He dresses impeccably.
On the streets of Detroit, hanging out at one of his favorite coffee shops or restaurants, Nelson Sanders might don a sports jacket and perhaps a pair of his favorite jeans from the Detroit Denim Co., handmade from selvedge denim. “I wear the hell out of them; they fit incredibly,” he says.
In the winter, he adds a layer, a classic crewneck, turtleneck wool or cashmere sweater. Most days, however, Sanders’ classic, timeless style is simply a suit, a custom-made one at that.
And that’s fitting attire for the head clothier of 1701 Bespoke, a men’s custom suit shop in Detroit’s Midtown. Sanders, 31, who has worked in men’s retail since high school, not only dresses for a job he seems tailor-made for, he’s helping to cultivate style in a city brimming with a new fashion scene.
On this particular morning, while waiting for customers to arrive at the loft-like, third-floor space in Midtown, Sanders is outfitted in a wool Herringbone, double-breasted suit with peak lapels. The suit, complemented with a blue twill shirt by Ralph Lauren and a pocket square from Brooks Brothers, snugly hugs his six-foot-four-inch frame.
“It’s changing,” he says of Detroit’s nascent scene. “When I think of older Detroit, a distinct look comes to mind. It’s a very urban street aesthetic … maybe a tacky suit: loud, bold, and big. I’m thinking an older version of Steve Harvey – bold and baggy.”
Thanks to 1701 Bespoke and Sanders, fashion is returning to Detroit, albeit slowly. Remnants of the urban street style of the past remain, but style and elegance are emerging. It’s men like Sanders and the clothiers at 1701 Bespoke who are helping usher in a new sense of fashion by not only dressing artfully but also stepping out with poise and confidence.
“The (fashion) community is small in Detroit but it’s really starting to get its legs,” says Max Schmidt, one of the co-founders of 1701 Bespoke (the numbers refer to the year Detroit was founded by the French). “We hope to help others find the confidence as well be as a resource for how to create connections in the industry and start building what you dream about.”
Since 1701 Bespoke launched as a pop-up retailer in the lobby of the First National Building in downtown Detroit, its customer base has grown to include lawyers, doctors, IT professionals, engineers, businessmen, CEOs, and even a few prominent athletes. Their knowledge of fashion varies; some customers are well-versed in trends and styles; some know little but are eager to learn; and others are simply being fitted because of a special event or wedding.
“Some will come in and let us know it’s all new to them,” Sanders says. “That’s okay, and it’s fun for us. We’re happy to help educate them. And we know when they receive their custom-made clothing seven weeks later they’re really going to feel good about themselves.”
The process begins on the third floor of a building on Woodward Avenue, above Zef’s Midtown. There, amid shelves with samples of Italian shirts and ties and fabric books, customers are measured and guided through a vast selection of fabrics from Italy and England. An individual pattern is created, and the chosen fabric – wool, wool blends, linen, cotton or seersucker – are hand-stitched by tailors abroad. The process takes about seven weeks, and most suits cost $1,500 to $2,500.
“Our customers like what we’re doing,” Sanders says. “Nowadays more guys are curious about fashion. Their confidence in style is building. They want to look good and are paying attention to detail. They’re more confident in getting manicures and having their shoes shined. It’s all part of being a gentleman.”
No customer leaves with a cookie-cutter suit. Sanders strives to create something individual for each man, asking questions and cultivating conversation to “get a good idea of what they’re comfortable with and what their goals are.
“I really try to play off their vibes,” he adds.
Sanders and the clothiers at 1701 Bespoke are hands-on throughout.
“Nelson is phenomenal,” says Gary A. Williams, an international technical training developer for Fiat-Chrysler who bought his first custom suit from 1701 Bespoke last fall. “He’s very personable, very detailed, and very knowledgeable about fabrics.”
Williams, 28, now the owner of a gray plaid, single-breasted suit, is going back to get outfitted for a custom-made tuxedo. The tux is for his own fall wedding. He’s hoping to add an elegant, minimalist look to the affair with a single breasted, one-button midnight blue tuxedo.
“Nelson is the face of the company,” says Keith Magna, one of 1701 Bespoke’s clothiers. “When I see him working with customers, he really makes them feel comfortable and explains what he’s doing. He wants nothing more than to make you feel comfortable and create the best-fitting suit for you. That’s really important in the world of men’s fashion.”
Founded by Schmidt and his long-time friend Tom Daguanno, 1701 Bespoke evolved from Daguanno’s wedding (Schmidt was best man). When the pair couldn’t find the kind of suits they wanted to wear, they did the research and made their own. After friends began asking for custom-made suits as well, Schmidt and Daguanno found themselves in business. From the pop-up, they moved to leased space on the seventh floor of The Chrysler House, formerly The Dime Building, and then to Midtown.
Their custom-made suit business, a service that had all but disappeared from the streets of Detroit, is flourishing. They’ve built their customer base through online marketing and word of mouth. “Most of our customers come in because someone else referred them to us, which is fantastic,” Schmidt says, noting 1701 Bespoke has garnered high customer satisfaction ratings on its scheduling system.
Sanders was tapped for 1701 Bespoke some two-plus years ago, after Schmidt began searching for another clothier and people kept recommending Sanders, who was well-known in downtown circles for his fashion sense.
“Nelson’s style and ability to work with people stands out the most,” Schmidt notes. “He’s able to pick up on someone’s style and the look they’re going for almost immediately and choose some awesome fabrics for them. He’s also very creative and does a lot of work with our marketing and is irreplaceable when comes to creating our look books.”
The long-term goal of 1701 Bespoke and staff is to become a true bespoke operation, that is, have fabrics manufactured locally, and suits and other clothing hand-sewn by tailors on the premises. The company also would like to add a selection of shoes and other accessories to its operations.
“We’re working to cultivate style in the community,” says Nelson, who lives in North Corktown and graduated from Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School. “We’re definitely helping push that culture and help revive fashion in the city. A lot of people still don’t know about us, but those who do like what we’re doing.”
Sanders’ sense of style and fashion knowledge evolved from his childhood. He credits his father for instilling a passion for fashion.
“My dad was an old school Detroit guy,” Sanders recalls. “When I was growing up, style was a priority for him. He always said there are certain things a man should have in his closet: Navy and gray suits. Black and brown dress shoes. A nice watch. A hat. He taught me how to take care of my shoes. Presentation and fit were important – were key.”
Sanders spent his formative years learning fashion in positions ranging from sales associate to personal shopper to wardrobe stylist at high-end men’s retailers such as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Ralph Lauren at the Somerset Collection before he landed at 1701 Bespoke.
“As a kid I was not wearing suits, but I always found a way to find the best stuff,” he recalls, noting that fashion is affordable and not out-of-the-reach of young professionals. Fashion, he points out, is something anyone can learn, whether it’s today’s new clothing lines or classic menswear. Style, on the other hand, is a talent for coordinating your clothes – the patterns, colors and textiles – and your accessories to create something individual. “Either you have style or you don’t.”
“Style is also the way you carry yourself and how you talk,” he adds. “A lot of those things my dad taught me have stuck with me. My personal style and knowledge grew from that. Fashion and style became passions of mine. I want to share that.”
It’s a passion Sanders looks forward to sharing with even more customers, as 1701 Bespoke expands in the future. The long-term goal is not only to manufacture its own fabrics for suits, shirts and accessories in Detroit but also have a ground-floor retail shop with ready-to-wear clothing and accessories, where men can come in and get outfitted from head-to-toe.