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Savvy Chic

2712 Riopelle St.
Detroit, Michigan 48207

Karen Brown

By Walter Wasacz
November 24, 2014

It's showtime for Karen Brown at Savvy Chic.

Women and men - couples, groups and singles - enter the small shop in Eastern Market and go directly to the room just to the left of the register. People seem to know what they are looking for. Clothes. Very cool clothes, in fact.

Much of the buzz seems to be about the section dedicated to "savvy gents," introduced earlier this fall by Brown's assistant, Randal Jacobs, who studied fashion in London and has worked for high-end fashion houses in New York, including Ralph Lauren and Public School.

Brown, who opened Savvy Chic on Riopelle St. in 2000, works the shoppers in a friendly, casual way, with Jacobs offering details to specific questions. They do it as a team and it's impressive to watch. Some people drift into the main room, filled with scented candles, jars of imported sauces, kitchenware, greeting cards, stationery and other items. It is fun, active; a lyrical scene, helped by the rhythms of sexy downtempo music by Zero 7, Air and other, mostly European, electronic artists.

If the vibe seems a bit like a dance lounge in, say, Paris, that is purely intentional. While Brown talks to customers and other visitors about products or personal history - it seems like many here, including Brown, are Detroiters who've moved away for a time and are now back home - Jacobs talks of a desire to visit Berlin, where weekend-long dance parties at the famed Berghain club are the norm.

The space may feel international but is also hyperlocal at the same time. There is never any doubt that this is Detroit. The market surrounds the shop; butchers and meatpackers are less than a block away. The makerspace OmniCorp Detroit is next door on the corner of Division St., and also runs above the store and up the block towards Alfred St..

Brown herself is a former nightclub owner who says the experience helped her come up with the exact style and the environment she wanted for Savvy Chic. She studied painting at what is now the College for Creative Studies with designs on moving to Paris and continuing her art career there.

Instead, she found herself in San Diego, married with two children at the end of the 1980s.

"My ex-husband and I opened a jazz club there called Sax," Brown says. "But over a 10-year period it evolved into a dance club, because everyone wanted to dance."

She says that in the nightclub business every detail could mean the difference between success and failure.

"The sound and the lights have to be right, the mood has to be set just right," Brown says.

When she moved back to Detroit and opened her shop she brought her near-obsession with design aesthetics with her.

Brown calls herself "a fanatic" about all the details that go into every presentation at Savvy Chic. Every item seems to be perfectly placed. Even the way that the aromatic candles are organized appears to guide the customers through the store - by the nose - beginning with orange blossom and black currant fragrances as you enter the main room from the street.

As you walk deeper into the store there is more, including candles scented with pomegranate, blood orange, bergamot and grapefruit coriander. In the corner, near the front, are various teas, jars of lemon curd, artichoke pesto, pepper relish, imported oils and vinegars and a basil cucumber hand wash.

Tucked into another corner on the opposite wall are cookbooks, art books, sticky notes (one called "Freudian Slips"), birthday and friendship cards with humorous sayings like "I still miss my ex, but my aim is getting better," and napkins that read "Goodbye Mr. Wrong."

In the second room are men's and women's apparel, including denim, wool and leather goods, from designers like Omar X, Anakata, Cyberoptix and Happy Socks.

Brown says the menswear section - curated by Jacobs, who runs the "shop within a shop" with Brown's son Miles - has given Savvy Chic more balance, adding that men may have regarded the store as one that appealed more to ladies' interests before.

"Menswear was the missing link," Brown says. "Now men do not feel left out when a couple comes to the shop. There is more here to bring men in and keep them happy and interested."

Brown says she is looking forward to the holidays, when she should see a spike in her business; and after the holidays, when she takes an entire month off to travel, buy new product, and change the look of her store.

"This will be my third year doing this. So far, it's working out great," Brown says. "I'm on the road for two weeks, spend time in New York buying and getting some new ideas, then come back and re-do the shop. It re-energizes me, it creates a buzz when I re-open. I recommend doing this to everyone who has a small business."  

Savvy Chic is at 2712 Riopelle St. in Detroit's Eastern Market. It's open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.

All photos by Doug Coombe.


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