Inside Cassidy and Kelsey Tuckers’ mission to put Detroit on the fashion-design map
By Jamie Ludwig
Many Michiganders seeking careers in the fashion industry relocate to New York or Los Angeles to pursue their dreams, but Cassidy and Kelsey Tucker — the sisters and co-founders behind streetwise prêt-à-couture fashion label Deviate — have firmly planted their roots in Detroit.
Raised in the Plymouth area and based in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood, the sisters started their company with a guiding principle in mind: “To elevate Detroit’s reputation as a fashion city,” says Cassidy, 25, who manages business operations while Kelsey, 23, serves as creative director and lead designer. “There’s a ton of talent and a ton of beauty in the city, and I think that’s often overlooked. We felt like we could change that narrative.”
The seed for Deviate was planted after the Detroit-based startup where the Princeton-educated Cassidy worked was acquired, and she started looking for a new project. She teamed up with Kelsey — a Wayne State University fashion-design student who’d worked for designers like Vera Wang and Adolfo Sanchez in Los Angeles — and in 2018, the Tuckers officially launched their brand.
Since then, the pair have stuck to their plan to boost Detroit’s fashion industry. They’ve built an in-house, all-female team of eight local artisans, creating fashion jobs in a city with comparatively few opportunities for emerging designers. “Many sectors of Detroit’s fashion industry are still nascent,” says Cassidy. “In an up-and-coming market it can be difficult for creative talent to identify opportunities.” They also carved out a niche in dyeing fabrics using sustainable, locally sourced products, and began producing complicated garments and entire apparel collections for other brands. For one project, they dyed 500 hoodies for Sabra Hummus in support of the company’s 2020 Super Bowl commercial.
For the Tuckers, the ability to capitalize on local resources has been key to their success. “We were fortunate that we had the knowledge and the know-how to produce our designs in-house,” says Cassidy. “We found that really gave us a competitive edge, because we were able to cut our startup costs by four or five times. It also put us closer to the production process and forced us to better understand how we could be more sustainable.”
The sisters’ ingenuity, flexibility and resourcefulness came in handy at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the country grappled with PPE shortages this spring, they stepped up to make masks. Soon, they became connected with Detroit-based nonprofit Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center (ISAIC), and joined a local coalition of groups working to supply the community with standardized PPE. Realizing that the repetitive, high-volume work could provide an opportunity for sewers looking to hone their skills, Deviate launched a three-tier PPE training program; students and recent grads could learn about PPE production before moving into various leadership and design roles within the company.
After an initial 12-week rush, demand for PPE slowed. Deviate decided to continue the training program and produce PPE as needed while ramping up contract work for other brands — many of which were struggling with overseas communication lags and lengthy shipping delays. “COVID-19 really put a highlight on the fact that it’s hard to communicate [and] it’s hard to get your product,” says Cassidy. “The time between making a sample and getting your final product could be half a year. We really have an advantage of being local; our clients can come in and see the products being made, see the samples, be there for the whole process, and really get that quicker turnaround time.”
The Tuckers are even drawing creative inspiration from the pandemic. In March Deviate launched Reckoning and Reflection, a limited-edition unisex collection Kelsey describes as “very heartfelt,” and which captures the terrifying, unsettling realities of our times. The dystopian-spirited Reckoning pieces revolve around distressed, faded blacks, detailed with patches and fraying fabric while the utilitarian-leaning Reflection pieces are made of muted neutrals in minimalist designs. “We’ve been expanding into more collections that are based on emotion and art, and a story that’s being told,” says Kelsey. “My story for Reckoning and Reflection was basically that the world’s just ended and you’re in this bubble where you’re watching — not acting — and you don’t really know what to do.”
Still, Kelsey and Cassidy aren’t letting anxiety about the future thwart their work. This fall, Deviate is launching its most conceptually and technically ambitious collection yet: a line of streetwear that’s designed for men but can be worn by anyone, and incorporates stereotypically feminine elements to challenge the relationship between gender and fashion. Kelsey points to classic French menswear (such as cravats), and the androgyny that runs through contemporary womenswear (think boyshorts) as some of the catalysts behind her concept.
“It’s definitely urban, it’s very streetwear, but it’s also very tailored, so you could wear it to work or out on the street and look very cool,” she says. “It’s taking tailored suiting fabrics and making them streetwear.”
If style icons like Prince and David Bowie are any indication, Deviate is onto something — though speaking to the Tuckers, it’s clear they’re more focused on capturing Detroit’s current energy than creating a collection steeped in retro style. And, in true Midwestern fashion, they’re looking to lift up those around them while doing so. “Kelsey and I are really open and approachable, so if there are designers [in Detroit] who are looking to start a collection and don’t know what direction to head in first, please reach out to us,” says Cassidy, adding that the city is “brimming” with talent. “Give us another 10 years and Detroit will be on the forefront of the fashion-design and apparel-production industry.”