Model D-troiter: Rufus Bartell

The name of the store is Simply Casual. If you don't understand what that means, take a look at owner Rufus Bartell, clad in a classic suit updated with wraparound cufflinks and distressed city boots, seated on a Victorian armchair that's part of his store's central conversational grouping.

For the fashion-forward shopper, Bartell has it all — premium jeans, this season's tunic length tops, classic dress shirts, cocktail frocks ... it's a lifelong love affair with fashion, manifest in this Livernois storefront.

But Bartell’s ambitions exceed creating a sartorially superior environment.

Simply Casual occupies a storefront on Livernois north of Outer Drive, on the stretch between Six Mile and Eight Mile. It was once called the Avenue of Fashion when it was chockablock with clothiers, milliners and other cornerstones of the fashion industry. But times changed. The  street took a turn for the worse – though the surrounding neighborhoods— Sherwood Forest, Palmer Woods, University Commons —are some of the city’s most beautiful and most stable. Now, the old shopping district is one of six targeted for renewal by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and Bartell is leading the way.

Bartell, raised on Detroit’s west side, would like to see the strip regain its former glory. He points to a handful of new businesses — a recently-opened art gallery and a colonic shop, among others – and a number of planned establishments, like a suit store and another ladies apparel shop. His own store is a breath of fresh air for the strip, with big display windows bearing now security bars, thank you very much.

Plus, he has another store in the works, a shoe store set to open about four doors down from Simply Casual. Shoehouse Boulevard, he says, will complement the clothing store, offering handbags, belts, shoes and other accessories not carried at the boutique.

But he’d like to see more. He envisions sit-down restaurants, a coffee shop, small business offices, a grocery store, other retail or service establishments.

Detroit’s bad rap frustrates Bartell, as does the the lack of awareness of the city’s often unique retail establishments. The mainstream press, he says, isn’t a good corporate partner, focusing on bad news without highlighting thriving small businesses and positive neighborhood growth.

When it comes to fashion, he says, the city is also short-changed and underestimated. “Detroit is a fashion-forward market,” he says.

Bartell has been intrigued by fashion for as long as he can remember, inspired by the clothing of his fellow Detroiters. He doesn’t want to publicize his age, but he admits that the leisure suit was a popular style in his youth. “Leisure suits, tweeded coats… we called them ‘old man coats’ because our dads wore them,” he says.

The classic suit styles of the 1930s and '40s hold a special place in Bartell’s heart, but his true love, he says, are shoes – the inspiration for Shoehouse Boulevard.

The clothes at Simply Casual target a medium price point, Bartell says, although the higher-end market is represented, too. Jeans start around $60 and go up to $600. Some customers, he says, want a pair of top-dollar premium jeans, but others just want a comfortable, well-fitted pair of jeans with no regard for the label.
This is the store’s second location, and Bartell’s second foray into retail. A graduate of Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in business and a minor in marketing, Bartell got into real estate after college (after a brief stint in management at a local grocery chain – “I lasted all of about three months,” he says.). Real estate treated him well, but then, about six years ago, a friend acquired a three-story building in Pontiac, and the pair planned to develop a vertical mini-mall. “I bit off more than I could chew, and it basically went out of business,” he says.

Undaunted, he moved the retail portion of the operation to a store at Seven Mile and Littlefield. The decision to site in Detroit was easy, he says: “We believe the market is underserved.”

And now the city's got the numbers to prove it: Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Social Compact has released a study that shows that Detroiters spend more than $1.7 billion outside of the city limits.

Last November, Bartell moved the store to its current location in the University District. The storefront, an open, airy space with cool neutrals and exposed ductwork, was then a former dry cleaners, cluttered with antiquated machinery and rubbish.

Bartell gutted the store, creating a space that’s relaxed yet sophisticated, the kind of store where shoppers should feel at home, free to perch on a baroque chaise lounge, chat, browse and experiment with clothing. Detroiters are savvy shoppers, Bartell says.

The commercial vitality Bartell hopes to create on his corner of Livernois mirror the plans of a new organization, Independent Retailers Association, with which Bartell is involved. Made up of retailers in six different categories from coffee houses to clothiers, the organization is hoping to attract at least a hundred members. Then we can have the opportunity to get involved in the retail landscape of city," Bartell says.

If a large enough number and wide enough variety of retailers are at the table, Bartell says, the organization participate in crafting the urban landscape of Detroit – when a new building goes up, or an existing structure has a vacancy, Bartell sees the organization helping fill those spots, matching businesspeople with properties.

Detroit may not have a mall, he says, but the city could become a boutique shopping center like Yonge Street in Toronto or Melrose in Los Angeles.

"What I hope to do is fill in the gaps, because the retail landscape is vastly underserved," he says. "When people come on vacation, and they want to shop, or people here locally want to shop, it could be done in an urban landscape where all excitement and energy of the landscape all comes together. It just makes for an exciting destination."

Nancy Kaffer is a freelance writer.

Rufus Bartell and Simply Casual Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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