Creative reinvention

Thursday 11 December 2014 by Simon Fairweather

Nojo Kicks

I’ve been living in Detroit for nearly a decade, having arrived from New York. And I can see that the city’s undergoing a cultural shift. Since I’ve been here there’s already been a lot of change – the city’s been seeking a clean slate for many years.

Detroit, though famous for its motor exploits, certainly wasn’t built on the industry. Rather, the city’s foundations are its hardworking natives – people who are now leading a renaissance.

There’s an active vibrancy in and around Detroit. But this shouldn’t be surprising – it’s always been rich in culture. Along with its automotive history and a strong sports heritage (think Red Wings hockey, Tigers baseball and Lions football), it’s also the home of Motown and the birthplace of electronic music. Years ago, Detroit was known as “The Paris of the Midwest” thanks to its culture, architecture and even road layouts. It was a hot and vibrant city with a French connection.

Aaron has highlighted Detroit’s striking architecture before and a great example is Lafayette Park. The downtown neighbourhood was designed by famed architect Mies van der Rohe, who emerged after the First World War to become a pioneer of much of the modern, clean architecture we see in major cities today. Lafayette Park was one of America’s first urban renewal projects and was added to the National Register of Historic Places toward the end of the last century. Similarly, Frank Lloyd Wright – perhaps America’s most famous architect – has designed a number of homes in the metro area based on what he coined “Usonian design”.

The creative class

Detroit’s mix of industrial grit and diverse culture provides a fertile breeding ground for the wave of entrepreneurship emerging. Budding artists are creating brands and ventures that serve not only to succeed financially, but culturally too. I think this “creative class” fosters spirit, invention and a “can do” attitude, which is spurring this movement.

A great example of a new creative brand is Nojo Kicks. The small boutique offers exclusive and luxury sneakers, but, more than that, it positions itself as a window into the “underground culture” of Detroit. The retailer hosts regular meet-and-greet sessions with designers, artists and musicians, generating consumer interest and creating brand advocates whose passion goes beyond merely the products on sale.

Another Detroit example to which many people gravitate is Shinola. The brand was originally a shoe polish manufacturer at the turn of the last century. But a century later, VC firm Bedrock Manufacturing bought the rights to the name and it’s now a sought-after lifestyle brand that offers high-end, made-in-America products like watches, bicycles and leather goods.

Though Bedrock is a Texas-based company, it chose Detroit as Shinola’s base because of its authentic, blue-collar identity. Shinola’s HQ is in the College for Creative Studies(CCS), which is another figurehead in the rise of the creative class. As well as educating the next generation of inspired musicians, designers, artists and entrepreneurs, the college acts as a conduit for a number of initiatives in Detroit – notably by partnering with the Detroit Design Festival. Institutions like CCS play a vital role in cultivating the future of Detroit’s creative industry.

A solid base

Companies like Chrysler, Ford and General Motors helped pave the way for us. The “big three”, led by their teams of hardworking and talented Americans, helped establish Detroit’s identity in the 20th century. But Detroit’s not restricted by its industrial past and now new brands are emerging, led by what ties the past to the future – solid, enterprising Midwesterners.

This blend of old and new, of established, industrial brands and exciting, creative startups, is the perfect platform for Detroit. It’s a great time to be working with brands in the city and the wider area, and the resurgence shows that with the right ingredients, brands can flourish no matter the landscape.

I’ll finish by echoing the sentiment of Motor City native and entrepreneur Dan Gilbert, who said: “If we work together and open ourselves up to the creative ideas and exciting opportunities all around us, Detroit will inspire people from within and beyond its borders to transform our city into one of the biggest success stories of the 21st century”.


  • Detroit
  • Culture
  • Brands
  • Creativity