One year. One city. Endless opportunities.

One to Watch: Karen Daskas on Buying Local

It's a New Year for the blog, and it seems like a good time to start some fresh traditions.

So in the months to come, I plan on bringing you some stories in three new categories: One to Watch, Unsung Hero and Major Issues. Pretty self-explanatory stuff, but I'm excited to focus the blog on what I think are future-forward topics. In other words, what are some of the big opportunities and pitfalls in front of us?

Today, I'd like to introduce you to someone I consider One to Watch. Her name is Karen Daskas, a small-business owner, municipal booster and international style expert. Her mission for 2010 is to push the “Buy Local” campaigns to new levels.

Daskas and her sister Cheryl are the co-owner of Tender, a Birmingham-based luxury fashion boutique. They sell designer clothing, shoes and accessories of the kind you'd see on Bravo's “Housewives” series or fashion maven favorite “Sex and the City.” Their store carries brands that no other Michigan store can – and they can get the big bucks for them. In other words, if you want to be recognized, you shop at Tender.

Karen Daskas is known worldwide for her insights on fashion. With more than two decades of experience, she's been quoted extensively in magazines such as Vogue and Women's Wear Daily, on Websites like CNN/Money as well as in newspapers including the LA Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

The Daskas sisters also are extremely active in Birmingham, one of Michigan more successful cities. They sit on municipal committees, help with the downtown's development and generally do whatever is necessary to keep their city going.

So why is she an innovator? I consider her to be so because she and her sister are among Michigan's biggest supporters. They give us some cred on the street. They are staying here no matter what and they want Michigan to succeed.

Here's a rundown of my recent conversation with Karen Daskas about Detroit, the fashion world and everything else.

Q: As a business owner and local activist, what has to happen to turn Metro Detroit into the region it could be?
A: It has to be grass-roots movements. It's crazy for us to sit and wait for an answer to plop down in the area. You don't know when that will come. Now more than ever we realize it is a two-way street. People in the past took things for granted. Now they realize they had to make a difference. They have to support it.

Q: People got lazy or complacent?
A: You just always thought it would be okay, even in previous downturns. Businesses – especially the car companies – weren't looking to see who was behind them. Now that they've all caught up with us, they're trying to fix it. I have faith in the car industry. That's Detroit – we are automotive. The car companies are going to get there again, and so are the rest of us. … Detroit is open for business. I'm forever an optimist. There's so much doom and gloom, and people don't want to hear it any more.

Q: What are you doing to help Michigan grow?
A: One initiative we're very passionate about is to encourage Michigan residents to shop local. It's a grass-roots effort to be sure, and we've been working hard to get as many people on board, to understand the importance of keeping shopping dollars in town. I'd really like to develop a very concrete plan for this and I welcome any like-minded individuals or businesses to get in touch with me or start something in their area. And even if someone isn't of the custom of shopping at an independent store, they can do their part by not shopping at the chain stores out of town, for example, when we have the same roster of stores here. Metro Detroit has a wonderful retail scene across the entire price spectrum. Quite simply, if you can't find it here, it simply doesn't exist. And besides, there's a certain amount of fun in telling someone who's just gushed about your new shoes or bag that they came from a wonderful shop in Detroit.

Q: How has business been?
A: We're like everybody else. From October 2008 through the first six months of 2009 were not easy. But we've seen a definite turnaround since the beginning of September. … Our buying habits have changed. People are starting to change the way they think, and it's making a difference. They are keeping their business in Michigan, buying more Michigan-made products. They don't want to turn around and see everything is gone. … One of our newest clients told us she is spending all of her money here instead of New York. She said it was like a light bulb went off.

Q: How does the rest of the world see Detroit these days?
A: Whether I'm in New York or Europe, everyone believes that Tender is in Detroit even if we're based in another city. To most of the world, you say Michigan and they hear Detroit. Everybody around the world knows what's going on here. It's like Detroit is in their backyard. A few months ago, I got a call from the international sales director for Nina Ricci, and he told me, ‘This is not a business call. We just want you to know we're 100 percent behind you.' They believe in Detroit. They believe in us. Now, it doesn't help when you walk into a showroom in Paris and there's our city on the cover of a magazine (editor's note: Time's big piece announcing this Assignment entitled, “Detroit: The Death — and Possible Life — of a Great City.”) It causes a bit of chitter chatter.

Q: Most people probably believe Metro Detroit is a hum-drum place when it comes to the way we dress. What's your take on it?
A: There has always been a fashion and style about Detroit. The city had the Avenue of Fashion for decades – Livernois was home to some of the nation's best stores. People of style have always been here. It's how you choose to look at it. … Yes, there are various degrees of sophistication around here. But there are many people who are educated, well-traveled and know what's out there. They seek out what's new.

Q: Will Tender always be a Detroit institution?
A: I'm proud to say I'm from Detroit. It's sad that so many people are ashamed to say they live here. We have no pride. Where else did all these people make their money? In Detroit! We've got great homes, great architecture, great buildings. We've got it all here. We have everything the big cities have. … I have faith. I know we're going to be great again. Detroit is a gem; we just need to polish it up a little.

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