We at American Woolen Company love working with companies that have a passion for investing in their communities. Alchemy Detroit is passion personified, and recently we were lucky enough to sit down with Founder and President, Shelley L. Van Riper.
Can you start by telling us a bit about your background? You started in corporate?
Yeah so I spent just over 22 years in healthcare administration. In the last 10 to 15 years of my career, before I left to go into fashion, I was in planning and strategy. I worked for the President of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan as his Chief of Staff Manager. I worked at Henry Ford Health Care system in various fundraising and government affairs roles. I ended up in the Health Care division of Thomson Reuters before leaving to start Alchemy.
With all your years in corporate there’s probably a ton you could have done. Why women’s fashion?
I came out of college and Michigan corporate was pretty conservative. I would wear these Kasper suits, which was what I could afford at the time. As my career advanced I kind of moved into Theory, Hugo Boss, Escada, and Armani suits for work. The business landscape started to change and we moved into this business casual world where it kind of got confusing, right? Because you didn’t really have to wear a suit, but if you were in a leadership role, like I was, you still wanted to look pulled together.
Then it went from corporate casual to “hey you can wear jeans every day!”, and for me being in a leadership position, I wanted a jacket. I wanted to wear a jacket with my jeans and my boots or my heels, and I couldn’t really find a non-suiting blazer like a man would wear. You know, men have so many options for sport coats and more of an elevated casual look, which is what I was going for and I couldn’t find. I came home one day and said to my husband, “I can’t do this anymore.” I was 40 years old and couldn’t sit behind a desk in an office. I just couldn’t take it. So he said, “OK, we’ll figure it out. You have a year.”
I started commuting to New York every couple of weeks and I had a few hiccups with different consultants in Chicago and New York. I had mill reps who wouldn’t meet with me because I wasn’t big enough. Eventually I just pounded the pavement in the garment district and found a woman who represented a mill in Italy who found my first blazer material and my shirt material and my scarves. She was just great. She was one of the first people who was like, “hey I will work with an emerging designer”. It was just pure tenacity and the will to beat down doors.
On top of running the business, you design all the clothes. Have you always had that creative gene?
I grew up on the east side of Detroit. I went to a Lutheran grade school and high school and had never ever been outside of the state of Michigan. I enrolled in Eastern Michigan University, which is a small university here, but they did have a fashion design program. My freshman year of college I met with my academic advisor. She was probably all of about 25 years old, and she said, “Are you going to New York?” I said "No". She said, “Well what about LA?”. I said I hadn’t planned on it. She said, “‘What about Chicago?”. I said I was really planning on staying here. She said, "If you aren’t willing to go to New York or LA or at least Chicago then you need to change your major because there is no fashion here and you will never make it." So I switched majors and ended up getting a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Public Administration.
So you started with an interest in fashion and she led you away from it?
Yeah, so in hindsight, if I could find that woman today I would say to her, "you could have said don’t worry, you don’t have a portfolio and you’re not ready yet, but our program is so strong that we are going to help you, and by the end of four years you can go to FIT or Parsons. We are going to help you get an Internship in New York,” but that wasn’t the conversation. Because I had never left Detroit, and even though I did have this love of design, I had no formal training in high school, There were no sewing classes or pattern making classes in high school so I really only knew that I had this love. A desire. A passion for it.
In hindsight, I think that all the business experience I have in corporate put me in some ways light years ahead of where the typical emerging designer begins. While I don’t have that street credibility from an FIT or Parsons, my former career gave me that confidence from the business side in knowing what you need to do to network and to connect with people, and then I feel like I am so personally in tune with the drape and the fabric, because I am my customer. I am the woman who for 20 something years was constantly looking for the perfect T-shirt or the perfect blazer but with a little attitude, a little edge.
You talked about the shift to business casual during your time in corporate. Do you think there's a gap between what is considered appropriate for men vs. women in that environment?
That’s a good point and again when I worked in corporate, high level leadership positions were traditionally run by men - very conservative and even though there was more of a corporate casual day on Friday, the men kind of didn’t play. Their corporate casual would be more of a sport coat and maybe dress khakis, not even cotton khakis. They would have their jeans, loafers and belt with a white button down shirt and a sport coat and they still looked professional. To be quite honest, I don’t think it’s quite as easy for woman to do [business casual] well. It’s truly a challenge to find elevated pieces that transition from brunch to boardroom. Women traditionally don’t have similar access to tailored investment pieces.
Why do you think that is?
Because I don’t think the options are out there for them. I think there is white space. My jackets are very fitted. They are very feminine, but they are not tight. They are wearable pieces and that is what you get when you look at menswear.
You started Alchemy Detroit with professional women in mind?
I don’t want to be doing corporate wear. I don’t want to be pigeon holed into one area. It's more about a building block for your wardrobe. Our blazers can literally take you from the soccer field with your kids to the board room and anywhere in between.
That is an opportunity but also a challenge. You know as I am meeting with buyers at major retailers they’re looking at my line and asking, "well where do you fit on my floor?". So I am starting to kind of rethink that strategy. Do I want to fit on someone’s floor or is it better for me to go directly to the consumer and tell my story?
When you're coming up with designs, where do you go to pull that inspiration?
You know for me it is very menswear inspired. I follow the Gentleman’s Gazette and I love to look at menswear accessories for inspiration. In addition to apparel, shoes, and accessories, I love photography. Conceptual and fine art photography tell a story. They draw you in. That’s what I’m creating with Alchemy Detroit. You create your own story. You wear the clothes, the clothes don’t wear you. I am not a trend follower where I say, "OK blue is going to be the color next year and that is what I am going for". I am very much committed to that neutral kind of understated palette. Trend-less color palates in black, gray, navy and brown are my go-to choices. Right now I have two styles of blazers. I have a long fitted, what some might call a fashion blazer, and then I have more of a school boy blazer. While I will add additional blazer styles, I am going to stay true to those two cuts.
Your garments all have names. The Sophia. The Madelon. Where do the names come from?
I have six-year-old twin daughters, Madelon and Sophia. The Sophia blazer is a longer tailored piece that wears really well on taller women and the Madelon is a schoolboy cut, which is still tailored, but more of a traditional fit. Authenticity is extremely important to me. All of my pieces are named after women in my life – mothers, nieces, friends, including my friend’s daughters. They all have such amazing personalities and I love incorporating their spirit into Alchemy.
Is there something specific you look for when picking your fabric?
I would have to say it is an intuition. I’m big on energy and instinct. For example, American Woolen has a lot of stripes, but there is a very certain stripe that I like, and it was very clear to me even though the other pieces were beautiful it was "No. No. No. Yes!" It is very much a gut feeling. For me I know what I like and I know what I don’t like, which is sometimes more important than knowing what you do like, is knowing what you don’t like.
Another thing that is extremely important to me, and one I can’t stress enough, is ethical fashion. Partnering with American Woolen Company not only aligns with my commitment to American luxury, it is part of my moral compass to have full transparency and trust in my raw material suppliers as well as my production houses. It’s exciting for me to find American companies who share my passion and excitement.
Does the Made in America movement mean something specific to you?
Absolutely. I mean from day one I have wanted to manufacture in Detroit, and I know in my heart that the talent is here. What is even more important to me is to have my own factory, and to hire people and train people, give them jobs, give them a career and to truly bring back manufacturing to Detroit. How is it possible that we are not manufacturing apparel in the Motor City, when we have made beautiful things for hundreds of years? We are creating a garment district here and we should be providing jobs. If you think about me, I am one of lets say 200 designers in the Detroit Metro area that really aren’t manufacturing here. We are sending our stuff to New York or LA or China or India and that is money that could be put right back into our economy. Which is very much why I am here. Made in Detroit. To do something to add to the economic vitality of telling a different story than what everyone thinks of when they hear Detroit. Can you imagine if I had listened to all of those people in New York and LA. I mean I had three consultants in New York and a couple in LA tell me to drop Detroit from my name. “No one wants to hear Detroit.” That is really like a personal slap in the face because that is saying that you don’t want to hear from me. I am Detroit. This is Detroit.