Sewn together: Pontiac’s underground fashion scene goes mainstream

In the Pontiac clothing store and gallery E&K Arts and More, racks of bright dresses and skirts, jeans, high heels, handbags, and jewelry fill the room. A mannequin by the front door models a bright pink maxi skirt and matching T-shirt with the words, “#But God” in silver rhinestones. On one of the bright pink walls sits a painting of a young, African-American woman. She is staring off into the distance, wearing nothing but a green and brown necklace, a blue African-inspired head wrap, and a bracelet labeled, “EK.” 

Shops like E&K Arts are beginning to pop up in Pontiac, as more people realize there is a market for clothing stores and sewing services. Once known for cars, the city is reinventing itself, and fashion is becoming a major part of that transformation. 
Kathy Daniels, co-owner with her husband of E&K Arts and More - photo by Micah Walker
E&K Arts is the creation of husband and wife, Earl and Kathy Daniels. Both Pontiac natives, Earl is an artist, painting the numerous pieces hanging around the store. Kathy is the fashionista, creating her own T-shirts as well as helping customers find the perfect outfit. 

In 2013, the idea of owning a business came to Kathy—though not for herself. One day after coming home from work, she found a painting Earl had made on the table, surprised she never knew about his artistic talent. Determined to showcase his artwork, Daniels inquired about setting up a booth at the Pontiac flea market and realized she should follow her passion, too. 

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t let him do everything alone,’” she says. “I love fashion and accessories, so let me see if I can do something with my talent. We just intertwined our gifts together.” 

In 2015, the Daniels opened their first store in Southfield, but found it hard to build a clientele there. Closing that location, the two found a space in their hometown on 35 North Saginaw the following year. The 750 sq. ft. building, however, quickly became too small to hold her merchandise and Earl’s artwork. So when the couple discovered their current location at 71 N. Saginaw was available, they moved there in March of this year. 

While the majority of E&K Arts is centered on fashion, Daniels says Earl is working on turning a hallway in the back of the store into a gallery to showcase more of his artwork. Meanwhile, Daniels wants to expand beyond T-shirts and begin making other pieces of clothing. 

She says she hopes E&K Arts is here to stay in Pontiac, and that she can pass the business on to her children and grandchildren.

“We want to leave our mark on the world,” she says. “We want to show that you don’t have to try and work for someone else, you can work for yourself.” 

Only a few doors down at 67 N. Saginaw is a full service sewing company, Detroit Sewn. Formed in August 2015, the company makes a variety of apparel, accessories, and home goods, ranging from women’s and men’s wear to pillow covers. 

Owner Karen Buscemi is not new to the fashion industry. In 2012, she founded the Detroit Garment Group, a nonprofit dedicated to providing education and opportunities for the city’s fashion community. Buscemi came up with the idea for Detroit Sewn while working with the garment group, noticing there was a growing demand for apparel to be made in Michigan. 

“We were getting inquires daily, sometimes multiple times a day,” she says. “At that time, there really wasn’t anywhere for someone to go in Southeastern Michigan to get full sewing services like product development, pattern making, and then the actual cutting and sewing of the garments in production.”

Karen Buscemi, owner of Detroit Sewn

Buscemi initially planned to open a facility in Detroit, but says the process would have taken too long to build from the ground up. Instead, she set her sights on Pontiac. Buscemi says it was the right location for the company, as the city has faced similar challenges to Detroit. 

Detroit Sewn has over 100 clients nationwide, reaching as far as New York and California. The company is currently working with Michigan natives Tyler and Catelynn Baltierra from MTV’s “Teen Mom” on their children’s clothing line, Tierra Reign. Parts of the process were captured on camera when film crews visited the facility in July to shoot scenes for the upcoming season. 

Detroit Sewn has steadily grown its clientele. The company needed a bigger factory to keep up with demand, and moved into its open-floor 5,000 sq. ft. space on Saginaw in June.

Despite starting the company because she sensed the demand, Buscemi has still been surprised at the number of new clients that come through the door. 

“It’s so much bigger than I ever could’ve imagined,” she says.“There are all these people who have been waiting to make that move. They were waiting for this to happen, and now that it’s here, people are taking that step and realizing their dreams, and I think that’s the most exciting thing about it.”

Detroit Sewn's manufacturing floor

At 180 N. Saginaw, Perry Earl is busy at work folding T-shirts at OC Tees, a screen printing and embroidery company he started working for three months ago. While Earl helps design shirts for others during the day, he creates his own T-shirts in his spare time under the brand Native Kings

“Native can mean the place you call home, but to me, native means original—taking pride in your community,” he says. “King means the newest generation.” 

Earl is a part of the new generation of rising young leaders in Pontiac. Dreaming of having his own T-shirt business ever since he was in the 5th grade, Earl made his vision a reality when he was only 21. Now 25, the entrepreneur is expanding beyond shirts, creating hoodies, hats, jerseys, and more.
Perry Earl, founder of Native Kings - photo by Micah Walker
But Earl is looking to build more than just a brand. While Native Kings is a for-profit company, he also runs a nonprofit, Nation of Kings, through which he organizes projects like park beautifications, helps underprivileged teens attend their proms, and hosts a “less fortunate” brunch for residents every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Recently, he organized a back-to-school drive with other Pontiac businesses, collecting backpacks and school supplies for needy children. A portion of the proceeds from his business sales go towards initiatives in the community. 

“I created a brand to create a more conscious mindset for my peers in Pontiac,” Earl says. “I feel like I can create a trend everyone can follow. I want them to see it’s not just a brand, it’s not just about clothes, but actually helping out the community. I want something that will be around 10, 20 years from now.” 

One way Earl is preparing for longevity is by relaunching his brand. He says when he started Native Kings, he didn’t have the knowledge or tools he has now, and wants to reinvent his brand the “right way.” Part of that reinvention is experimenting with the design of lunch boxes, socks, swimsuits, and office supplies. In addition, Earl wants to create a line of items featuring notable people from Pontiac, such as heavyweight boxer Pinklon Thomas, Olympic hurdler Hayes Jones, and Wilvem Charli Yarbro, the first female African-American firefighter.

Currently, Earl is working with downtown brewery Fillmore 13 on a line of specialty shirts that will read, “I love native beer.” 

Earl hopes to eventually open his own storefront, but for now, customers can buy his merchandise on social media, and whenever he is out on the streets of Pontiac. 

“Native Kings is a lifestyle that you actually have to live up to,” he says. “No matter how much money you got, no matter who you are, how popular you get, you’re nothing without your community. The community built the platform for you to be able to perform.” 

All photos, except where mentioned, by David Lewinski.

Read more articles by Micah Walker.

Micah Walker is a Metro Detroit-based journalist.