Cassidy and Kelsey Tucker, the sisters behind Detroit-based fashion label Deviate, on why they started their own brand, how they focus on sustainability and the struggles of being small-business owners
By Chelsie Dzbanski
Photography by La Vie Detroit
1. Tell us a little about yourself and your professional background.
Cassidy: My sister Kelsey and I are the co-founders of Deviate, a Detroit-based fashion label designing womenswear and menswear collections situated at the intersection of art and fashion. You can find us online at deviatefashion.com and in select Metro-Detroit retail stores.
Kelsey and I come from very different backgrounds, and this makes us a complimentary team. As creative director and lead designer, Kelsey steers the brand’s creative vision. She graduated from Wayne State University with a BFA in Fashion Design and minor in Textile Design. She has experience working in Los Angeles for high-profile designers such as Vera Wang and Adolfo Sanchez. When Kelsey graduated from WSU in 2019, she didn’t want to move out of Michigan and faced a choice between family and career. So she was determined to launch her own label right here in Detroit.
My role within Deviate is to manage our business. I studied at Princeton University and while there I learned that I wanted to own my own business. As a sophomore, I joined a founding team at my first startup. I gained experience in everything from bootstrapping a guerilla marketing campaign to managing the profits and losses. This Detroit-based startup was acquired in a multi-million dollar deal, and from there I was hooked on the startup hustle. Shortly after the acquisition, I was ready for my next venture. Meanwhile, Kelsey was getting ready to graduate. As sisters and best friends, we decided to team up.
In November 2018, we launched Deviate, a brand that builds community around our shared perspective on individuality, creativity, and sustainability.
2. How did you get started in the industry?
Kelsey: I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer since I was about 13. I begged my parents to buy me a sewing machine for Christmas. My persistence paid off and my parents eventually caved. I started out by thrifting from the Salvation Army. At the beginning, I was scouring the store for “mom jeans” that I would take back to my sewing machine to cut, sew, and embellish into those trendy high-waisted shorts. I’d flip these pieces on eBay and Etsy, and that was when I first got a taste for creative entrepreneurship in fashion.
As I grew up, I leaned on fashion as an almost therapeutic ritual. Fashion is beautiful because it is a space that champions and rewards individuality and creativity. As a designer, I was encouraged to be unique, think differently and push the boundaries at every opportunity. Fashion was a natural fit and felt like home.
My love for fashion developed early in my life, but I didn’t truly hone my skills until college. The Fashion Department at Wayne State University is incredible. My teachers became my mentors and they gave me opportunities to take on leadership positions. I learned how to dye textiles at WSU and became the Lead Dye Technician for the Dye Lab. I use these same skills every single day in my work with Deviate.
The assistant designer positions I had also accelerated my growth as a designer. While working at Vera Wang taught me corsetry skills, I learned the most working for Adolfo Sanchez. He empowered me as a designer by giving me real-world experience. My favorite memory of this internship was supporting the design of Kat Von D’s wedding dress!
3. What is your favorite thing about your job?
Our favorite thing about this job is our community. When we first started, we were the new kids on the block just trying to understand how everything worked, who the players were, and how we could carve out our niche in Detroit’s fashion scene. As we ventured out into the community trying to raise awareness about our brand, we were met with so much support! From customers, to brands, to creative entrepreneurs, everyone supported us, shared resources, and helped us get connected in the community.
We remember when we first launched, Roslyn Karamoko from Detroit is the New Black gave us a ton of advice and mentored us towards a launch in her store. We guarantee this isn’t happening in New York! Detroit is special. We are grateful to be a part of such a genuine community and hope this people-first value never changes.
4. Can you share a little bit about how sustainability plays an important role in your brand?
Sustainability is so important, especially right now while we are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and reflecting on how our lifestyle choices may have pushed us here. The fact is the fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Fast fashion has created a waste crisis and has manipulated consumers to crave new clothing now now now. We have to drive change by changing our own habits and demanding better.
Instead of making 100 “okay” garments, what if brands made 10 very special, very unique garments? This is how we operate at Deviate. Our clothing is manufactured in small batches. Sometimes we only make one, singular piece. We wanted to marry our favorite parts of couture fashion with the accessibility of ready to wear. We think there is something beautiful about owning a piece of clothing that only three other people in the world have, or maybe no one else has. But we wanted to offer this “accessible couture” to everyone, not just celebrities and wealthy individuals. Deviate is a brand that empowers individuality because each piece is so special and made with love.
The best part is, our products come to life in Detroit! Detroit has talented tailors and seamstresses right here, so keeping production in the city was a no-brainer. We design, cut, sew and even dye our products in-house in Detroit. We’ve also found a way to reuse 40% of water during our dye process. This is a technique that no one else is doing. We discovered this technique because we are so close to every facet of the production process. We can rebuild a more sustainable fashion industry, but it requires designers and brands to localize their production, get familiar with it and then improve it.
As you can see, we are very passionate about sustainable, conscious fashion!
5. Where do you find inspiration for your collections?
Kelsey: I design collections around concepts, and to be honest, I am inspired by everything around me. I find inspiration in people, architecture, movies, graffiti, music, the simple things in life, the list goes on and on.
My FW 19-20 collection is built on an institution whose raison d’être is to push boundaries, mainly the boundaries of function and gender that choke fashion. My clothing blurs social constructs and liberates individuals from gender-based categorization. In parallel, every design element has a purpose. Maximizing functionality of each component of the garment empowers individuals to push social boundaries.
My SS 20-21 collection is inspired by brutalism architecture that combines function, modular elements, and raw materials to build sustainable structures. My collection concept is “abstract brutalism” – each piece is hand-dyed with local produce and internally battles with “feminine” concepts and colors while trying to bring a new dimension to the intersection of sustainability and edgy-feminine fashion.
6. Can you share some of your career highlights or moments you are most proud of thus far?
We have a couple proud mama moments. The first has to be our initial launch on November 7, 2018. Even though we cringe when we look back at our original logo, it was a happy moment for us because we had figured it out and brought our dream to reality.
Another proud mama moment has to be our brand launch party at Detroit is the New Black! We had an incredible turnout, and seeing our collection hanging in DITNB was a dream. At the time, we were designing out of our studio apartment in Detroit. We basically did not sleep in the weeks leading up to the launch party because we had to stay up all night making all of our products in the studio! And we both are perfectionists, so we could not have even one stitch out of place. We were either super happy or delirious from sleep deprivation during our launch party. Either way, we were very proud!
7. Owning your own business can be very challenging. What are the most difficult things about being a small business owner?
The hardest part, I think, is staying hyper-focused on our goals. There are a TON of opportunities out there to make money. As entrepreneurs, we can quickly identify these opportunities, and we see them all the time. The hardest part is saying no. When we first started, we were following up on every potential lead. Now, we realize that many of those leads were just distractions. One of our greatest lessons learned was to make sure we never commit our time and energy to a one-off project. Everything we do has to contribute to our goal of building a global brand. Otherwise, we are losing time.
Another challenge is of course the roller-coaster of ups and downs. It is extremely difficult to pour your heart and soul into something everyday and still fall short of your objective. Sure, we have really good days, but we have also had really bad days. The beauty of business is that we always have tomorrow. It is our job to learn and get better at planning for tomorrow because eventually, one of those tomorrows is going to be the day we achieve our goal.
8. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many hospitals are experiencing a major shortage of supplies. Can you share how Deviate is helping to address this?
We know our community needs PPE right now, so we pivoted our production to make masks and gowns for hospitals. We donated over 300 masks to local hospitals with the help of our community! We are funding this effort from beanie sales on our website here. We are also currently working with ISAIC and other local manufacturers to produce hospital gowns for healthcare professionals. The community has really come together to address this issue, and it reaffirms that we will get through this together.
9. If you weren’t fashion designers, what would you be instead?
Kelsey: Dolphin trainer
Cassidy: I would love to own a bakery! Baking is relaxing and the end result is (sometimes) delicious.
Now onto some fun…
10. What was your first job growing up?
Our dad is a mechanic and car salesman. So our first job was helping him sell cars!
11. What’s currently on your playlist?
Cassidy: “I Got Soul” by LeRoyce.
12. What was your favorite TV show as a kid?
Kelsey: “The Amanda Show.”
Cassidy: “Spongebob Squarepants.” No shame.
13. Three things you can’t live without?
Kelsey: Coffee, mechanical pencil and paper.
Cassidy: Also coffee, laptop and slippers.
14. Dream vacation destination?
Local Love Questions…
15. Your current favorite local spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
16. Your favorite place to shop locally in Metro Detroit?
17. Your go-to for a good cup of coffee?
18. Your current favorite piece from your collection that you can’t stop wearing?
Kelsey: Hand-Dyed Bell Bottom Pant.
Cassidy: Lavender Hand-Dyed Ruffled Pant.
19. What do you love about Detroit?
There is so much to love. First and foremost, the people are good here. Then there’s the history of Detroit which is almost poetic. The architecture is unparalleled. The creative energy here is so inspiring — everyone is hustling for something they actually care about. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Detroit is the city that never stops. So much to love.
20. Favorite quote or words to live by?
Kelsey: “Happiness is a choice.” – Ralph Marston
Cassidy: “Failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” – Mary Pickford