After Chrysler Suit, Pure Detroit Founder Continues to Believe

April 29, 2012, 9:52 AM by  Bill McGraw

The news emerged last week that Chrysler Group LLC and Pure Detroit had settled their lawsuit over the store’s use of the phrase “Imported From Detroit” from the iconic Super Bowl ad.

Details were not released, but Pure Detroit continues to sell “Imported from Detroit” shirts, and has no plans to stop.

The lawsuit brought together the legendary, ever-improving automaker and the cool boutique that was a pioneer in discovering what Chrysler found out with its ad: Detroit might be funky and downtrodden, but the passion many people feel for it is real, and that craving can be incorporated into a brand.

The founder of Pure Detroit is a soft-spoken suburban refugee named Shawn Santo. She felt the Detroit vibe at an early age and realized that lots of other people were feeing it, too, though little did she know how Detroit would sell as the years went by.

Santo opened the first Pure Detroit store in 1998. It was a hole-in-the-wall in the crumbling David Whitney Building. Today, Shawn and her co-proprietors own three Pure Detroit stores, three coffee shops and one outlet that sells lingerie, handbags and refashioned jewelry. They employ about 15 people. The stores are in notable buildings: the Guardian, Fisher and Renaissance Center.

On the day the settlement was made public, Santo, 43, was at the store in the glorious lobby of the Guardian Building, straightening merchandise and waiting on customers, surrounded by T-shirts, food products, books, pottery and photographs. All of it had something to do with Detroit, especially a striking 19th-Century map of downtown that had been repurposed by an artist. Cost: $450.

She declined to talk about the legal stuff, but wouldn’t shut up when the subject switched to the city that is her store’s namesake.

“I’m just part of a group of people who grew up in suburbia, in kind of a monotone,” Santo said. “The attraction of Detroit was more a reaction to growing in a suburban environment. There were richer options. It was more soulful. It made for a richer life.”

Santo graduated from Plymouth Salem High School and Wayne State University, where she studied art and urban planning. Her first Detroit-centric commercial venture was a magazine titled “Left Bank,” in 1995. The idea of the title was that Detroit sits on the left bank of the Detroit River, sort of how the Latin Quarter of Paris sits on the Seine.

The first issue, with a photo of the still-standing corpse of J.L. Hudson’s building on the cover, was 106 pages of stories on art, the blues, Tiger Stadium, the Gem Theatre, urban planning and many others. It oozed Detroit love.

The magazine lasted only a few issues, but three years later Santo jumped back into the Detroit business with the store. Her vision of stock went way beyond the kind of souvenirs sold at the airport or museum shops. She sold items by local artisans, and the overall theme was classy and hip.

She also became an evangelist for local entrepreneurs. In one former Pure Detroit location, on Congress, Santo nurtured up-and-coming fashion designers, providing them with micro grants, industrial sewing machines and window space.

Building the mini-retail empire included struggles before the Chrysler suit, including the recession, crazy landlords and the travails of doing business in Detroit.

“I had no sense of what retail life was like when I started,” Santo said. “It’s very intense. But it turned out our merchandise had a life of its own and continued to grow.”

“It seems scary out of the gate, but you might open one morning and someone comes in and buys $200 to $300 in books.”

One day in the Fisher Building store, an expatriate Detroiter, then living in California, walked in and bought one of every vinyl record in stock. They ranged from soul to garage rock to techno, about 100 records in all.

“He was in town for his father’s funeral,” Santo recalled.

The sentiment that drives customers into Pure Detroit is the same feeling that sparked the tremendous reaction that Chrysler received from the “Imported from Detroit ad, which starred Eminem, haunting music and riveting images of the city.

Many people feel something deeply for Detroit, be it love, pity, nostalgia, hope, sadness – or a combination of all of the above.

I’ve never met anyone who feels it like Santo, who describes herself as a spiritual person in general.

“Detroit is sacred ground,” she said. “When I walk into Avalon,” the Midtown bakery, “that’s a spiritual experience. The nature of the interactions, the people. Encountering things in Detroit permeates deeper. It’s not just the muffin you eat. There is something definitely deeper.

“I bond with Detroit as a friend. I feel a personal relationship with Detroit.”

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