How This Jewelry Brand Is Truly Helping Detroit

A good number of fashion brands based in Detroit, touting the myriad ways they’re bettering the beleaguered city, have cropped up in recent years. Shinola is likely the most famous name heralding its “Made In Detroit” authenticity and its impact on the Midwestern metropolis (though that claim got thoroughly criticized, among other things, by The New York Times back in 2013). But there are some far smaller players doing big things in Motor City — like jewelry line Rebel Nell, founded three years ago by lawyer Amy Peterson, the Detroit Tigers' associate counsel.

Peterson came to Detroit to pursue a career in sports in 2007; getting involved with the local community led her inadvertently into the bauble business as a second job (a third job, really, counting motherhood, as Peterson puts it). Rebel Nell's cofounder and creative director, Diana Russell, had a design and retail background, but it wasn't a fashion project with a do-good element later tacked on. The cause — combatting joblessness for women in Detroit — truly begat the products.
Photo: Courtesy of Rebel Nell.
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Beautiful as the slightly circuitboard-esque, marble-effect pieces are, it’s the company’s triple-pronged impact that really stands out. Firstly, Rebel Nell employs underemployed, impoverished women, and provides financial-literacy training, among offering other essential "getting through life" resources. The pieces these women create are basically wearable works of urban renewal, crafted from graffiti found around the city. Rebel Nell's offerings, priced at $60 to $175 per piece, bring further attention to the city itself and how revitalization efforts can (and should) take shape via fashion. (Last week, Peterson and Russell were named Social Entrepreneurs of the Year for their impactful work by Ernst & Young.) It’s the kind of altruistic project refreshingly devoid of bullshit; you can’t help but be inspired. We rang up Peterson (pictured below, in the green jacket) to get the full story.
Photo: Courtesy of Rebel Nell.
How did the concept for Rebel Nell come about?
"I wanted to find my little way of giving back, and it kind of happened accidentally: Right next door to where I lived, there's a well-known shelter, COTS [Coalition On Temporary Shelter]. I'd walk my dog and have conversations with the residents, primarily the women. I heard their stories about the really challenging situations they left in search of better opportunity; even if that meant going to a shelter, they needed to leave whatever situation they were in. These were very courageous, motivated women, and I wanted to give them the tools needed to never be back in a shelter, ever again.

"A lot of what I heard was not only physical and emotional abuse, but they were escaping financial abuse as well. So I thought if I could give a financial-literacy component — understanding their bills, where their money was going — I could possibly help them. At that time, I didn't really know about social-enterprise work, but I wanted to find a way to support COTS with my friend and now business partner, Diana."

Why did you decide to work with graffiti?
"I was inspired while on a run around the city: I found some graffiti-ed material that had fallen to the ground. I took it home and started playing around with it. I noticed all the different layers that can make up a particular piece of graffiti as a wall is painted over again and again, and found a way to expose the layers. I called Diana and said, 'Hey, I think I’ve got something.' She came running over. We then spent about four months prototyping, getting the jewelry to look the way we wanted it to."

Photo: Courtesy of Rebel Nell.

How do you find and train your employees?
"Most of our women have come from COTS, and we’ve taken a couple of others from neighboring shelters. What really is the key to hiring incredible women is our relationship with the caseworkers at these shelters. We talk to them about helping us identify women who are ready for a transitional opportunity. These are women who are motivated to get out of their situations, work well with others, and have a desire to learn new things."

How does the financial-education component work, exactly?
"We have monthly financial-literacy classes, an adviser that checks in with them regularly, and a six-week-long business-education course offered twice a year that's pretty intensive. We're not only providing our employees with employment, but also with an understanding of what to do with the money they earn."

What others sorts of resources do you offer employees?
"We also have empowerment classes offered every couple of months...wellness classes, legal aid, and housing resources. Also, we make sure that they get out of the shelter within two months after they start working with us. Then, it just goes from there: We get scholarships for their kids to go to summer camp, for example. My goal is not only to change these women's lives; the real change is for their children. We don’t hire a lot, but we go really deep with the women that we hire."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rebel Nell.

How have you grown the business since debuting in 2013?
"We initially were focused on growth within Detroit, and now we're in about 35 stores around the country. We’d love to get into a chain store, but right now it’s mostly boutiques and art-gallery stores, which really appreciate the story and our unique, one-of-a-kind pieces. We’ve expanded our product line, too; we started with just necklaces, but now we have a wide variety of pieces for men and women, like cufflinks and earrings. Next, we're looking to do some fun things outside of jewelry. We're exploring doing a handbag style, and possibly partnering with another social-enterprise [organization] in Detroit."

Why did you name the brand after Eleanor Roosevelt?
"We really wanted to pay tribute to an amazing, trailblazing woman, whose ideas we want to emulate. Diana and I love Eleanor Roosevelt: She was...a tremendous advocate for women's rights and civil rights, and she was a tremendous humanitarian. Who else is as reflective of our mission and everything we stand for? Her father's nickname for her was 'little Nell,' and we thought she was worthy of a stronger, more powerful nickname. It also reflects what we do as a company: The women we hire are really rebelling against what life has dealt them, [by working] with graffiti, which is rebellious in and of itself."

What do you think of other proudly Detroit-based brands?
"Shinola really put Detroit on the map in a very positive way...that was something we needed as a city. Better Life Bags is a wonderful company that hires mostly immigrant women, and they make beautiful handbags. There’s also Detroit Sewn, which is another social enterprise, focused on sewing and manufacturing, that's [also] focused on hiring women. Lazlo is a company that hires former inmates [with previous sewing experience from their time in prison] to make high-quality T-shirts. There's lots of creativity here in the city. From a fashion perspective, or from a maker's perspective, it’s a good time to be in the city."
Photo: Courtesy of Rebel Nell.

Any plans to bring Rebel Nell's model to other cities down the line?
"As a long-term goal, I would love to. I obviously want to help as many women in Detroit as I can, but I think that this model would be beneficial in other areas as well. I don't have a city fully pinned down yet, but I can see Chicago, L.A., or New York as natural next cities."

This September, Rebel Nell is being featured in the By the People: Designing A Better America exhibit at the Smithsonian-run Cooper Hewitt museum. Tell us more.
"It's such a big honor for us! We have been working with them for over nine months, just trying to figure out how best we can fit into the exhibit. The fact that they are going to showcase us and our pieces in an exhibit is mind-blowing: We are a tiny little company in Detroit that just exists month-to-month. I’ll be speaking on a panel in January as part of the exhibit, and I hope to represent the city of Detroit well.

"I firmly believe that you can have successful business where the focus is on the people and the individuals. To see companies pop up in the fashion world, in Detroit and beyond, that have incredible, deep social missions is so beautiful. [Cooper Hewitt is] making a difference, for the entrepreneurs starting these companies and, of course, the people working for these companies, too."

What kind of challenges have you encountered with running Rebel Nell thus far?
"I really, really believe in our model: We're very involved in our women's lives, and we started the business being socially minded first, and then, secondarily, financially motivated. But you need the finances to keep the business going. Also, it's tough to find that balance between education and production. But to me, social enterprise means really putting a heavy emphasis on contributing to your employees and making sure that their lives are on track, instead of just making a donation."
Photo: Courtesy of Rebel Nell.
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