This article was authored by Erin Marie Miller and originally published by Model D Media.
When Deviate co-founders Cassidy and Kelsey Tucker began sewing masks in March as part of a grassroots effort to help Detroit-area hospitals in the fight against COVID-19, they had no way of knowing that their efforts would soon become part of a larger centralized solution to the state’s critical PPE shortages.
But that’s exactly what happened, Cassidy says, when Josh York, founder of the York Project, connected Deviate with Jen Guarino, CEO of the Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center, who included the brand in a Detroit-based coalition of apparel manufacturers, businesses, and nonprofits working to produce standardized PPE in the city.
Pivoting to meet the continuing demands of hospitals around the area, Deviate joined the partnership to help produce isolation gowns while launching their own PPE training program aimed at creating opportunities for the city’s emerging fashion industry.
“It's been great to work with [ISAIC]. They're really responsive and, you know, it's cool to work with other likeminded folks — especially during this time,” says Tucker, recalling the partnership.
Spearheaded in April by ISAIC in collaboration with the City of Detroit, the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s Pure Michigan Business Connect, Rock Family of Companies, and Empowerment Plan, with help from Carhartt, the initiative mobilized the city’s growing apparel manufacturing sector and transformed it into a network of PPE producers while automating the mass production of surgical masks.
“Cassidy and Kelsey from Deviate have been fabulous partners in ISAIC’s gown production initiative. They are very dedicated and industrious ladies,” Guarino says. “I keep trying to find the silver linings in the pandemic — and having the opportunity to work with them for the first time has definitely been one of them. They are a great asset to our local fashion industry and we’re looking forward to exploring how we can work together in the future.”
Temporarily shifting from Deviate’s usual production of edgy/feminine streetwear and prêt-à-couture pieces, Tucker says once the brand began producing the isolation gowns, generating between 500-1,000 pieces per week, they discovered the sewing process doubled as an effective training program for seamstresses. She says the intricate and repetitive techniques, as well as the use of industrial machines, offers sewers “fine arts production” skills applicable to specialized areas of fashion production like couture design, tailoring, boning, and management.
Working quickly, Tucker says the team formalized the PPE training program into a three-tiered system that progressively offered new skills and opportunities at each level. “The first tier is PPE production, and the second tier is moving into management positions and leadership roles,” Tucker explains. “The third tier is moving into production of our Deviate collections, as well as other designers’ collections that we produce.”
Tucker says the PPE program will last as long “as there is a demand” for it, although Deviate plans to continue using production contracts for the program permanently whether in PPE or other areas. Currently, the program employs seven seamstresses earning a set hourly rate with weekly bonus incentives tied to “clear goals, such as meeting production quality and quantity rates.” After completing the program, which Tucker says does not have a set timeframe and largely depends on each individual’s skill development, seamstresses will have to opportunity to begin working on Deviate’s high fashion collections or help support the brand’s external production contracts.
“PPE is a great first step because it's extremely repetitive. It requires precision and focus every single time,” Tucker says. “[Also] learning about industrial equipment — a lot of students do not learn that in school at all, so being able to have that knowledge and those skills really helps them to sharpen their own talents.”
Amid the pandemic, Tucker says Deviate relocated from their former space at Ponyride to a new 3000 sq. ft. production space at the Baltimore Gallery in New Center, which is shared with Jacob Down of Low Stock Clothing. “The new space is great because we're so close to ISAIC and Carhartt […] They’re one of the key partners that we're doing these isolation downs with, so it's just been kind of serendipitous how it's all worked out,” she says.
Dianne Avila, a Waterford resident who joined Deviate’s PPE program as production team leader after interning with the brand while working toward her degree, echoes Tucker’s optimism. “It was nice to see a team come together,” she says.
Avila’s responsibilities include making sure the production crew stays on task and meets production goals daily. A recent graduate of Michigan State University who double-majored in apparel and textile design and political science, Avila says Deviate’s PPE program offered her management opportunities that she might not have found otherwise. “I’m usually very soft-spoken and I’ve never had to be in a management position before,” she says. “It’s helped me be a bit more assertive, to make sure everything is getting done.”
In addition to providing new manufacturing and technical skills, the PPE training program also feeds into Deviate’s design competition, offering local designers a chance to design their own pieces and gain exposure for their work while keeping the profits from the sales of their designs. “Some of our team's ultimate goal is to launch their own brand — it would be awesome to help them do that,” Tucker says. According to Deviate, applications for the competition have tripled in the last year.
Since the days of Kelsey learning garment dyeing at Wayne State to participating in Detroit is the New Black’s accelerator program, Cassidy and Kelsey Tucker have built Deviate as a Detroit-made fashion brand that empowers people, and they credit their success to others supporting them in the early stages of their career.
“Kelsey and I wouldn't be where we're at in the fashion space if it weren't for the people in the manufacturing space helping us to get here,” Tucker says, adding, “Everyone in Detroit is working together towards a similar goal — to help keep talent here, to help talent grow here, and to help strengthen the community here.”