Urban Chic: Middle Eastern Designer Puts Detroit on the Fashion Map

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From , WDET Detroit Public Radio and

Detroit is recognized internationally as an automobile city and a music city — definitely not a fashion city. But that might be changing. Detroit designer Bassem Souwaidan has created a clothing line that has global distribution and is putting Detroit fashion into a category called urban chic.

Bassem Souwaidan spends most days overseeing his small but successful clothing line, Al Wissam. Many haven’t heard the name Al Wissam, but the brand is coveted in the world of Hip-Hop. Souwaidan’s designs sell at more than 120 outlets worldwide and his signature line of leather jackets have shown up on television award shows, in music videos and in magazines like Vibe.

Famous rappers like DMX, Genuine, and Ludacris wear Al Wissam jackets. So does Beyonce. Souwaidan's designs have been featured in more than 100 music videos and are worn by athletes like Chauncey Billups. He works directly with management and stylists of artists, and when hip-hop artists come to Detroit to perform, they often make a stop at one of the the Al Wissam clothing stores to get the latest style.

But his business wasn’t always this glamorous. As an immigrant from Lebanon, one of Souwaidan’s first jobs was driving pita bread from bakeries in Michigan to restaurants in New York. To supplement his income he began selling clothes and perfumes he bought in New York at a flea market stand he rented in Michigan.

After saving enough money from his trips to New York, Souwaidan opened the first The Al Wissam store in Southwest Detroit in the late 1990’s. Opening a clothing store in Detroit was a big risk. Clothing stores had long ago left the city and there were few retail models he could look to. So Souwaidan began to sell urban wear he felt appealed to the local community, which was a mix of Latino, black, Arab and white residents.

Within a few years after opening, The Al Wissam clothing store became so popular it turned into one of the largest retailers of Timberland shoes in the Midwest. Timberland took notice and teamed up with Al Wissam to start a radio promotion that would ultimately change the trajectory of his business. Souwaidan partnered with Timberland to promote an event called Clothes for Kids. Timberland donated 80 thousand dollars and Souwaidan matched it with clothes from the Al Wissam clothing line.

But it was the jackets that Souwaidan and his team wore to the event that were the biggest hit. For that occasion Souwaidan had about fifty varsity jackets specially designed. He had so many requests for the varsity jacket, it inspired him to design leathers that spoke to a diverse clientele and appealed to Detroit’s ethnic communities. At the event, Souwaidan had his light bulb moment. 

Al Wissam would become a multicultural company, which used fashion as a tool to introduce elements of other cultures to its customers.

“Most of our customers are African American but really we also have a lot of Arabic, a lot of Hispanic and Puerto Rican [clients],” said Souwaidan. 

"Bringing people together; promoting understanding, tolerance, and respect for ourselves and others is our goal,” reads a statement on the Al Wissam web site.

Brian Kritzman is a professor of Industrial Design at Wayne State University. He's considered  an expert in product design, and says stores like Al Wissam tapped into niche markets that emerged at the end of the 20th Century and have proven to be successful.

“Product design has shifted quite a bit…I think what was most common early in the 20th century was to design objects that appealed to a very large community of people, really a huge culture of people,” said Kritzman.

The company’s vision is appealing, but it’s the beauty and uniqueness of the jackets that draws the A-list members from the world of hip-hop. Each jacket has anywhere from five to six million elaborate stitches and there are no seams or cut lines. The jackets are beautiful, soft, intricately designed and expensive. They cost an average of $1000. There's even a music video (explicit lyrics) touting the company. 

Bassem Souwaidan has created a clothing line that has sold more than 40,000 leather jackets in Detroit alone and has global distribution. After years of high demand for his product, Souwaidan says he wants his company to get smaller not bigger. He is now focusing on specialty jackets made in small quantities. Recently, he teamed up with Adidas and the Ali estate to make a limited number of jackets commemorating Muhammad Ali. The jackets sold out within days, and are already a collector's item