One People: Special edition sneaker connects youth designers with apparel industry icons

If anyone is committed to creating opportunities for local fashion talent, it’s the ambitious women behind Deviate.

From a production training program created in response to PPE shortages amid the pandemic to local designer showcases and a New York City exhibition centered around Detroit artists, Cassidy and Kelsey Tucker, the Detroit-based fashion label’s co-founders, have spent the better part of the last two tumultuous years identifying unique ways to train and empower local talent in the city’s emerging apparel sector. To continue that mission after helping launch the Fashion Industry Club in 2020 (in partnership with Ponyride, Detroit is the New Black, and the Boys and Girls Club of Southeast Michigan), the Tuckers knew they wanted to use the platform to provide Detroit’s young designers with access to an otherwise guarded industry.

“We thought the best way to do that was by having in-person virtual speakers — industry leaders from all different backgrounds — and so we were just kind of doing some research on different designers. And Ruthie [Davis] really stuck out to us because she's an internationally famous designer who has a lot of experience,” Cassidy Tucker says, noting that the Fashion Industry Club previously collaborated with local sports teams and brands like Moosejaw and Footlocker.

Ruthie Davis. Photo Supplied/Jessica Cirz.

After reaching out on social media, Ruthie Davis, whose eponymous shoe line has graced the feet of celebrities ranging from Beyoncé and Lady Gaga to Ariana Grande, Kendall Jenner, and others, agreed to give a virtual talk as a mentor for the Boys and Girls Club of Southeast Michigan (BGCSEM) Fashion Industry Club’s youth designers. As time went on, though, Davis and the Tuckers came up with a better idea.

“Rather than just talking and being this talking head, like, ‘This is how you run a brand, blah, blah, blah,’ it's like, why don't we just learn by doing for a change? Let's do a shoe together,” Davis recalls.

Nearly a year and a half later, that idea is finally a reality. On Sept. 9, Ruthie Davis, Deviate, and 20 youth designers from the BGCSEM Fashion Industry Club launched the limited edition “One People” sneaker — proof that when designers come together for a purpose, there’s no stopping them until they achieve it.



Paying it forward through education

For Davis, who has collaborated on custom shoes with major brands like Disney and Universal Studios, working on a shoe with women-owned Deviate and a group of aspiring youth designers offered a unique opportunity to do what she loves: empower others — something Davis says she’s always believed in as an entrepreneur.

“I've always had a theme of sort of empowering women, mentoring, paying it forward through education. I think my specific focus is on, what are the actual skills that are going to help young people succeed and thrive?” Davis says, noting that the educational aspect of the “One People” collaboration set it apart from her earlier work with other brands.

To achieve the goal of building up the youth designers’ skill sets, Davis and the Tuckers emphasized placing trust in the group to make design choices independently.

“I really wanted to empower the Boys and Girls Club students — like, this is your shoe. Don’t try to design a shoe that you think Ruthie Davis would like, or a Ruthie Davis customer. What do you want? If you could design a shoe, what do you want to wear?” Davis says.

Still, making sure the youth designers understood the business elements of the design industry — including constraints imposed by production and customer preferences — was also an important part of the education process.

“I really trusted [the youth designers] in that point — to make it something that they would want. But then I gave them the reality check of, you know, when you're running a business, you can’t just do anything you want. Because it has to fit in the parameters of the [shoe] molds that you have,” Davis says.



A team effort

Meeting virtually with Davis throughout the pandemic, the Tuckers and the Fashion Industry Club youth designers spent their sessions discussing design choices and developing sample sneakers while learning to think of design as both a creative outlet and a business endeavor.

“[Davis] sent us one of her sample blanks, which was her hero sneaker, and then we took the hero sneaker and the kids taped it up. And we all came together with different taped-up versions. […] So it was really this collaborative effort to get to this ‘One People’ shoe,” Kelsey Tucker says.

After a lengthy process of shipping prototypes back and forth between Detroit and New York, as well as at least one in-person meeting between Davis and the Tuckers in New York, the group settled on the shoe’s final design — and its name.

“It was very much a team effort, and so the youth designers really drove the concept of ‘One People’ — that came about through this process of all of these different individuals coming together to create this one meaningful purpose,” Cassidy Tucker recalls.

In addition to learning commercial shoe design and production, the youth designers also planned a marketing campaign including a photo shoot at Detroit's On Now (DON) Weekend, an annual festival hosted by BGCSEM, to promote the sneaker.

Mckenzy Wilson, 14, of Canton, was one of the 20 youth designers selected to work on the “One People” sneaker. After participating in the Fashion Industry Club previously, Wilson returned for the second cohort as a mentor.

“As an aspiring designer this meant a lot to me, just to have someone as big as Ruthie Davis want to [collaborate] with us and teach us. It was a big accomplishment. It also showed me that I need to put meaning into everything I do. We didn’t just make a shoe to make a shoe — we had to work with an idea and what we wanted this shoe to portray to others,” says Wilson, who aspires to be an entrepreneur and CEO someday.

Another youth designer on the project, Jayla Harris, 16, of Detroit, has been involved with BGCSEM since the age of six. For Harris, who plans to attend cosmetology school after graduation and eventually go to college for business, the opportunity to work on the Ruthie Davis collaboration offered a chance to learn how to turn an idea into a tangible product.

“In the design process, my part was to come up with as many ideas I could, and how I think the shoe should look like. The most challenging part of working on this project was finding a way to make the shoe more appealing to others and how to catch the customer’s attention,” says Harris.



Making a lasting impression

Like Wilson, Harris says the most rewarding part of the collaboration was getting to speak to Davis and hear her story as an entrepreneur — although having the chance to design and produce a shoe from scratch also made an impression.

“[What] this opportunity meant to me, as an aspiring designer, is that I can make anything I want and put it out into the world, and will have help from all my mentors to make anything I do great,” Harris says.

For Davis and the Tuckers, leaving young designers like Harris and Wilson with a lasting sense of empowerment was exactly what the “One People” shoe collaboration was all about. It’s also something Davis says could lead to similar future collaborations in cities beyond Detroit.

“There were 20 kids in the group. If for five of those kids, six of those kids, this was a game-changer for them — where they made this shoe, they saw it, they put it in the back of their mind, and for the rest of their life they think, ‘I can do this.’ It's not something like, ‘Oh, this isn’t a real thing I can do — I actually did a shoe; why can’t I do it again? Why can’t I do a jacket? Why can't I do a car?’ … I think that's the end goal. And that's all that matters,” Davis says.

The limited edition Ruthie Davis x Deviate x BGCSEM “One People” sneaker is available for purchase online at RuthieDavis.com. All proceeds from the shoe’s sales will go to the Boys and Girls Club of Southeast Michigan.

Read more articles by Erin Marie Miller.

Erin Marie Miller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Metro Detroit whose work focuses on people and small business. Inspired by the genre of New Journalism, she is passionate about connecting people to their communities through meaningful storytelling.