When acclaimed fashion designer Tracy Reese met Rebecca van Bergen while participating in the 2018 CFDA x Lexus Fashion Initiative, their shared vision for a more equitable industry of makers sparked a fast friendship. “We just really connected,” Reese says, recalling her encounter with the founder of Nest, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing global workforce inclusivity.
After several meetings at the nonprofit’s New York offices, Reese learned that Nest, along with its U.S.-focused Makers United program, shared many of the same values as her sustainable Detroit-based clothing line, Hope for Flowers. “When I explained what my mission was here in Detroit, we were both like, ‘OK, we have to make sure we’re working together because we have very similar goals,’ ” Reese says. “Once I got Hope for Flowers launched last year, we were still in regular communication and [van Bergen] asked me to join the board — which I was excited to do.”
After joining Nest’s board of directors this year, Reese, a Detroit native, quickly began to advocate for her home city. “I was kind of pushing for Detroit to be on the calendar for the next city [Makers United launched in] — and they were equally excited about it,” Reese says. The program, geared toward building an inclusive and equitable community of makers across the U.S., launched last year in Birmingham, Alabama. Since then, it has expanded to Austin and San Antonio, with plans to launch in several more cities — including Detroit — before the end of the year.
“We have a goal of making sure we reach underserved communities and people that don’t often realize that these types of services are available to them,” Reese says. “We really want to reach people of color and Black women and people who just often get overlooked when these really great opportunities pop up.” In order to achieve that goal, she says Makers United is using strategic methods of quantitative and qualitative data collection to identify and map out the needs of artisans, craftspeople, and jewelry makers in Detroit.
“[Makers United] created a survey that will be distributed next week to learn about the community here in Detroit — what types of artisans are actually here, what kind of services they need, what stage they’re at with their business, or if they’ve been able to turn their work into a business of any kind,” Reese says. “It’s a very open process and we’re hoping to reach as many people as possible.” Reese says the survey will be available on the Makers United website and the Nest's Instagram.
Shayla Johnson, a textile artist and owner of Scarlet Crane who studied product design at Georgia Tech and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to Detroit in 2012, believes Makers United will offer much-needed benefits for makers in the city.
After collaborating with Reese on a fabric printing project for Hope for Flowers prior to the line’s launch last year, Johnson became an early ambassador for the program. “I really want to see more makers get the resources they need and somehow navigate things a little easier. There are a lot of shows and different maker spaces, but not many of us are surviving as much as I’d like to see,” Johnson says. “A lot of us are breaking even. I think we need to get more tools and strategies to stick it out for the long haul.”
Johnson says it’s important for makers to have access to more wholesale opportunities, but she also sees the need for more education about business development and raising capital. “[Makers United] is all about connecting us to an array of resources. I envision it looking a lot like a network where if there’s a need, we’d be able to fill it,” she says, adding that she’s excited to see how the program will blend with other local initiatives related to textiles and sustainability.
To meet the needs of makers in Detroit, Makers United will leverage partnerships with local initiatives to establish a supportive framework for entrepreneurs while offering marketplace opportunities, mentorship, and educational workshops centered on business and professional development. The program will be made available to Detroit makers for free through the support of sponsors including West Elm, the Same Sky Foundation, and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Although the format of upcoming workshops is still undecided due to COVID-19, Reese says the Makers United program is scheduled to launch in Detroit in early fall.
“We’re living in a very volatile time and I think more attention is being paid to the reality that Black people and Indigenous people and people of color are often left out of these types of opportunities or don’t have access to these types of opportunities,” Reese says. “I think everybody here in Detroit is really anxious to make sure the communities that we’re hoping to reach are actually represented.”