Street Easy: A Chat with Detroit’s SMPLFD Creative Director Vincent Troia
Just south of Detroit’s historic Eastern Market, SMPLFD’s flagship storefront softly glows, its windows bright with hip threads and leafy potted plants. Both a retail shop and full-service screen-printing center, the space opened September 2016, a brick-and-mortar extension of the online brand that trio Andrew Davis, Vincent Troia and Justin Fishaw had been developing for over a decade.
Centered around Detroit-themed totes, sportswear and “Dad caps,” SMPLFD also provides a site for local designers and vintage purveyors to shill their wares year round, collaborating with area artists and makers to promote a more synergistic confluence of talent in the city. “Urban revitalization” can prove a loaded term, especially in Detroit, and creative director Vincent Troia suffers no illusions—or fools—in describing SMPLFD’s ongoing efforts and vision. That said, it’s uplifting to hear someone hold on to a vision of the future that isn’t focused solely on the bottom line.
Keep reading for our interview with Troia.
SMPLFD has been around since 2004—when did you three decide to turn your full attention to building it into a brand and company?
It started in 2004, but in the beginning it was more of a hobby. Andrew and I went to the College of Creative Studies in Detroit. He studied illustration, and I studied fine art and sculpture. We both had experience with graphics and screen-printing from high school. In college, we knew how to make t-shirts, and being too broke to buy the cool threads, we knew how to do it on our own. Justin and Andrew started doing that, making one or two shirts. That was SMPLFD back then.
After we graduated from college in 2007, we all went different directions professionally while keeping SMPLFD going. Circa 2010, we all had our own regular jobs and lives, and SMPLFD often overlapped with whatever we were doing. In the last couple years, we realized that if we stopped doing it part time and did it full time, we could bridge the gap and start paying ourselves. Really, SMPLFD got real around 2012.
In the last five years or so, Detroit’s arts-and-design scene has gained real national visibility. As someone from Detroit, how would you characterize this growth and SMPLFD’s relationship to it?
There’s a renaissance here, as people say, but there are also definite systemic problems on a very deep level. Education and growth are falling apart, and the population of the city is still dwindling. Capitalism will have to change before Detroit will really go through any big-scale transformation. With that said, I moved away in 2009 and came back a year later, and just in that year I could tell something was going on—a few new coffee shops and a couple bars. And then the rapidity of stuff opening in the city increased every year. For whatever reason, there has been some regeneration and it started fueling itself—a hype machine. More people come out to the city, spend more money and then more places open.
There’s the commercial side, and there’s the art scene. For us, we are business owners who are a part of the conversation about what comprises the “New Detroit,” but we are also tied to the more organic, bohemian “poor artist” scene we come from, a scene that has been in the city for a while. As far as how we fit into it all, Detroit is impoverished in a lot of ways—when I go to places like New York and see how the different aspects of the art scene are intertwined, and how it generates the livelihoods of so many creative people, I see how many holes Detroit has. I’d like SMPLFD to be a facilitator of all that—that’s what gives a city its distinct color and flavor.
I feel humbled, though. We get a positive response, and people like our stuff when they don’t have to. I feel humbled that people in Detroit are accepting and excited and will spend money at our shop, even though a lot of people don’t have a ton of money these days. With all the creative people we come in contact with—photographers, or people launching their own clothing lines, musicians we’ve befriended at parties we throw—we’re definitely all getting more intertwined in a more expansive way as SMPLFD grows.
Are your designs collaborative? Or is it mostly you and Andrew designing, with Justin in charge of marketing?
It’s been us a lot, but this retail space has definitely shifted how we’re thinking about the company and doing business. We’re collaborating with artists where we pay them for designs, and we want to do that more. For example, our friend Desi, who has a fashion line called Paid Actor, is selling stuff in our store. Another company—The Velvet Tower—has a rack of vintage items in our store. We’re trying to make visible what sometimes is obscured because of a lack of infrastructure in Detroit.
Where did the SMPLFD name come from?
Justin or Andrew came up with it way back—these days we think it lacks a little personality. It’s not the name I’d land on with my more mature mind today [laughs]. But at the time it was about starting a fresh, simple thing: something straightforward. By now, it’s more of a symbol—and our designs do tend to be pared down and cleaner.
It seems like a clever nod to a more minimalist take on streetwear that’s creative all the same. And it fits Detroit’s aesthetic well—stripped-down, no vowels, raw and gritty. Your store also seems to attract both the designer streetwear aficionado and those interested in something basic and from Detroit.
We’re definitely conscious of accessibility. We are all broke artist types ourselves [laughs]. It just seems absurd to spend so much money on clothes—we’re just not those types of people. If it’s a graphic on a t-shirt and we’re getting the shirts wholesale, we shouldn’t be charging that much. We don’t want to discriminate. If you’ve got twenty bucks, you can still get a t-shirt at our shop. And that attitude is definitely tied to how in Detroit, you can’t be pretentious. You can’t have really expensive clothing in a city that just isn’t that. We’re not Fifth Avenue. Detroit is much more blue collar, and we want to reflect that in our brand as much as possible.
With that said, the more we move into design, stuff can get a little pricey sometimes because it costs more to construct. But we never do a standard 100 percent markup. People would just laugh us off the block.
Is most of your audience in Detroit? Online?
Most of it is Michigan and Detroit-centric, though we do sell online nationally and internationally. With the store in Eastern Market, we’ll have musicians come from out of town to pick up something cool in Detroit. We’re trying to go more that way—we don’t wear Detroit-themed shirts ourselves. As individuals, we’re interested in a lot of other stuff, and we’d like to broaden our audience to get more variation. A lot of our friends are freaky people, not sports graphics people [laughs]. We’d like to eventually be a more versatile, round company.
So many cities like Detroit are fettered by serious problems that, as you mentioned, have no quick solution. What gives you a sense of hope these days?
I think about this stuff all the time. We live in an era of such political turmoil—frankly, America’s a declining empire and we’ve all been held hostage by corporations. Race is part of it, but class warfare is full-on all over the place. In times like these, SMPLFD making graphics for a t-shirt can seem a little fluffy. But it also works. With it being nasty out there, there’s escapism to partying here and buying a cool-looking hat. But there’s also having those big conversations with people who come to the shop—to gather creative people around, discuss how we’re all navigating. I get charged by seeing how other people navigate these times, and do it beautifully. SMPLFD has given me a chance to connect deeper with creative people in this city.
I get excited about both the commerce and interaction with people—learning stuff about Detroit I didn’t know. As SMPLFD grows, I’m also excited about how we can plant real roots in this city—where we can do more philanthropic stuff. If the little guys like us can get something, then cool, but it’s more about the livelihood of our society—and our city. I’d like to hire employees from Detroit, to have the store be an open door where a kid can just stop by and learn some screen-printing. I’m excited about SMPLFD being part of the community in a meaningful way as much as we can.