Local Designer Series: Shelley Van Riper Reinvents Classic Apparel with Alchemy Detroit
Shelley Van Riper went to school for fashion but ended up in the corporate world working in an office setting that had her searching high and low for classic, professional apparel. While she made do with what she could find, her constant search had fueled the fire to get back to her first love and actually create what she was looking for. Shelley left the corporate world, but always kept it as inspiration, and Alchemy Detroit was born.
DG3: Congratulations on your very recent launch of Alchemy Detroit. Tell us about your collection, yourself and why you wanted to start Alchemy Detroit.
Alchemy Detroit: Thank you! As a DG3 member, I’m excited to share my story and hope that it inspires others to follow their passion. The inaugural collection is about getting back to basics, complementary pieces that fit seamlessly into your existing wardrobe – blazers that are on trend but are timeless, the most amazing jersey tees that work for every body type, and the softest of scarves that have you covered in every season.
I didn’t follow the traditional path to starting a label. In 1990 I enrolled at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) as a fashion design major but left after one year to finish at Wayne State University (WSU). At EMU, I was advised that if I wanted to make it in fashion, I really needed to move to NYC, LA or at least Chicago. Having never left Michigan before, I really didn’t have the wherewithal to make the move and switched my major to Psychology. After graduating from WSU in 1994, I earned a Master of Public Administration from Oakland University in 1997. I’d spend the next 20 years in corporate America in various roles in government affairs, philanthropy, business planning and strategy.
Throughout the years, I was constantly on the hunt for wardrobe staples: black blazers, white work shirts, you know, the basics that a young professional woman would wear to work but could also be paired with jeans or even shorts. While Alchemy Detroit or the spirit of it has been in my heart for decades, it wasn’t until I turned 40 that I finally felt I could transition on every level. I spent roughly a year planning things out and doing research and then I basically took my savings, a small SBA loan, and a loan from my husband, Craig, to start the company in January of 2014.
Alchemy Detroit was started to provide quality American made luxury basics. I am committed to manufacturing here in Michigan and source raw materials from some of the best suppliers in the world, whether cashmere from Italy or custom brass buttons from the renowned Waterbury Button Company in Connecticut.
DG3: You sell blazers, tees and scarves; why only those products? Do you plan on expanding?
AD: It was my very role in corporate that fueled my passion for design. I’d been wearing suits since my early 20s. What I always found lacking were classic and timeless wardrobe staples that would carry me from season to season. My biggest pain points were blazers, layering tees and basic white work shirts.
For Spring/Summer, we have short sleeve versions of all of our tees, again, in black, white and gray. Warm-weather blazers will remain focused on basic colors like black, white and navy in stretch cotton blends. And while blazers, tees and scarves will remain core to the line, there is a clear path for expansion that is thoughtful and relevant. For example, we all need the perfect sweater, the elusive white shirt, a lounge pant and a killer skirt.
DG3: What has been your toughest hurdle to cross when it comes to launching a new line, and if you have overcome it, how did you do that?
AD: There are two hurdles that immediately come to mind. First and foremost, lack of financing in the form of grants or loans. While I have invested personal assets, it was not nearly enough to launch the label. I had a very difficult time getting a SBA loan as well and ultimately, had to seek private investment. There are millions of dollars coming into Michigan for tech but I found investment dollars nonexistent for someone starting a label. I thought I had a sound fiscal plan to launch but I do think I underestimated the sheer amount of capital required to do this and do it right. Finding fashion label mentors is also another big challenge.
The second hurdle has been manufacturing. I am committed to manufacturing in Michigan but as of today, the resources do not exist, especially for my blazers. There are so many changes that occur in the process; from pattern making, sample making, fittings and production, you really need to be boots on the ground during that entire process. I have had to use resources in New York and Chicago and it has cost me valuable time and money. I’m still looking to find pattern makers, sample makers, fit models, digitizers and graders, here, in Michigan, to not only support my business but to provide work for those like me who want maintain Michigan as their personal and professional home.
DG3: What's the worst advice you received while trying to start your line?
AD: By far, the worst advice I received was to drop Detroit from my name. This mostly came from people in NY stating that no one in NY, LA or anywhere else would be interested in anything from Detroit. This was well before places like Shinola and John Varvatos started shining a light on all of the positive things happening in Detroit. I don’t hear it as much anymore but it did give me pause. However, in the end, Detroit is the core of what Alchemy is about – being born and raised in Detroit impacted me in immeasurable ways and to drop that from the name would be like dropping my identity. I’m so happy that I didn’t listen to the Detroit naysayers.
DG3: If you could give any advice to someone starting his/her own line, what would you say?
AD: Have a really sound financial plan, research everything, ask for help and make sure you have a business plan that can really tell your story. What makes your label unique? Why would someone want to buy your product? Be able to passionately and confidently tell that story. Lastly, surround yourself with people who actually want you to succeed because there are many moments when you are frustrated or feeling defeated and you really need objective voices to keep you on point and moving forward.
DG3: What fashion trend do you despise and why?
AD: I think the most natural and interesting thing a woman can do is to be herself and let her wardrobe be a reflection of her own sense of style. When you are comfortable in what you are wearing, it trumps any trend. Alternatively, when I see women trying too hard to wear what everyone else is wearing. It shows and not in a good way. For me, the balance has always been about making good choices and seeking quality pieces that can blend the old and the new; items that are made really well but don’t broadcast labels.
DG3: Right now, and no cheating, what are the contents of your purse?
AD: Makeup bag, wallet, checkbook, keys, coupons and probably receipts. I hate receipts and I typically throw them into my handbag and just end up cluttering my purse!
DG3: Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin?
AD: Louboutins…all day long.
DG3: A-line or pencil skirts?
AD: I’m so not a skirt person…at all! But, if you made me choose, historically, it would be a pencil skirt, but I think if you can find the right cut and drape of an a-line skirt, it can be extremely flattering for all body types.