Detroit en vogue.
Before its renaissance over the last decade, Detroit was not exactly a destination for many suburbanites — save for the occasional Red Wings game or night at the theater. For Rachel Lutz, though, the city was always a grand and exciting home away from home as a child.
“I had the luxury of growing up with parents who really loved the city. They had offices in the Fisher Building, the Whitney Mansion, and Greektown, so even though we lived in the suburbs, Detroit was very much a part of my life, and I think my passion for historic architecture, art and culture come from spending time in the city with them early on. For example, my dad helped prevent Orchestra Hall from being torn down and, after they saved it, we would go to chamber music concerts together, and he would point out parts that had been restored. They would also take us to the DIA on the regular; we did Easter egg hunts down Ferry Street… A lot of my formative years were spent in Detroit.”
Those experiences, coupled with her parents’ enthusiasm for the city, instilled in her a commitment to preserving the history that made it so special.
“I always felt at home in grand old spaces like the Fisher Building, Whitney Mansion, and Orchestra Hall, so preservation came very naturally to me. My parents also taught me the value of craftsmanship, so I grew up with an appreciation for the ceramic, glass and wood elements that went into those buildings.”
After high school, she attended Wayne State University for a time, paying her own way by working not only in luxury retail, but also as a travelling Advance Person for the White House.
“I really wanted to go into diplomacy and one day work in the embassy or the White House social office. As a teenager, I did a lot of volunteering for social justice causes and various political campaigns because I really wanted to work in a field where I was making a difference. Then, when I was laid off from my retail job, I realized I didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore. I also had always wanted to have a store of my own, and though I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to sell, I knew I wanted it to be in the city of Detroit because I knew there was a need for apparel boutiques. Oddly enough, I’ve realized retail isn’t all that different than politics: Both require an understanding of human communication and connection because you’re trying to improve peoples’ lives.”
With that, in 2011, she took the leap and opened The Peacock Room: A vintage-inspired women’s clothing and accessory shop located in the historic Park Shelton building.
“It’s ironic that I chose to open a clothing store. I was plus size girl in high school and had a bad relationship with my body, so I also had a bad relationship with the fashion industry and clothing shopping. And, because I paid my way through school, I never felt like I belonged in a lot of stores because of the price points. So, with The Peacock Room, I wanted to create a place where a group of friends could go and try on clothing no matter their size, and everybody could walk out the door with something wonderful no matter their budget.”
The store was a hit, and within months she had the opportunity to open a pop-up, Emerald, in the very same building.
“Another business in the building had gone under, so the landlord approached me and said, ‘you know, people really love what you did with The Peacock Room, would you like a little extra space for the holidays?’ We decided to do it, and then eventually turned Emerald into a permanent store called Frida.”
The name is a nod to Frida Kahlo, who lived for a time in the Park Shelton and has long been an idol of Lutz. Different than The Peacock Room, this new store would have a more eclectic and bohemian style.
“Frida was a feminist when it was not so popular as it is today. She really paved her own way and a lot of women find her to be a very relatable icon, which is part of the reason I feel her legacy embodies our culture of empowerment.”
For Lutz and her team, empowerment is an essential element of individual style.
“Fashion doesn't necessarily come from a runway or a magazine or a blog — fashion is about how you express yourself through what you wear. So, we empower women to think of fashion in that way, instead of what they've been told it should be. We’ve encountered women in the fitting room who clearly have some negative perceptions about their body or themselves that have been on loop for a long time. We want to break those patterns and empower customers to think about who they are and help them express and change that. It’s an amazing feeling when a woman trusts us to pick something that might be out of her comfort zone and she loves it.
It’s those human moments that have helped her business succeed in an age when online retailers reign supreme — and in a city that hasn’t been a fashion hub for decades.
“At first, everyone thought I was crazy for opening a brick and mortar location when everything was going online; especially, of all things, a dress shop in a society where women are wearing pajama pants outside of the house. But I actually think it’s worked because it was an unconventional idea and because I believe algorithms will never replace a real person who’s passionate about dressing you. More than that, women still love to dress up. Detroit loves to dress up. People wear beautiful things to church here; they wear beautiful things for celebrations and the auto show preview and charity balls… During those moments, they want to look their best, and we help them do that.”
Lutz says looking your best in Detroit can mean anything from sporting trendy athleisure gear to donning the more elegant, vintage-inspired clothing she supplies at her stores.
“I support whatever women want to wear; I just like to give them the option. Detroit has a heritage of really fantastic boutiques and retailers — like Felicia Patrick from Flo Boutique, who really knows her customers want something different and interesting and artful. We also have women who are local style icons, like my friends Marsha Philpot, Sabrina Nelson, and jessica Care moore. I often think about women like that when I do my buying, because Detroit is full of artists and designers and people who march to their own beat, and those are the people that I’m simultaneously taking inspiration from and serving.”
Today, she’s doing that in The Peacock Room’s new location in the Fisher Building, which holds a special place in her heart.
“When the folks at the Fisher Building first approached me about opening a second location, I was hesitant. But then I saw the foot traffic in New Center and realized there really weren’t enough retailers serving the neighborhood. I also didn’t feel downtown was quite right for me, and the Fisher tugged at my heartstrings because of my parents and, of course, the architecture is spectacular. So, the moment I walked into the suite, I turned to my friend and said, ‘Detroit has all these amazing historical spaces, and we just don't treat them the way we should.’ I still wasn’t sure I wanted another store, but I left that day knowing I wanted to protect that space.”
She ultimately decided to open The Peacock Room’s second location in the Fisher, paired with a new modern and edgy concept called Yama. The two spaces together added to nearly 5000-square-feet, and nearly tripled their footprint overnight. It’s been a success with both Detroiters and suburbanites alike. And though she admits it’s not always easy being a retailer in the city, filling a need that simultaneously fosters meaningful relationships across Detroit and Metro Detroit communities is worth the effort.
“The most rewarding moments are those of true human connection. That can be anything from watching new friendships form to seeing customers become nostalgic because our clothing reminds them of their mothers or grandmothers. Those are the moments that matter and become emotional for our customers and us… Just recently, our postal worker came in all bundled up in her work gear. We got to talking about vintage jewelry, then she unzips her hoodie, rolls up her cuff, and she’s wearing these huge chunky Aurora Borealis crystals, which she wears every day in honor of her mother. I got tears in my eyes because it was so beautiful to see someone pay tribute to a loved one through her style. We live for moments like that, and they don’t show up at your doorstep in an Amazon package. That story exemplifies our true purpose in the community: It’s not just about the clothes, it’s about fostering human connection — that to me is the most rewarding part of what I do.”