In bringing an exhibition of creative talent to New York, the fashion label Deviate wants to show that Detroit has more to offer than a quick hit of novelty for luxury giants.
“I think our landlord is like, ‘What are you guys doing?’” said Cassidy Tucker, sitting alongside her sister Kelsey on a Zoom call from their Detroit studio last week. Surrounding them was a pileup of 50 pieces of original artwork, with several 8-foot-by-4-foot mural-like sculptures meant to approximate the pages of a giant storybook. The art was to be squeezed into the 26-foot truck they’d rented to haul the lot from Detroit to New York City for an exhibition called “Don’t Sleep on Detroit.”
Cassidy, 27, and Kelsey, 25, are the founders of Deviate, a playful, unisex street wear and work wear fashion line that was introduced in late 2018 and is produced entirely in Detroit. The sisters so love and believe in the creative energy in their hometown that their entire business model is built around nurturing and sharing it.
They recruited more than 50 local artists — fashion and textile designers, muralists, painters, graphic artists and ceramists — to contribute work to the “Don’t Sleep on Detroit” showcase, which will also act as Deviate’s fall 2022 fashion presentation.
The idea behind the exhibition, which will be held in New York on Feb. 2 and Feb. 3 as a press and industry event, is a basic Mohammed/mountain conceit: Bring the creative world of Detroit to the big leagues. The showcase will return to Detroit and open to the public later this year.
Detroit has long been in the fashion orbit. The highly influential retailer Linda Dresner, credited for bringing the likes of Jil Sander, Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons to the United States, ran stores in New York and Birmingham, Mich. — about a half-hour from Detroit — for decades. Tracy Reese, one of the few Black designers to be a mainstay on the New York scene, moved back to Detroit in 2019 to start her sustainable collection, Hope for Flowers. Carhartt, the work wear brand that has become increasingly tied to street and hype fashion, was founded in Detroit in 1889.
In the last year or so, interest in Detroit has been rekindled by global players: Gucci introduced a collaboration with the hometown label Detroit Vs. Everybody, founded by Tommey Walker Jr., for a capsule collection of T-shirts and announced the opening of a new store in downtown Detroit; Hermès opened a store in the city; and in October Bottega Veneta staged what would be the creative director Daniel Lee’s last fashion show for the house in Detroit.
In March, Michigan’s first historically Black college, the former Lewis College of Business, is reopening as the Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design, focusing on design.
“When people think of Detroit, they don’t think of a lot of the positivity that the city has to offer,” said Cassidy Tucker. “It’s often overshadowed with some of the more sensationalized components of its history — struggle, triumph, struggle.
The New York showcase is set up as a storybook written by Kelsey Tucker, Deviate’s creative director, titled “A Bird Trusts Its Wings.” A metaphor for nontraditional creative careers, the story follows the main character who, mired in self-doubt, wakes up in an animated world to which all of her ideas have been exiled to live out the rest of their days.
Upon revisiting and interacting with them, she realizes she wants to share them with the world. If the story provides a dreamy backdrop for the showcase, the subtext of it is scrappy D.I.Y. tenacity.
“There is always a lot of pressure, like: ‘You should be here. You should be doing this,’” Ms. Tucker said of her decision to choose to forge a path off the well-trodden routes to fashion capitals like New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris. “The showcase is really us putting our foot down and being like, ‘We can do this from Detroit and bring it to you.’”
Ms. Tucker studied fashion design at Wayne State University in midtown Detroit. After an internship at Vera Wang in Los Angeles, she realized she wasn’t interested in big brand work. “What I learned the most is that fashion is a grind,” she said. “Whatever you do in this life is a grind, but you have to choose your lane.”
Hers was going home and teaming up with her sister, who, after graduating from Princeton, had been involved with a ride-sharing start-up called Splt and wanted to get involved in social entrepreneurship.
"We were on a mission to put Detroit on the fashion map," Cassidy said.
How to do that? They had no idea.
They started by reaching out to people in the community, amassing mentors including Ms. Reese. There’s also Christina Chen, who handles public relations for Deviate and has fashion experience at Saint Laurent, Alexander Wang, Shinola and StockX, and Ben Ewy, the vice president for design, research and development at Carhartt.
“People here create their own scenes and have for a long time, whether it is the automobile industry, Detroit techno or work wear,” Mr. Ewy said. “People here think differently and create unique products.”
An eco-consciousness is built into Deviate’s ethos — the Tuckers produce nearly everything locally and use scraps of material to trim their garments when they can — but the social impact component is bigger. Kelsey mentioned the Antwerp Six, Motown and the Wu-Tang clan as collectives that started in overlooked places and amplified their talents through the power in numbers.
Deviate has also teamed up with the Industry Club of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan to provide paid internships. And last year, the company initiated the Lost Artists Collective: a series of house parties requiring artists to bring a piece of their work to get in (they could leave with someone else’s) that has become a community resource and was the starting point for “Don’t Sleep on Detroit.”
Marlo Broughton, 34, a painter and illustrator who helped introduce Detroit Vs. Everybody with his cousin Walker, first heard from Kelsey and Cassidy via a direct message, inviting him to one of the artist collective’s house parties and then to participate in the showcase. “They showed me everything and had a whole blueprint,” he said.
The sisters also contacted Sydney James, 42, a muralist and fine artist, who contributed a photo of her 8,000-square-foot mural, “Girl With the D Earring,” a reinterpretation of the Vermeer painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” featuring a Black woman wearing an earring dangling Detroit’s signature Old English D.
“I didn’t necessarily understand what it was, but I liked the ‘why,’” Ms. James said of being approached for the showcase. “It’s like, ‘We’re going to make them look at us.’”