Detroit Designers Embrace Challenges of Eco-Friendly Fashion

Being sustainable and stylish don't have to be mutually exclusive as local brands get creative with recycled materials, give back to the community



To some, the vibrant graffiti murals that line the path of the Dequindre Cut may be interesting scenery on a bike ride or a prime backdrop for a selfie. To Amy Peterson, CEO and co-founder of Rebel Nell, it’s a treasure trove of opportunity.

Started in 2013 by Peterson and co-founder and creative director Diana Russell, Detroit-based Rebel Nell aims to empower disadvantaged area women by providing them with classes and jobs creating jewelry made from recycled graffiti-paint chippings found at sites such as the Dequindre Cut. 

The brand was born out of a partnership with the Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS). They offer colorful bracelets, cuff links, earrings, pendants, rings, tie clips, and pins in abstract shapes. 

“We are able to pick up [graffiti] pieces that would otherwise be discarded and possibly go into the soil,” she says. “We try to make steps as best as we can to provide a better environment.” 

Other local brands use recycled materials. When not at her day job at Lear Corp., Bridget Sullivan, a Berkley-based designer, tends to her namesake label. Working with thrift garments, lace, paints, natural dye, organic kozo — an organic Japanese fiber — and more, some of Sullivan’s garments have included vintage gowns repurposed into new wedding dresses and costumes for local dancers as well as tour outfits for Grammy Award-winning jazz singer Esperanza Spalding. 

“There’s so much rejuvenation going on in Detroit,” says Sullivan, who, in 2012, spent time in New York City working for designer Diane Von Furstenberg. “When you have to kind of search and work with what you have you end up making something more unexpected.”

Meghan Navoy, founder of A Wool Story, gets the Detroit appeal, too. She moved from Brooklyn in 2015 and says the low cost of living and the support of a tight-knit creative community make Detroit an ideal place for her to run her small, eco-conscious brand. Unraveling wool sweaters she finds from local thrift stores, she creates handmade hats, headbands, mittens, and more.

“When you make something with a recycled sweater you know nobody else is going to have something like that,” says Navoy, who has also teamed up with Detroit Denim to create items like hand-embroidered pot holders.

Navoy thinks there’s room for Detroit to improve its sustainability efforts, and that designers, who often face challenges with financing their materials and manufacturing processes, could benefit from more niche grants or mentoring programs.  

“I think that as long as we’re rebuilding a city, we might as well try to move forward in a sustainable way,” Navoy says.  

Feller Shades, an Ann Arbor-based handcrafted wood sunglasses brand that has partnered with the National Forest Foundation to plant a tree for every item sold, has also found that eco-friendly production comes with a hefty price tag. 

For now, the brand, founded by brothers Zac and Mac Kish, outsources production to China so it can afford the technologies required to create the sunglasses made from sustainably sourced maple, walnut, zebra wood, Indian rose wood, and more.  

While the brothers find their community to be receptive of their mission, they’re looking forward to having more incentives for the work they do, which will help them bring their production process closer to home. 

“There’s fun in the challenge,” Zac says. “There’s challenges with any business, especially with trying to do things right and trying to do things sustainably, but the challenge should not inhibit your desire to do something creative that also is positive.” 

Renewed Hope

A hallmark of sustainability is infusing new life into something, whether it be a garment, person, or dream. Hope Closet, a local nonprofit that provides prom dresses to high schoolers at no cost, aims to do all three. 

Operating since 2003, the organization will host its annual boutique from April 22-29 in Royal Oak. Teens who need assistance with purchasing a dress for their school dance are invited to book a private appointment to peruse the shop, where, with the help of a volunteer shopper, they will receive one gently used formal dress and one formal accessory of their choice. 

Since its inception, the organization has helped nearly 4,000 area teens get ready for prom, says Emily Baker, vice president of Hope Closet.

“You wear a bridesmaid dress for a couple hours,” she says. “The dresses have so much more life in them.”

Baker hopes that the boutique inspires the young women who receive the dresses to do something good for their community, bringing the act of giving back full circle.

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