Savvy Staying Power

One Eastern Market store was ahead of its time — and is still taking the lead
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Photographs by Kristi Gnyp

There’s a shop in Eastern Market that bills itself as “the Paris of Detroit.” To get to it, you’ve got to walk past meat trucks, crates of fruits and vegetables, and lots of other vendors that seem better-suited to this famous open-air destination. And yet, Savvy Chic, the longtime Eastern Market boutique with a sophisticated style all its own, is flourishing after years in the same graffiti-covered building.

“People always tell me, ‘This store is really cute! You should be somewhere else, though, like Royal Oak or Birmingham,'” says shop owner Karen Brown. “And I always look at them and ask, ‘Well, what’s wrong with Detroit?'”

Savvy Chic is a hidden gem, and its luster lies in Brown’s trailblazing entrepreneurial spirit. Younger décor and gift boutiques in Midtown like Nora, Emerald, and Hugh, and the Detroit Mercantile Company, down the street from the market, have followed in the last few years, helping to reimagine Detroit’s retail scene. Savvy Chic, however, came to its location 16 years ago, long before Eastern Market and the rest of the city started to diversify its offerings.

Food remains Eastern Market’s priority, says Vice President of Business Development Randall Fogelman, but businesses like Savvy Chic and other arts-and-crafts retailers will be important for the market experience going forward. It’s why the concept for the Sunday Market, expected to start next spring, will likely “focus on fun instead of food,” Fogelman says. It aims to bring in more creative non-food retailers to complement traditional produce vendors.

Brown in many ways has set that precedent with her boutique on Riopelle, and she thrives on her passion for Detroit. Still, she acknowledges that business might be better in the burbs. But that doesn’t concern Brown, who deliberately set out to be different. “If you’re hidden between two meat markets,” she says, “well, then that’s a surprise.”

Savvy Chic’s hand-painted sign hangs in the window, inviting shoppers to enter a world far removed from the normal hustle of the market. Filled with a little bit of everything, the boutique sells clothing, specialty foods, unique kitchenware, detailed artwork, and other home décor items. The sound of French waltzes and accordions fills the air.

A former student of the College for Creative Studies, Brown pays attention to every minute detail to create her signature Parisian style, an ode to Detroit’s French history. Each display is treated more like a work of art and carefully crafted to catch people’s attention. “I’m a fanatic, actually,” Brown says. “I come in and touch everything. It’s all about presentation, how it looks when a customer walks in. It’s kind of a sickness.”

Brown uses her store as a canvas, and is known to repaint the walls at least once a month, using soft hues of yellows, greens, browns, and grays to create an entirely new store every time someone visits. Even the floors don’t go untouched by her paintbrush, sporting faux wood and marble tile finishes.

Savvy Chic is the result of a gutsy move Brown made many years ago. She met her husband in San Diego where they opened a jazz nightclub. It was successful, but when Brown and her husband decided to divorce, she moved back to Detroit with nothing. With that entrepreneurial drive still inside her, Brown opened Savvy Chic with the goal of offering a different shopping experience in Eastern Market — and she still routinely offers patrons a glass of wine while they browse.

“I want them to feel like when they come in, they don’t want to leave,” Brown says. “To say ‘Oh, I could live here. It feels like home.’ ”

Those charming ways worked wonderfully on one faithful patron, Deborah O’Brien, who is now Brown’s full-time shop assistant. O’Brien seems to embody the Savvy Chic style with her vintage wardrobe and laid-back attitude. She calls herself a Savvy Chic convert — someone who fell in love with the store at first glance and kept coming back religiously.

“I was standing in the market and saw the door open. I said, ‘Oh my god! It’s a store!’ ” O’Brien says of the first time she noticed Savvy Chic’s façade. “I ran over and was so happy. That was almost 16 years ago. It was like a vision from afar.”

Since working closely with Brown for almost four years, O’Brien has fully absorbed the amount of dedication the store owner puts into her work. “I respected (Brown) before,” O’Brien says. “But I have an enormous respect for her now that I’ve seen what she does, and how much fun she has doing it. She’s really enjoying her life.”

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