Five years ago, Rachelle Willnus was designing training programs for Ford Motor Co. Today, she's designing hats, fascinators and headbands for some of Metro Detroit's most fashionable brides, models and socialites.
Willnus, who has a master's degree in Instructional Systems Design, is the owner of Derby Hats by Rachelle in Farmington Hills. Her home-based business has grown to the point where she hopes to opena retail storefront someday to sell her handmade headwear.
"These hats make you the center of attention in a good way. It's like wearing a work of art," said Willnus, who once worked with engineers and now works mostly with organic materials such as peacock feathers and fibers such as sinamay.
Metro Detroit long has been known for its manufacturing prowess, building mighty machines that drive the Motor City. Now, the region is gaining a reputation for its designers, crafters and do-it-yourself companies that turn out some of the most desirable accessories around.
Want to impress your Instagram audience? Take a shot of your watch from Detroit-based Shinola. Want to show off your artistic side? Add a spectacular charm or ring from Rebel Nell, a socially responsible company in Detroit that makes jewelry from fallen chips of graffiti. And why sport an ordinary purse when you could have an original from Hamtramck's Better Life Bags, where a percentage of the sales go to support women trying to break out of poverty or homelessness?
Accessories are an ideal spot within the fashion world for Metro Detroit to shine, said Rod Brown, co-owner of The Shirt Box, a men's clothing retailer in Farmington Hills.
"When you dress, it's all about the details. And all of the details can be found in your accessories. It's what gets your noticed," Brown said. "Our three hottest sales segments right now are socks, boutonnieres and bow ties. ... It's a subtle thing, but it matters. Even if you're wearing a black suit, you can wear a killer sock and it changes everything."
That's a message that resonates with Robin Richardson, founder of Ivy's Custom Corsetry in Sterling Heights. Richardson said her telephone has been ringing off the hook from people interested in her high-quality, one-of-a-kind corsets.
Some of that traffic comes because of celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, who has made "waist training" a buzzword among fashionistas. Although Richardson does not make her corsets for this purpose, she appreciates when stars including Madonna bring the art of corset and corset making to the mainstream.
"A good figure doesn't go out of style, and it comes in all shapes and sizes," Richardson said, noting that most high-end designers have a corset in their fashion lines. "You can wear them for an occasion, whether it's a birthday party to a wedding to your own personal satisfaction."
Personal growth and a fascination with watches brought Shaun Reinhold from the automotive world to Detroit. Reinhold is the founder of Canvas Watch Company, which differentiates itself from other luxury brand by "crowdsourcing" its designs and offering limited runs of its timepieces.
Reinhold formerly worked at Tesla Motors, where he said he gained "firsthand experience with the challenges of manufacturing a new and complex product." Watches held a similar challenge.
"It's not the most rational hobby," laughs Reinhold. "There is the guilty pleasure aspect (of this business). But I love these classically designed objects — there's something about them that draws a certain crowd. ... It's like a classic car; it holds a kind of value because it is a snapshot of where you were at that moment in time. It is a connection to the past that appreciates over time."
For Willnus, designing a training program requires similar skills to making an elegant hat for the Kentucky Derby. Willnus began working at Ford Motor Co. when she was 19, and she said she truly enjoying her time at the auto manufacturer. The only reason she left, Willnus said, is that she started a family and wanted to stay home with her daughters.
But that need for a creative outlet burned in her. So Willnus used her manufacturing-design background to make a transition to designing hats. Willnus believes that her chapeaus also require a strong knowledge of design, shape and form. Like the old design mantra says, form and function have to be part of the process.
"As with engineering design, hat designers must be able to assess fit of a product — such as a client's face and head shape with hat size and function," Willnus says. "Any woman can wear a hat or fascinator. It's about finding the best design to compliment the shape of the face and head size of the wearer. ... It is the perfect opportunity for your inner hat lover to shine and enjoy getting dressed up."
Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.