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Live6 Alliance lifts up history of pioneering Black-owned women’s clothing store


Imani Mixon

Imani Mixon

When folks hear the phrase “Detroit style,” furs and Cartier glasses, gators, three-piece suits or maybe even currently fashionable Detroit VS Everybody apparel may come to mind.

None of these account for the fashionable Black women who solidified the city’s positioning as a stylish city decades ago. Samuel and Florine Hawkins, owners of Detroit’s first Black-owned clothing store for women, played an important role in that legacy as founders of Hawkins Apparel, which operated at 7624 West McNichols from 1967 through 2003.

Today, Neighborhood HomeBase, the headquarters and community hub of the Live6 Alliance, a prominent economic development organization serving businesses and residents in the iconic Livernois-Six Mile community, is housed at that address. To celebrate the past while focusing on the future, the Alliance, in partnership with Detroit Collaborative Design Center, is presenting an exhibit: The Hawkins Family Legacy, which is open to the public through October 21, 2022.

Items in exhibition include fashionable dresses and women's hats on manneqiuns. Photos are on walls but are too small to make out.
The exhibition includes clothing reflecting the eras of the Hawkins business.

“Hawkins Apparel was the first African American-owned clothing store in Michigan and in this spot, it really set up a tradition of Black entrepreneurship for us to carry into the future,” says Dr. Geneva J. Williams, executive director of the Live6 Alliance. A key Live6 goal is supporting and encouraging the launch and growth of minority-owned businesses as keys to the economic revival of both McNichols and Livernois, the former site of Detroit’s renowned Avenue of Fashion.

The Kresge Foundation has been a Live6 supporter since its inception in 2015 and joins the National Endowment for the Arts in sponsoring the exhibition.

The Hawkins family started out by selling clothing out of their car trunk, and in 1947 they opened their first store on Warren Avenue at a time when major department stores like Hudson’s and Jacobson’s wouldn’t hire Black women nor cater to that clientele. A later Hawkins store on Detroit’s Dexter Avenue was destroyed in Detroit’s rebellion of 1967 and the McNichols store opened its doors the following year.

Karen Moore, a native Detroiter who worked as a Hawkins store clerk in 1969 while she was still a student at Mumford High School, is working on a book highlighting the Hawkinses and other lesser-known Black historical figures, which she hopes to self-publish soon. Along with members of the Hawkins family, she loaned personal items from her closet to be displayed in the exhibit, which includes archival images, newspaper articles and informational text tracing Hawkins Apparel’s journey across Detroit and its role in the emergence of Black women in business and society.

“Back in the day, people used to dress with hats, gloves, the whole nine yards. This store provided clothing and accessories. And if you were going to a really large social gathering like a cotillion ball or something like that, they kept track of who bought what and would not allow another person within that circle of friends to buy the same dress. Now you know, these other stores could care less, all they wanted to do was make a sale. Well, Hawkins knew that they got more business for respecting the woman’s opportunity to look her best without her going to an event that was going to have five people with the same dress on,” says Moore.

In addition to everything from business appropriate fashion to special occasion dressing, Hawkins Apparel provided instruction in business behavior and social etiquette and how to succeed in the business world of that period.

Hawkins Apparel provided clothing from size 4 to size 24 because Florine Hawkins understood that the average woman was not a sample size; even if much of the clothing was coming from New York, it needed to fit Detroit women in both size and style.

“She was a church woman, a business woman, a praying woman, but she was not necessarily what you would think to be a fashion person,” says Julie Hawkins, granddaughter of Florine and Samuel Hawkins. Nonetheless, she was in prominent social circles, including the Women’s House League, Booker T. Washington Trade Association and the NAACP, according to Julie Hawkins, whose parents, William and Loretta Hawkins, bought the store from her grandparents in 1979 and kept it running until 2003.

Live6 Alliance has operated out of the former Hawkins building since 2019 when renovations financed by Kresge were completed. The Alliance recently purchased the building from art dealer-developer George N’namdi with support from the University of Detroit Mercy, the original co-founder of the Alliance along with Kresge.

Beginning late this year, the retail space adjoining Neighborhood HomeBase will open as a Live6 Alliance incubator to support local small business owners wishing to grow from homebased enterprise to a brick-and-mortar location, with a focus on Black-woman-owned businesses to continue the legacy of Hawkins Apparel.

“We wanted to bring the entrepreneurs from the marketplace to the mainstream. The businesses here will grow up and out of here into their own space over time. We’ll help them do that not just by providing them space but also with critical education in financial literacy, marketing, e-commerce, podcasting, the whole bit. We’ll give them all the tools that they need to succeed,” says Williams.

Live6 Alliance initially planned to seek a national historical marker for the space, but that designation is only for spaces that have not been changed or modernized in recent years. Committed to honoring the legacy of the address, Williams says they are working with the Detroit City Council to designate the building as a local historical site.

The Hawkins Apparel exhibit, sponsored by Kresge and the National Endowment for the Arts, is offered in partnership with Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Detroit Fashion Community and Design Core Detroit, which highlighted the exhibit as part of its Detroit Month of Design in September.

“I grew up in Detroit, I still live in Detroit, I had never heard about the Hawkins family, but through Detroit Month of Design I’m learning,” said Kiana Wenzel, co-executive director of Design Core Detroit. Historical preservation is part of design, she explained, and the Hawkins story is one that isn’t yet in the history text books.

Imani Mixon is a guest writer. She specializes in long-form storytelling “inspired by everyday griots who bear witness to their surroundings and report it back out.”