Spectacles: Selling Downtown Attitude and Progressive Style

Nestled in downtown Detroit's Harmonie Park, in the shadow of Comerica Park and Ford Field and flanked on either side by the city's theater district and Greektown, Spectacles bills itself as a "quaint urban boutique."

It's quaint, for sure, but like a long-haired Chihuahua with dreads and a spiked collar. This small shop on Grand River, which with its high ceilings resembles a shoebox placed on one end, packs major attitude per square inch, and has long been a destination spot for shoppers looking to stand out.

Proprietor Zana Smith, who opened Spectacles in 1984, says change has been one of the few constants inside and outside her shop during the past 25 years. The physical, cultural and economic evolution of the neighborhood has posed challenges she has deftly met, largely by expanding her merchandise to include a dizzying array of clothing, jewelry, hats, belts, scarves, books, and music. With the glaring exception of the change in nomenclature (good luck getting Smith to call Harmonie Park by its new moniker, Paradise Valley), the current state of the area is pretty good, she says.

On a recent afternoon, Smith sat down with Model D to reflect on her success. Like a good pair of spectacles, she's kept her focus.

Focus on: Adaptation

Smith credits Spectacles' longevity to its success "breaking new lines," or introducing Detroiters to brands and styles they can't get anywhere else in the city. From day one, this has required a willingness to branch out, inventory-wise.

As the name suggests, Spectacles started out providing high-end eyewear to Detroiters, particularly those on the music scene. In the '90s, Smith expanded her inventory to include Spike Lee's 40 Acres & A Mule clothing brand; when its popularity waned, she started carrying underground lines like PNB Nation, Triple 5 Soul and Enyce.

"People follow what I do because when you've been in business this long, they think you have a secret. I don't," says Smith. But she does have a strategy: break in a new line, create a demand, and when other retailers pick it up (as they inevitably will), drop it. It's a simple question of staying ahead of the competition.

Focus on: Provocation

"We sell progressive merchandise," says Smith, who is want to use the majestic plural. "It provokes thought and conversation, so you'll be a spectacle."

Lightening rod pieces include tee-shirts bearing unabashed declarations of identity, pride or proclivity, like the "I (heart) Black People" tee for men or the "I (heart) My Hair" one for women. There's a shirt boasting a huge blunt; another covered with celebrity mug shots (where else will you see Dudley Moore, Snoop Dog and Sinatra on the same threads?). Spectacles also offers a proprietary line of "Soul Detroit" tees for the hometown shout out.

Smith, who spent much of the last two decades networking with local DJs and bands as a professional party planner (all while running her business), is a dyed-in-the-wool music buff. She knows her stuff, and offers patrons a satisfying choice of artists from radio favorites Beyonce and Kanye West to more obscure artists such R&B vocalist Lalah Hathaway, hip hop artist Jean Grae, and Brazilian torch song singer Maysa. On Fridays, Spectacles offers evening hours and a live DJ.

Focus on: Market

Smith adheres to a philosophy of retail equity, believing that, even in tough economic times, everyone should have access to "a retail experience." While some of her merchandise sells for several hundred dollars, much of it is under $100, and she makes a point to keep a selection of items under $20.

Her clientele is a motley crew from "all levels of education and all income brackets." She claims a large suburbanite clientele "that wants to be progressive and ahead of the trend," and still others who feel they're being "dangerous or daring" by venturing into Detroit. People from nearby hotels come to spend vacation money, and parents waiting for their kids at the YMCA stop in to shop (or even to pick up a pair of workout shorts, since the YMCA has no pro shop).

But the biggest determinant of business has been gender, says Smith, who has tailored her offerings largely to men.

"Women have more options," Smith observes, and like the one-stop shopping situation afforded by malls. Men are a different story. "If I get a man and he becomes a customer, he's more loyal. He wears something from my shop, he gets a compliment, and he's my customer for life. Women are more flighty."

Sure enough, three men pop into the shop while we are there, each testifying to Spectacles' indispensable contribution to their wardrobe. Former Detroiter Rodney Bowens, who now serves with the military in Fort Drum, N.Y., is visiting friends in the D and has made a special trip to see Smith, who he calls "good people." She won him over one Christmas Day about 15 years ago, when he needed a last minute gift and Spectacles was the only shop open. "She always has the latest and the greatest," Bowen says. "I like her personality, the reception she gives you, and the fact that if she doesn't have something she'll try to get it for you." Bowen leaves with a new apple-style cap, but not before Smith gives him -- gratis -- a De'Angelo CD for the long drive back to New York.

Later, Detroiter Tyrone Thomas and his girlfriend come by looking for some Crooks & Castles apparel. "I try to keep it urban, try to keep it sexy," Thomas says of his style. It's his second visit to the store, he says, and he guarantees it won't be his last.

Focus on: Community

The third man in is Joel Greene, a.k.a. fluent, a local writer and performer who got to know Smith through her support of the local poetry scene. A self-described "t-shirt freak," Greene testifies to Smith's retail savvy (he comes for hard-to-find shirts, hats and jewelry) but also to her dedication to arts and music in Detroit. Years earlier, Smith had invited fluent to host some of the poetry readings she had organized at the Café Mahogany (Tuesdays nights have been synonymous with poetry in Detroit ever since, Smith says), and in doing so passed Greene a baton of sorts.

Bit by the community bug, he's now organizing cultural events of his own. He worked with McDonald's to publish "Words and Rhythms of the D," a collection of poetry by Detroit area youth that patrons receive when they buy a cup of coffee. And he recently organized a "slam" with local talent at the Jazz Cafe at the Music Hall.

Smith cares deeply about helping new generations find their voice and use it to support the city.

"Detroit has been good to me," says Smith, who attended Central High School, Ferris State University and Wayne State University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in communications in the mid-1970s. "I stay here because I'm deeply rooted here."

Growing up, Smith had what she calls "Berry Gordy Syndrome." Being in the thick of the Motown scene made her aspire to a place in the music industry. Her entrée came in the early 1980s, when Detroiters were flocking to downtown parties hosted by professional planners. She cut her teeth in the trade and, having a natural knack for it, continued with it until just last year.

She remains as plugged in to the scene as ever, and she considers the dissemination of information about the D's music scene one of the main services she provides patrons.

"People tell people to stop at Spectacles so they know where to make their next stop," Smith says, saying she'll give them the lowdown on where to find the best live music. She says Europeans in particular, passionate about techno, have gotten wind about Spectacles as a place to get help navigating the city's music scene.

Smith plans to plan something for Spectacles' 25th anniversary in July. She'd like to mark the milestone by updating her lines and giving the space "a facelift," but she's short on specifics. Particulars aside, it's certain the year will see Zana Smith exercising the same acumen that has kept her in business for more than two decades. Detroit's style set would do well to keep its eyes on Spectacles.

Model D contributor Lucy Ament stays focused on downtown and other Detroit neighborhoods.



Harmonie Park Business District

Retail Owner, Zana Smith

Urban Chic


DetroitCityKev trying on a new fedora

Unless noted, All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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