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Détroit is the New Black gives local designers a chance

Through poetry slams and art exhibits, Roslyn Karamoko’s store creates community and highlights Michigan designers

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Ask what “Détroit is the New Black” — a phrase splashed on T-shirts worn worldwide — means, and you’ll get mixed answers.

“When you say ‘orange is the new black,’ ‘pink is the new black,’ it can lend itself to the idea that it’s a trend, but this isn’t a trend,” says Kalisha Davis, the Detroit Historical Society director of community outreach and engagement. “This is more about the pride that members of the community have in a city that we’ve always been behind.”

“Black, in the fashion sense, is a staple,” says Southgate resident Rachelle Williams, seeing the shirt for the first time in the store of the same name. “It doesn’t go out of style. Everybody needs the perfect black dress or outfit that’s appropriate for anything, so I think Détroit is the New Black means we have been a staple for the country — our automotive industry, our music. Detroit has been a staple for American culture.”

For Roslyn Karamoko, the brainchild of those five words printed in a square (with Détroit pronounced in French), the statement is a double entendre that nods to Detroit’s past — a city founded by French settlers — and future. The brand also supports local designers by providing retail space and engages the community with spoken word and arts events.

“You have this French history. And you have the new black, which is representative of new Detroit, but also gentrification and the socioeconomic issues that are underlying throughout the city,” Karamoko says. “I thought it was a really light way to talk about something a little more real and a little more relevant and a bit political on purpose.”

Karamoko, a Seattle native and Howard University graduate who studied fashion merchandising, moved to Detroit in 2013 with her boyfriend after working as a Saks Fifth Avenue buyer in New York City. The boyfriend didn’t last, but Karamoko quickly found a new love: Detroit.

Enraptured by the city’s “new energy,” she decided to stay and fill a fashion void.

“I didn’t want to be just another ‘Detroit T-shirt girl.’ That was not the plan. But I wanted a Detroit shirt,” says Karamoko, 31, sitting near a stack of tees in her Woodward store that opened in July. “I wanted to participate in that city pride element that Detroit is so known for, but there wasn’t really a tee that I wanted to wear or a message that I thought was representative of my feeling as an expat coming into the city and feeling invigorated by this cosmopolitan vibe.”

Her friends and family back home only heard the negative media reports and didn’t understand.

“They were all like, ‘Oh my god, Detroit? Why are you moving there?’ ” Karamoko recalls. ‘I’m like, ‘Guys, Detroit is totally the new black.’ ”

Three years ago, Karamoko printed “Détroit is the New Black” on 15 tees she gave as Christmas gifts. Her friends wore them out, and Detroiters began to ask, “Where can I buy this?”

So Karamoko bought the domain name and started selling the shirts in Eastern Market. The feedback couldn’t have been more polarizing.

“The customers were like, ‘This is really cool,’ or ‘we hate this. What does this mean? Who is this including? I’m white. Can I wear this?’ ” she says.

From her buying background, Karamoko knew the strong response meant the brand had “legs to grow into something bigger.”

Uplifting Michigan brands

Karamoko expanded to sweatshirts and in 2015 opened a pop-up in Midtown. She featured other Michigan brands and connected with fashion designer Tracy Reese, a Detroit native who wanted to get involved in Detroit’s fashion industry.

“Karamoko is a true visionary and definitely one to watch,” Reese wrote in an email. “She has an incredible sense of style and an eye for what’s new and noteworthy.”

Now at Détroit is the New Black, the 6,000-square-foot space on Woodward, Karamoko sells local brands, such as The Lip Bar, Douglas & Co., Ryan Seng and Brothers Leather Supply Co. This month, she’s featuring a clothing collection by Birmingham-based Linda Dresner.

“My hope is that it will be a safe space for designers that want distribution and a presence down here, but would never be able to get into a store,” Karamoko says.

The tall ceilings, black and white color scheme, and eccentric artwork by Detroiter Leon Dickey is a “feast for the eyes,” says Karen Buscemi, founder of the Detroit Garment Group, a nonprofit that supports the fashion community. But more importantly, she says Détroit is the New Black gives Michigan designers “an opportunity.”

“The hardest thing to do is get your first break,” Buscemi says, “and as a fashion designer, your best chance of getting that is going to be on a local level, but if no one is willing to place that order, how are you ever going to prove your product?”

Lazlo founder Christian Birky can attest to that.

The 26-year-old met Karamoko in 2015 when she moved production next to his organic T-shirt company in the Detroit incubator Ponyride. His new line, called TBD (as in, To Be Determined), is hand cut and sewn 10 feet from Karamoko’s screen printing equipment. A partnership — where Karamoko prints her logo on TBD shirts — was a no-brainer.

“There’s a number of people who get a chance to see some of our stuff that wouldn’t otherwise,” Birky says of having his shirts (sold mostly online) in a brick-and-mortar store.

Melissa Butler, founder of The Lip Bar, a lipstick collection that appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” also befriended Karamoko at her Ponyride headquarters. Butler says she admired her “cool, quirky, eclectic” style, and after bonding over lunch dates, Karamoko asked if she’d like retail space. Butler didn’t need to think twice. The Lip Bar (an online retailer) is now the highest-selling brand after DITNB.

The store proves Detroiters can get through the “tough times,” and the concept “makes perfect sense for a city like Detroit,” says Butler, 30.

“When the big businesses left, it was on the smaller entrepreneurs to keep the city alive and artists to keep that heartbeat pumping,” she adds. “Detroit in its very foundation is just about collaboration — getting local people to come together to do really good things.”

Speaking to the community

The Woodward store carries $500 Tracy Reese dresses and $29-$34 DITNB tees, but also includes a gallery for art exhibits, music releases and poetry slams every first and third Wednesday.

“We want to serve as a cultural center, a community space, that really features Detroit art and fashion,” Karamoko says.

Located across from chain stores Kit and Ace, Warby Parker and Nike, which all also opened last year, Karamoko says she’s “always conscious” how her events create culture in this commercial district.

“My hope is this is a beginning of something that will be impactful for this street,” she says, “and it really speaks to the community.”

Detroit native Alyssa Lashay, a 26-year-old Delta flight attendant who lives in the University District, ventured to the Jan. 4 poetry slam. It was the first time she’d been downtown in ages.

“Detroit is changing, which is why I don’t come downtown anymore. To be honest, people downtown don’t really look like me anymore,” says Lashay, who is African-American.

Though she can’t afford the clothes, she likes that DITNB supports Detroit’s poetry scene.

“It gives me a reason to come back downtown,” she says.

Poet Natasha T. Miller, a Shinola brand ambassador, organizes the poetry nights with Microphone Phelps. The suggested $5 donation goes to the nonprofit Artists Inn Detroit. On Wednesday, they’re asking participants to donate winter outerwear for the Ruth Ellis Center, a Highland Park shelter for LGBTQ youth.

While the expensive art and clothes present a stark contrast to the poets’ topics, Miller says it’s an environment for free expression.

“All types of artists and people are welcome,” she says, “but this a safe space for queer folks, and women of color, especially.”

Despite temperatures dropping below 20, a few dozen young, black women came to listen and participate in the poetry slam earlier this month. The voices spoke of police brutality, lost loved ones, the struggles of everyday life.

Phelps shared “The First 10 Things I Noticed When My Son Was Born” — drawing audible reaction with the line: “The doctors were white, and I feared this wouldn’t be the first time a white person in power would try to pull my son away from his mother.”

His poem — and many others — touched on the racial tension in Detroit, similar to the words on Karamoko’s shirts.

“The ‘new black’ is such this pop culture, overused phrase, but when you put ‘Detroit’ in front of it, it takes on this racial connotation,” Karamoko says “... it just creates this conversation that I thought was so interesting.”

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Détroit is the New Black

Poetry Slam

8-10 p.m.

Every first and third Wednesday

1426 Woodward, Detroit

(313) 355-2201

Store hours: Noon to 7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon to 6 p.m. Sundays