’re seeing the blight cleanup, street lights turning on, and a bustling central business district,” he said. “The city is getting out of bankruptcy and the mayor is turning the balance sheet around. You’re seeing people in general come together. We’re all coming together as one and we’re all working towards one common goal — which is a better Detroit, that functions for all.”
Mary Alice Stephenson, founder of New York-based non-profit Glam4Good, said while she recognizes that fashion is transformative both for struggling citizens of the city and Detroit itself, ultimately the solution to the city’s challenges transcend style.
“In Detroit I see some of the most stylish people — they didn’t spend thousands and go shopping on Madison Avenue. They have to work with very little and do so well with their personal style,” she said. “But the truth is there’s so much poverty and corruption in Detroit, and that doesn’t have to do with fashion.”
Photo courtesy of The Empowerment Plan