World commercial class: Pure Detroit revisited after dozen years of entrepreneurial passion

Pure Detroit's business, as the name says, is about selling products that are purely Detroit, from t-shirts recognized around the state and worn round the world -- 313 anyone? -- to beloved local foods and unique art, books, hats, belts, purses and more. And all made right here in the city.

But a conversation with Pure Detroit founders and owners, Kevin Borsay and Shawn Santo, makes it clear that the merchandise is merely the means for a greater mission.

Detroit's history, culture, art, architecture, even its politics are recurring themes when talking to the husband-wife team behind the Pure Detroit brand.

 "I don't think we ever planned on being retail owners or coffee shop owners. It was wanting to contribute to the vitality on the street level," Santo says during a recent chat over coffee at their Rowland Cafe in the glorious Guardian Building lobby -- just a few feet away from one of their three Pure Detroit stores.

A visit to a Pure Detroit can get you something cool or memorable or unusual, no doubt. It can also get you an education.

Take the buildings where Pure Detroit's stores are located. They are among Detroit's grandest and most iconic skyscrapers: the gilded art deco Guardian downtown; the Fisher in the New Center; and the Renaissance Center on the Riverfront.

And Santo or Borsay will and do tell customers about them, in "wow!" level detail.

The success of their businesses and their passion for their surroundings' history, architecture, art and music has combined to make them mouthpieces for the best the city has to offer, unpaid but successful at their job. "Pure" Detroit advocates, in other words.

In 12 years, the business has grown from one small Pure Detroit shop on Woodward to three. The Rowland and two cafes called Stella have also been added to the couple's mini, Detroit-centric empire along with catering and event planning.

The wedding website, the Knot, named the Rowland a top wedding venue this year. About 25 employees help them do it all. Basically, they've launched a new Pure Detroit venture roughly every two years since going into business in 1998. Every holiday they celebrate another anniversary as each new endeavor has always opened around Thanksgiving, the craziest time of year.

Nothing new opened this year, but the post-Thanksgiving shoppers did come out.

"We are off to a great start, after an erratic year last year," Borsay says.

Borsay and Santo's energy and time-management are mind-boggling, their creativity and passion for the city, inspiring. It helps that one is the yin to the other's yang. She is a morning person, arriving to check out the stores and cafes and the catering and events as early as 5 a.m. He is a night owl, working often from home from a computer and by Blackberry but always checking on the stores during the day. Both will think up designs at any time of day.

Their enthusiasm and creativity, and knowledge too, goes into the designs they make themselves and plaster on their hoodies and other goodies. It's also seen in their partnerships with Detroit institutions, medium-sized companies and small start-ups whose goods go into the stores. And it's often on display at the stores with customers.

In the process, they have become ambassadors for the city.

"We love talking about how much someone from Germany or France will know about Pure Detroit. They seek us out," Borsay says.

Their backgrounds, professionally and personally, match their interests in the city. Borsay worked in architecture and is a partner in Archive Design Studio, a firm across the street from the Pure Detroit at Guardian. Santo is also an artist and a former magazine editor covering arts, culture and architecture. They are a fascinating mix of renaissance and hipness, but laid back about it to be sure.

"It's nice to have a store in this location so we can spread the word about the great architectural history we have here," Borsay says of the Guardian building. He and Santo will point out hidden gems for visitors, interpreting meanings or history.

They love that the Guardian Building with its soaring art deco and art moderne intricate golds and oranges draws customers' eyes away from the store.

They so wanted the building and its standout features to be the focus for visitors that Kevin had the lights above the Rowland Cafe -- named after the building architect Wirt Rowland -- turned off so that visitors were not distracted by tables and chairs and the coffee counter, but drawn to the splendor of the building.

A favorite part of their time at the stores is meeting world travelers.

"They often know more about the city and the architecture and the history than most people who live here," Borsay says.

Borsay and Santo have broken their customer base into three categories, the world travelers and suburbanites being one. The other two?

"There are the die hard Detroit enthusiasts, who will find us if we were buried under a rock," Santo says, "and office workers."

They think enough of the city and its connection to techno music launched here to make sure that it's included with world-class cultural capitals in one of their most popular tee shirt designs: Tokyo Berlin Barcelona Detroit.

"I think we're stimulated by the challenge of putting your money where your mouth is," says Borsay. "Our game plan is to invest in the city."

Kim North Shine is a Detroit-area freelance writer who shopped at the original Pure Detroit way back when.
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