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In honor of Small Business Saturday, I caught up with Roslyn Karamoko, Owner of Detroit Is The New Black, which is one of my favorite small businesses in downtown Detroit. We chatted about what Detroit means to her, and how she wants to make an impact on the retail landscape in the city. Enjoy!
Jackie Palmer: What is Detroit Is the New Black?
Roslyn Karamoko: Detroit Is the New Black (DITNB) is a platform for inspiration and design in Detroit. As a brand, we take a minimal approach to Detroit fashion and as a concept store, we incubate brands that want to test the market here in Detroit. So the idea is that we are bringing fashion and contemporary style to the city.
JP: You’re not from Detroit. But you moved here a few years ago and you’ve fallen in love with the city. How has that been? You are bringing something new and fresh to the city. What is the marketplace like? How has the community embraced you? There aren’t many boutiques downtown, outside of those that are backed by major funders, but that doesn’t really count for someone like you.
RK: It’s been a mixed bag. I’m not from here, but in Detroit, if you bring something authentic to the table that people resonate with, they will welcome you with open arms. As long as you are bringing an authentic skill set to the table and trying to help revive the city, it’s received in a positive way. But it is difficult being an independent owner that doesn’t have the financial backing that Shinola or Willy’s has. However, I do believe the store has been welcomed more by Detroiters as opposed to the companies with larger funding coming into the city. Detroiters like to see that you are truly building from the ground up and that this is your passion and you really want to add value to the city. Detroiters really appreciate that.
JP: What do you wish you knew before starting DITNB? I know your previous background is in fashion buying and merchandising, did that help even out your learning curve for starting your own brand?
RK: I think it definitely helped provide a better framework when I started out. I do wish I would’ve learned more on the business side of fashion. Which is always the true test of any concept, if you can successfully fit your idea into a solid and growing business parameter. Having that strong background has hindered my creativity a little bit on where I want to take the brand because I understand purchasing and customer buying patterns. So I’m almost creating into a purchase pattern rather than creating because that’s what I want to create. And that’s hard sometimes because in knowing so much about pricing and margins, I’m more concerned about making it structurally work, rather than how cool and creative products can actually be. That’s the dichotomy of a creative business. But I also know that having that strong background is the reason why the brand is working and why it has grown into what it is now. So I just have to keep going and trust my gut.
JP: That’s awesome to hear. So, I remember our constant conversations about a year and a half ago on your tough decision to leave the corporate fashion world. What advice would you give someone on making the decision to cut the cord? What helped you make that final decision and what makes you never want to go back?
RK: Well, as we talked about, at some point you really have to choose. It will come to a point where you’re doing this side-hustle and its starting to more hours of the day than your actual hustle. So that’s how you know when it’s time to make the decision. And I just knew I could never fully see if this would work until I let go of that security blanket, that was my full-time job. I wish I would have had a bit more of a game plan going in, rather than just launching and diving into it so I had more of a road map. And once you are working for yourself, and it’s a project that you were destined and created to do then you know that going back to a job is not full use of your potential. By going backward in that way and not moving towards your self-growth, your career growth it feels a bit false. So you know it. You know you can’t work for anyone else because the world needs this from you. You wake up every day and you just do it because you really love it.
JP: I love to hear that. Well now that you are currently scaling and building on your strategic partnerships, what’s next for DITNB? Watching this growth has been amazing, so what’s next for the brand?
RK: The next step is figuring out the production piece. It’s been a pretty tricky piece to my growth. I think not having a supply chain ready for growth is the reason a lot of brands can’t scale. Our brand partnerships for the brands that we are carrying in the shop are working great. But now it’s time to focus into moving our private label brand forward in production and looking to find where we can get cut and sewn. Can that be done in Michigan, or in the U.S.? Where are we sourcing our fabrics? What mills can we get in touch with? All the while keeping the brand identity in terms of pricing in a place that makes sense. I want it to remain accessible and affordable for everyone to wear. So I’m working on building a supply chain that’s responsible in keeping that price down.
JP: So, you just mentioned trying to keep your suppliers and products Detroit or American made. Has that been difficult to maintain thus far?
RK: It has been difficult. We have a couple of styles that are made in the U.S. And we do print locally here in Detroit. We are doing our best to source locally here in Detroit. But that is hard in trying to keep everything accessible to locals. It doesn’t make sense for us to come in with a brand that no one here can afford or let alone be a part of, myself included. So, if I’m not doing it for myself, my community and those who support me then it’s not worth it. I don’t know if that means segmenting the brand to have this entry price point label that is super affordable but maybe not the U.S. made but still embodies the brands aesthetic. And then creating a higher end for those that are more interested in where the products are sourced, how they are made and possibly a little more design heavy. But as far as where the brand is going, I think the concept store is one piece and the brand is another. And I have to decide how the brand is going to go into different segments to try and expand.
JP: Let me double back for our readers – this is something I know the answer to, but to give light on your perspective and growth, why did you name the brand Detroit Is The New Black?
RK: When I moved to the city, my friends and family were like ‘oh my god, this is scary? why Detroit?’. And I felt that Detroit was pretty cool. I wanted to create a sort of mantra that was telling people Detroit’s totally the new black and you need to get into it because you’re missing it. And obviously there’s the pop culture reference, so it’s pretty straightforward. Black is timeless, it’s always in style. Detroit has always been in style and has always heavily contributed to the history of American industries and entertainment so much more. So, it’s the new black in that sense. But when you look at our logo, I really wanted to incorporate the history of the city and not just talk about the new Detroit and where it’s going, but where Detroit’s origins lie and acknowledge the bones of the city. So the Detroit theme includes the founding of the city by the French. The new black acknowledges the racial undertones that live within the city, so that resonates with a certain demographic of people. I think it can be taken as a double meaning or a lot of things, but that’s what makes it resonate with such a large demographic, and that’s what represents Detroit in its entirety. And so it’s not about black, it’s not about white, but it is about these conversations that need to be had in order for the city to move forward in an impactful way.
JP: Which is more important: investment or strategic partnerships?
RK: Strategic Partnerships.
JP: I ask because most beginning-stage entrepreneurs I talk to always think they need someone to invest in them to make their idea happen from the start. So why do you value the strategic partner more?
RK: I think the success of a business always stems from having the right team. And if you don’t have the right team at the table, then all the money in the world could be spent and you’ll still end up spinning your wheels and doing things that have already been done. So for instance, in fashion, if you have a strategic partner that is perhaps a fashion house or a brand like American Apparel. Someone who has the logistics of manufacturing already sorted out, then you’re not building a supply chain from scratch because they already have a solid understanding of how that works. For example their understanding of the machinery and how many people on a line it takes to mass produce one shirt or knowing the yardage required to produce certain styles can save you so much time. It can transform your focus from supply chain management to effectively plugging in and growing your brand and aesthetic into an existing infrastructure when you start. Otherwise, with an investor, you could spend a lot of money on building a wheel. And why would you want to do that?
JP: You’re one of the few entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with that has an actual brick-and-mortar retail location. What was that process like? You went from an online store to a physical store. Was that a difficult transition?
RK: I feel like I was thrown into this store situation. It wasn’t something I planned. It came about through a family friend, George N’namdi who owns the entire building. He knew about my retail background and he asked me to curate a pop-up for a few months. And then we did reasonably well, so I stayed. I wouldn’t advise those who are just starting up to go directly into a physical location. It does drain resources, and I don’t mean just financial resources, but time resources as well. But on the other side, it’s a great marketing and positioning for people to really get a feel for the concept. So it’s worked out very well for me even though it could have gone either way, but honestly, I wouldn’t advise it for anyone else just starting out.
JP: Time for my favorite question: What do you want to be when you grow up?
RK: Well, when I was like 4 at my preschool graduation, I got on stage and said I wanted to be a cheerleader. And while that change from professor to fashion buyer and like yesterday I wanted to be a psychologist. But I think that all those professions have somewhat of a common link. And at 4, being a cheerleader is like ‘what, what are you talking about?’ But I think I just wanted to be a cheerleader for people, a champion for people. I want to cheer people on, I want them to be inspired, I want them to live their lives happily. And so, skip to the psychologist and I want to understand how the mind works and how people approach and think about things. With fashion, I can see what inspires people and what makes them happy. The way you choose to clothe yourself is an expression of who you are and how you choose to present yourself to the world. So what do I want to do when I grow up… I just want to touch people. And this brand has allowed me to reach people, and they’re so excited and they feel great in it. It makes me feel like I’ve done something to inspire people in Detroit and put some inspiration in the world about the cool stuff that’s going on in Detroit.
Give your brand the good life!