In Detroit, Textile Artists Are Doing It for Themselves
Could worker-owned factories revive American manufacturing in the Midwest?
On the outskirts of Detroit’s historic Boston–Edison neighborhood, snow falls gently outside a townhouse apartment softly lit by the table lamps of half a dozen industrial sewing machines. Local designer Kenyetta Caldwell can’t sleep. Her mind is spinning with ideas for designs that could be manufactured right here in Detroit, designs that could change the relationship between fashion and manufacturing. Caldwell is dreaming of a factory without bosses.
In 2014 Caldwell started working at The Empowerment Plan, a non-profit that seeks to address homelessness by hiring and training women affected by homelessness to manufacture coats that can also be used as sleeping bags.
During her time as production manager, Caldwell worked closely with the staff, to support them not only as workers but as members of a community. Building trust with her team wasn’t always easy, but it taught Caldwell the importance of meeting people where they are at as a leader, instead of demanding your team comes to you. “Strength comes in many forms,” Caldwell says of the lessons she learned during her time at The Empowerment Plan, and “what breaks you can ultimately make you.”
Strength comes in many forms
Starting in 2016, Caldwell decided to take the leadership skills she had honed at the Empowerment Plan and set out as an independent designer. Now she runs her own brand Creo by Keca, producing streetwear & accessories steeped in a classically fresh Detroit aesthetic.
“Creo by Keca represents a lifetime of skill sets from designing, tailoring, automotive and apparel production, along with specialty sewing like bridal,” says Caldwell. With over thirty years in the apparel industry, Caldwell sews her line of handbags and apparel herself in Detroit: “I have always been tactile and kinesthetic in my approach to things—I put a lot into what I create, it’s my passion, my baby.” However, the start-up costs associated with local apparel manufacturing are extremely steep to navigate alone.
Furthermore, those that have made a foothold for themselves in Detroit’s growing apparel industry are rarely representative of the historically Black population of the city. In 2019, Caldwell decided to do something about it and tapped three other veteran textile artists to start the conversation. “We saw a need to have a presence of a minority-owned apparel production company in Detroit,” says Caldwell, “being a native as well as a veteran in production sewing, I feel we can make an impact in an industry that isn’t typically inclusive of African-American women and men.”
Looking forward into 2020, Caldwell and her new team have big plans for the fledgling initiative. Pulling support from other local efforts to organize the industry, Detroit Textile Artist Collective now represents an intergenerational coalition of textile artists, who are demanding and manifesting better working conditions as well as more artistic control over their work.
“Our short term objective is to secure the funding to own a building that can be operated as a cooperative manufacturing facility” says Marguerite Woodward, Organizing Director of the Autonomous Design Union, another solidarity network in Detroit’s garment industry that has partnered with DTAC for this mobilization over mutual goals. “Our long term objective is to unite the workers and artisans of Detroit’s garment and textile art industries, in order to raise the standards for creative labor across all industries in our community.”
The dream is so big it might be daunting to someone less experienced in the creative process than Caldwell. “I fail often, but I do my best to recover as quickly as I can by seeing what failed and how to fix it,” she says, sagely reflecting on the opportunities she has navigated throughout her career—“failure is your friend if you change how you see it.”