Tommey Walker's Detroit vs. Everybody T-shirts are now known around the world. On the heels of opening a new store in Southfield, Tommey talks about partnering with Faygo and his plans for the future. Stephanie Steinberg
Native Detroiter Tommey Walker Jr. came up with the brand after being fed up with the way people treated his city
It was 2012. Detroit was spiraling toward bankruptcy, and former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s disgraced face still plastered news reports.
While Tommey Walker Jr. was driving down Jefferson in his midnight blue Chevy Blazer, the native Detroiter thought about the past weeks, months and years.
“I was like, ‘This isn’t fair what’s going on. It’s Detroit versus everybody.’ And then it was like bam,” he says, snapping his fingers. “I just saw it immediately.”
He spent two weeks perfecting the Detroit vs. Everybody logo that eventually would be on over 250,000 T-shirts worn by Detroiters, celebrities like Eminem and Keith Urban to people in London and China.
“When I saw it, I knew I had it. I shed a tear,” says Walker, 30, sitting on a bench outside his Eastern Market store, repping a gold and diamond Detroit vs. Everybody necklace. “I printed it up, and it’s been going ever since.
“I call it the gift from God.”
Enterpreneur from a young age
Walker thanks his mother, Diane Walker, a retired Detroit Public Schools teacher, for cultivating his creativity. Until age 11, he took ballet, tap and jazz. His business acumen came from his father, Thomas Walker Sr., an accountant who died in 2009.
“TJ has always been just an enterprising young man,” says his mother, 68, who calls him TJ, short for Thomas Jr. In middle school, she took him to Sam’s Club to buy candy to sell to his classmates. He switched to CDs at Cass Technical High School.
“The area we come from, we knew people that used to sell other things,” says rapper Oba Rowland, 30, who’s known Walker since sixth grade. “People used to poke fun at the fact that he’s selling CDs,” he says in a telephone call from Atlanta. “It taught me you gotta humble yourself. It’s not about what people think about you — it’s about where you’re trying to go.”
Walker also worked at Music-Tech Records on Woodward and McNichols that had a graphic design service in the back. Owner Alando Williams promised to teach him the trade if he bought a laptop. So Walker saved up.
“He showed me everything he knew about Photoshop,” Walker says. “He taught me a lot that shaped my brand.”
After the store closed, Walker spent hours designing with Williams.
“He always experimented with new designs,” says Williams, 41. “It wasn’t like everybody else’s work.”
During those hours, Walker confided in him “how much he wanted success,” Williams says.
The teen didn’t just dream. He worked — at Pier 1, valeting at MGM Grand and 12-hour music store shifts.
“I’ve seen him come to work even before he went to school, or come to work straight from school, even though he’d have the opportunity to go party,” says Williams. “When you’re living in the city, and there’s not a lot of opportunity, the person that rises is the person that really sacrifices everything to get there.”
Sparking new dialogue
Detroit vs. Everybody business manager Sean Xavier Williams says others view Walker, his best friend since Kindergarten, as a “mysterious guy.” “He just keeps to himself,” Williams says, “but at the same time, he’s a people person.”
While attending Wayne State University, local artists hired Walker to design fliers and album art. Then recording labels Def Jam, Interscope and Jive started calling.
“I remember being in class and not being able to pick up,” Walker says. “From there, everything was snowballing.”
He branded Detroiters Big Sean and Mike Posner, as well as rappers Wale, Yelawolf and Cody Simpson. Screen-printing equipment he and Williams invested in generated more business with shirts for family reunions, churches and schools.
He kept grinding, until a trip to California made him halt. While packing, Walker watched a news segment on Kilpatrick. When he got to Los Angeles, he flipped on the hotel TV, only to find the ex-mayor still the main story.
“That was the most amazing thing to me, just seeing the reach that this had.” he says. “It made me evaluate how important of a city Detroit is to the world. I never had that thought.”
His anger simmered, thinking how outsiders stereotyped his home — a city that’s impacted “the culture of America,” he says, “down to the Model T.” Walker vowed to use his talents to spark a different dialogue.
From trunks to TV
The first artist to wear the shirt was Earlly Mac. The rapper was chilling with Walker before a Pontiac show when he asked to wear it.
“He came back that night and was like, ‘Man, it’s going to work.’ ” Walker recalls.
Rowland wore the black tee with white letters when he bounced for night clubs. “People would come up to me and be like, ‘Yo, where’d you get that shirt from?’ ” he says. “I’d be like, ‘I got them in the truck. How much you want?’ ”
Then in 2013, Keith Urban wore the tee on “American Idol,” and Detroit vs. Everybody went viral overnight.
“That was the first major rise in sales,” Walker says. “We actually got to see the power of the tube.”
Four months later, Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson held up the sweatshirt while on “The Colbert Report,” unbeknownst to Walker.
Brand Manager Will Willingham kept up momentum by digging through his Rolodex. He got the shirt into the hands of Eminem and his friend, rapper Royce da 5’9”. That led to licensing Detroit vs. Everybody for Eminem’s 2014 song of the same name and “vs. Everybody” for Shady vs. Everybody merch.
The one person Walker wanted to wear the shirt has worn it many times. His favorite rapper, Nas, had a fashion line, Esco, that Walker wore as a teen. Now, Nas wears Walker’s line when performing in Detroit. “That was a defining moment for me seeing the tables turn,” Walker says.
Yet for all the celebrities who rep the shirt — including Puff Daddy, who licensed Bad Boy vs. Everybody for his Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour’s pop-up shops — it’s the person on the street who lights up Walker’s face. “I really love seeing people wearing it and just walk past me,” he says.
More than a T-shirt
“The culture we want to create with Detroit vs. Everybody is the same culture that the old English D has,” Walker says. “When you see it, it represents Detroit.”
“Faygo is kind of like the underdog in comparison to the big guys (in the soft drink industry),” says Dawn Burch, the 108-year-old firm’s marketing manager. “But we’re standing our ground, and we’re continuing to evolve. ... So we can relate to the concept of Detroit vs. Everybody.”
Walker is opening his third store in Southfield on Sept. 23. The 3,200-square-foot shop at 12 Mile and Southfield Road is a result of suburbanites requesting a closer branch.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg ...,” Walker says. “I just want to keep the brand hot and come up with new designs because it seems like the city has chosen us to represent them.”
Where to find Detroit vs. Everybody
400 Monroe, Suite 340
The Detroit Shoppe in Somerset Collection
2800 W. Big Beaver
166 W. Maple
12 Mile and Southfield