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Love on a T-Shirt: Detroit Manufacturing's Robert Stanzler

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It's breakfast time at the Clique Restaurant on Jefferson, where eggs and grits have been slung out with equal parts grease and integrity to Detroit's who's who for generations.

Outside the weather plays like a hymn to Detroit's very history up until now -- cloudy, periods of rain, but with the promise of sunshine soon.  

It's not a very busy weekday morning, so when Detroit Manufacturing's Robert Stanzler walks in sporting reflective sunglasses and a little rain on his shoulders, it's not an issue when he walks straight to his favorite booth in the back.

Stanzler, designer/creator of the ubiquitous Made in Detroit line, orders coffee, eggs and hash browns before he settles in, his eyes doing a quick scan of the place.

"The last time I was in this booth," he says after a breath, "I was having breakfast with John Sinclair."

Yes, that John Sinclair, the Detroit poet, activist, MC5 promoter whose 1969 arrest for selling two joints to an undercover police officer inspired John Lennon's eponymous song.

Stanzler, 41, knows a lot of people, which is not all that surprising since he's been hanging around Detroit a long time -- more than 20 years, in fact. But it's not really accurate to call him a name-dropper.

He's a lover of Detroit (the Detroit that spans from 8 Mile to the Detroit River, not the one people from Birmingham and Novi like to say they're from), and that love seems almost too raw, too naked for something as blasť as name-dropping.

"We can only elevate our status in the eyes of the world," Stanzler says with a smile.  Detroit "has really got a unique identity. Every 100 years Detroit has to reinvent itself. That's just our history. It's just our legacy."

Mr. Detroit

And like the sun that's forecast later on this rainy day, he sees brighter things ahead for his city.

"I never felt like it was developing in a substantial way across the board like it is now," he says. "I think we're better off now than we ever were."

So too, it seems, is Stanzler. After breaking ties with the company he started, Made In Detroit, the man who helped popularize the Detroit brand has branched out. His new company, Detroit Manufacturing, debuted more than a year ago and features t-shirts, jackets, hoodies and accessories sporting Stanzler's latest designs. Unlike the current incarnation of Made In Detroit, which is now based in Clarkston and owned by Kid Rock, Stanzler says Detroit Manufacturing is based within Detroit's city limits.

Designs range from the whimsical Little Miss Detroit t-shirts (a take-off of the Little Miss book characters of the 1970s) to shirts that look like bathed-in-grit homages to Detroit's working class heroes.

Emerald City
 
The company is Stanzler's latest valentine to the town he thought of as a "kind of Emerald City" while growing up in Flint. His parents, both political activists, brought Stanzler and his three older siblings to the city often.

"I think I was just destined to end up here," he says, "cheerleading for the place in my way."

At 19, he landed a job as Hudson's display manager before heading to New York to find work in the fashion industry. That proved to be a short-lived endeavor, and Stanzler soon returned to Michigan, where he began Made In Detroit in 1991.

"I personally had more connections here," says Stanzler. "I felt like I could do something more meaningful and personal."

This was the early 1990s, when soccer moms and suburban teens weren't all that interested in identifying with Detroit. The Detroit clothing that did exist, says Stanzler, sported images of violence and guns -- in other words, they reinforced long-held stereotypes.

"The only Detroit t-shirt you could get had a skull on it," Stanzler remembers. "I just thought I had an opportunity to influence in one direction or another and I had to choose. So I did."

His choice included the now-famous silhouette of a worker, wrench swung over one shoulder, encircled by the stark "Made In Detroit" logo. Austere, borderline simplistic, the image resonated with its echoes of Communist proletariat propaganda art and working man pride.

"I thought it was important to reclaim all the dynamic aspects of our identity," says Stanzler. "I think it was important to move forward creatively."

Calling his line Made In Detroit was a response to what Stanzler called the "disingenuous Made in the U.S.A." clothing lines that were popular at the time and often made overseas.

It didn't take long for Made In Detroit to find street cred with hipster, highbrow and hip-hop communities alike. Made In Detroit became a favorite tourist souvenir, a sort of battle scar you could show off as proof you visited one of the few authentically tough-ass cities left in the United States.

Then, as often happens, life got in the way. A divorce and the ensuing financial troubles resulted in the Made In Detroit company being auctioned off as part of Stanzler's estate, he says. Kid Rock, a longtime acquaintance, bought the company in 2005 and soon decided to move its operations closer to his hometown of Clarkston.

Though Kid Rock brought Stanzler on as a creative consultant shortly after the purchase, the arrangement lasted six months.

Stanzler is carefully diplomatic when talking about breaking with Made In Detroit, saying that while much of his advice about the label wasn't heeded, the split wasn't acrimonious.

"It's hard to say what the best possible outcome could have been," Stanzler says now. "I didn't agree with the direction of the company."

Besides, Stanzler had already had the idea for Detroit Manufacturing in his head for some time. It began "in earnest" in 2007, with an eye toward staying true to Stanzler's original vision for a Detroit brand.

"I think it's a more design-driven company," Stanzler says of Detroit Manufacturing. "I really feel unleashed creatively."

Detroit carry out

The Detroit Manufacturing brand has taken up residence in a Saturday morning booth at Eastern Market. The label is also available at retailers both in and out of Detroit.

"It sells very well," Dan Davis, owner of Funky 7 in Royal Oak, says of the Detroit Manufacturing line. "He's got some great art. People like it."

The No. 1 customer of Detroit Manufacturing and other Detroit-centric clothes at Funky 7, says Davis, are area natives who have moved out of the state and come back for visits. "They want to take home Detroit with them."

Felicia Williams, owner of Flo Boutique in Midtown, wanted to carry the line for the positive message it puts out about Detroit.

"It's always a symbol; it's not just words," says Williams. "It's words and pictures that speak something about Detroit."

Like Davis, Williams' most enthusiastic Detroit Manufacturing customer is usually from out of town, whether a transplant or a tourist. Either way, she believes the Detroit brand sells well because people outside of the state still see something authentic about the city.

"We still have a reputation of goodness," says Williams. "I think they still see something good in it."

As for Stanzler, he likes to think he has played, and continues to play, a small role in helping brand Detroit with an edgy-survivor-city label instead of the scary-dilapidated-city label. And whether or not Stanzler's designs have played a substantial role in Detroit's long road to revival or not, they certainly haven't hurt people's perceptions.

Brand design "really has the capability to influence the hearts and minds of people," he says. "And it helps shape perception. ... The greatest success is that maybe I played some part ... an eyedropper full of change in how people view Detroit."



For more information on Robert Stanzler's new company, Detroit Manufacturing, visit www.detroitmfg.com, e-mail info@detroitmfg.com or call 313-529-2988.

Photos:

Robert Stanzler

Inspiration is everywhere for Detroit Manufacturing

Funky 7 - Royal Oak

Detroit Manufacturing T's

Detroit Manufacturing in Eastern Market

Flo in Midtown

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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