Not like the fashion world is ever boring, but it's the concept of making things that really quickens Brock Willsey's pulse. This born-and-bred Michigan designer found success in Chicago with Vividbraille, which retails a love for craftmanship and an ethos praising manufacturing prowess right alongside designer apparel. Vividbraille has always retained an unpretentious, industrial atmosphere that would make any Rust Belt clotheshorse feel right at home.
Vividbraille is one of the semifinalists in the Comerica Hatch Detroit contest, which will award one business $50,000 and support services to open up a brick-and-mortar shop in Detroit. Public voting through Sept. 18 will narrow the 10 competitors down to four finalists, who will then have to pitch their ideas at a "Hatch Off!" on Sept. 26.
We caught up with Vividbraille owner Brock Willsey to find out why he's set his sights on Detroit, how he plans to help other local designers find success and what we should be wearing this fall.
Why did you decide to open your first boutique in Chicago, and what influenced you to open a store in Detroit?
Well, I had started Vividbraille in my hometown, Flint, Michigan -- fashion capital of the world, ha! Believe it or not, a lot of people don't realize that, but I was living there while developing the brand for the first 4 or 5 years. I ended up moving to Ferndale and continued developing my craft and developing the brand. I was selling to stores all over the country and was on the road a lot. One of the nice things about selling wholesale is that I was able to relocate to Chicago and keep things moving along seamlessly.
I actually moved to Chicago before I knew with certainty I would open a store there. I had never lived anywhere else and always wanted to live in a big city. Within three years, not only was I living in a big city, but through a ton of hard work and over 10 years of experience, everything finally came together. We no longer sell our product to other boutiques -- which keeps the emphasis on craftsmanship and quality over quantity.
How would you work with local designers and manufacturers to capture that essence of craftmanship and support Michigan artistans if you won this contest?
One of the great things about our "studio boutique concept" is that we bring together high fashion brands with our own private label and well-curated local designers. Not only will our manufacturing needs be sourced out to local manufacturers and designers, but our sales floor will give other local designers a chance to sell their goods in an amazing space. The aesthetic of our Chicago store is absolutely amazing -- a perfect blend of high fashion mixed with rugged craftsmanship. We really are living this stuff and we want our space(s) to convey that.
The one thing I want to be sure of is that, not only do we offer a Made in the U.S. product, but that we offer product that is some of the best in the country, if not the world. It does us no good to sell goods made and designed in Detroit if they aren't truly better than the rest. We have very affluent clients from all over the world who are amazed at our concept and the goods that we sell.
Many of your labels cater to a high-end consumer. Do you think you will be meeting a demand that currently exists in the city -- you've said that you currently service many clients living in Michigan. Where do you think the majority of your clients will be located?
I personally grew up lower middle class and know how it is to not have a lot of discretionary income. Nobody (and I mean nobody) in my family came from money. My dad is a carrier for Fed Ex and has been for over 25 years, and my mom is an assistant manager at a retail store in Flint. They both work their butts off.
With that said, I also know that great taste is universal and doesn't exclude any income class or demographic. I take a lot of pride in having something to offer for everybody at various price points. Our prices range greatly -- we have clothing labels that offer a great product for a lower price and we have labels that offer a great product for a higher price. We understand in order to be successful we have to cater to our customers and that is something we will always do.
The Vividbraille studio boutique will have a look of its own specific to the Detroit way of life and we are excited about that. We do have a keen eye and like to carry goods that are known for being made either in the U.S., Japan or, say, Italy, but we also understand that to have these goods made here costs a bit more. It's all part of the trade off of having goods made responsibly.
I think our customers are some of the coolest people -- but I'm probably biased! Some will come from the suburbs, some will come from the city, some will be tourists. The one thing they will all have in common is not income or neighborhoods, but a true love for fashion and design! We will offer goods that you can't buy anywhere else in Michigan and our customers will be excited to know that they no longer have to go to NY or Chicago or LA to get that certain piece they can't find anywhere else. That is something every city deserves, especially Detroit!
Where have you thought about locating this store? How much space do you need? Is attracting pedestrian traffic a concern for your business?
I need to do more research to say with certainty which neighborhoods we really like. Off the top of my head, I think Midtown or Corktown would both be great fits. I think around 1,000 sq. ft. would be a perfect size for us. As far as foot traffic goes, of course that is something to be aware of, but I wouldn't call it a concern. We will tailor our hours and business to the neighborhood, just as we have done in Chicago.
Detroit is home to several young, talented designers who are determined to make a name for this city in the national or international fashion world. What would your business do to help advance that cause?
Man, I love hearing that and I love working with talented people. As I mentioned earlier, we will be eager to see how we can help each other -- whether it be carrying their line in our space or helping them sell their goods or giving them work on the manufacturing end. We are open to it all.
Do you plan to open this business even if you don't win Hatch? How would winning the contest change your business model?
Yes. What the grant with Hatch allows us to do is minimize the risk that comes with opening any new business, no matter where it's located. If it wasn't for hearing about Hatch, I don't think we would be able to do it so soon. But we definitely want to open a location in Detroit, one way or another.
Just a fun question: which style trend should Detroiters jump on right now?
The biggest trend right now is ... there are no trends! I think this is, by far, the most exciting time in fashion because the lines are being blurred. I love seeing people take one element from one "trend" and mix it with an element from another "trend." For example, people will take one thing from the '80s and mix it with something from the present and then mix it with what their grandparents are wearing and then mix it with what their favorite rap artist is wearing, and that is awesome! It's those various mixes that bring out who you are that I love seeing. In my mind, the only trend to ever follow is quality -- but hey, what do I know? I'm just some crazy designer from Flint, Michigan!
Check out this slideshow of all 10 Hatch Detroit 2012 semifinalists. Vote for Vividbraille here.