The notion that “clothing shouldn’t be quiet” is a cornerstone of Daun Smith’s fashion brand Visual Noise Detroit. And, in many ways, success as a designer can depend on making the right noise at the right time.
“When I think fashion, I don’t think the skinny people walking down the runway so much,” said Smith, a native Detroiter and crochet artist who started exploring apparel design in 2008. “I think about a feeling. I think about your clothing having some attitude.”
Smith is a designer-in-residence at the Detroit Garment Group (DGG) — a fashion-focused incubator launched in 2012 to help aspiring clothiers navigate the production and professional facets of fashion in the Motor City. Although she is not formally trained as a designer — “I didn’t go to school for art, or fashion, or anything like that,”— the DGG’s framework supports creative talent at various stages and helps guide growth.
Designers-in-residence are able to utilize the incubator’s workspaces and industrial sewing machines, have access to professional services such as photography and graphic design, and utilize DGG’s roster of mentors.
“They’ve given me a linear perspective on the industry that ordinarily I would not have gotten unless I was in some sort of hard knocks situation,” Smith explained. “I’ve wanted to crochet and knit since I was six years old. The only use I had for Barbie was to dress her. So I was honing my craft, and I didn’t know it.”
From its TechTown headquarters in New Center, the DGG-threaded network of resources spans across Michigan and is tailored to help aspiring designers find success without leaving the state.
“It sets you up for success rather than failure,” said Smith, who is actively looking for a permanent space for Visual Noise. “When you start out doing this stuff, you don’t know what you don’t know. [DGG] provided information to allow me to align my steps so that I can move further and faster as opposed to tripping myself up.”
Fed up with Detroit designers being the Midwest’s best-kept secret, DGG Founder and President Karen Buscemi said the nonprofit’s goal from day one has been to give the Motor City the recognition it deserves as a fashion capital.
“Detroit Garment Group was created to teach the business of fashion, provide local opportunities for our fashion community, and build them up one business at a time,” said Buscemi, who is also the CEO of the cut-and-sew manufacturer Detroit Sewn.
For six years, she served as editor of the now-discontinued StyleLine magazine, covering metro Detroit’s fashion industry and its burgeoning designers. In many respects, she found that turning a designer’s untapped potential into success hinges on a mix of talent, timing, and business savvy.
“While I was editor at StyleLine, I realized there were skilled designers around Michigan making beautiful pieces. And no one really knew about it. Not locally and certainly not nationally. [Detroit] wasn’t even on fashion’s map, and I wanted to understand why,” Buscemi said. “That’s where my desire to work with local fashion designers was ignited. There was so much talent. And they typically needed a lot of help in regards to building a business.”
DGG is also focused on the practical application of design skills to help create jobs.
In 2014, the organization launched the state’s first Industrial Sewing Certificate Program with the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance Michigan Works! and the automotive seating and electrical systems supplier Lear Corporation. The sewing program, targeted toward unemployed or underemployed workers, has since expanded through partnerships with Henry Ford College, Grand Rapids Community College, Lansing Community College, and St. Clair County Community College.
“While we have many good fashion programs at colleges around the state, none of them were teaching a business class to the students. It was expected that they would go on to work for fashion companies and learn the business of fashion that way,” Buscemi said.
As a result, large industries that utilize some of fashion’s niche skills are overlooked.
“[Designers] would try to become overnight entrepreneurs — with no knowledge of starting, building, or maintaining a business — sink a lot of their money into this goal, and have disappointing results,” Buscemi added.
At the DGG’s annual FashionSpeak event — headlined this year on October 12 by famed fashion editor Stacy London — entrepreneurs receive a crash course in the business side of fashion.
“FashionSpeak is our effort to teach the business of fashion to a large group of students and professionals in a one-day setting,” Buscemi said. “It became a wonderful opportunity for our fashion community to come together, network, realize their numbers, spark inspiration, and in some instances, even spur collaboration.”
In addition to its group of signature events, this year the DGG launched VERGE — a private biannual tradeshow focused on connecting buyers with sellers.
“We will be offering this program twice a year, and expect this to become our largest program over time,” Buscemi said. “It’s a very important event, bringing together buyers and sellers to propel businesses forward with actual orders from boutiques around the state and beyond.”
VERGE attracted a crowd in the hundreds and included 25 local exhibitors, including some seasoned fashion brands such as the Detroit-based Rebel Nell jewelry and the technology-focused clothier FNDN Detroit.
“This was our first Detroit trade show,” said Travis Lemaski, who founded FNDN in 2014. “I think what DGG has done is an amazing step forward for Detroit’s fashion scene and bringing local production back to the city in general. DGG is really pushing this entire thing in the right direction, and I can’t wait for what they are up to next.”
Others brands were just starting out and using the event as a formal introduction to the market.
Seventeen-year-old graphic designer Devin Lamoureux launched his startup clothing company Premiere Productions earlier this year, and it was his first time at a trade show.
“I found out about the Detroit Garment Group through a fellow Detroit clothing designer,” said Lamoureux, a native Detroiter. “Since then we have built a relationship between our brands, and that is the great thing about the Detroit Garment Group. It allows new designers like me to build relationships and connections with more experienced people in the industry, giving us the opportunity to grow together and learn from each other.”
Premiere specializes in “clothing designed and inspired by youth,” which is a nod to Detroit’s past and present as a revitalizing metropolis.
“In the past couple of years, the Detroit fashion industry has grown a lot with the cultural revival of our city. However, there is still a lot missing from the street fashion culture of Detroit, and that is the gap I am hoping to fill with Premiere Productions,” Lamoureux added.
The most important factor being that he doesn’t have to leave the city to make Premiere a success.
“I don’t think I’ll have to leave Detroit to be successful,” Lamoureux said. “In fact, I think in order for my brand to become successful it will have to become popular with the people of Detroit before anyone else.”
With global eyes on the city’s revitalization, Detroit has never been more en vogue.