Along Detroit’s Avenue of Fashion, a historic shopping district on Livernois Avenue between McNichols and 8 Mile roads, construction is making it next to impossible to find a place to park near Three Thirteen, a boutique founded and curated by Clement “FAME” Brown that features all Detroit brands.
The months-long construction project is part of a city-sponsored effort to restore the Avenue of Fashion’s standing as a premier shopping destination, but it’s been tough on the district’s established businesses. Several closed for the duration of construction, and some have gone out of business altogether. Call it one of the growing pains of a changing city that only a few years ago was still reeling from a historic bankruptcy.
For Brown, a serial entrepreneur who got his start as a business owner at age six when his family lived in New York (he bought empty cans of pop for two cents from residents and returned them for five cents deposit), the mess outside just means that another opportunity is around the corner.
FAME’s boutique isn’t as much a retailer as it is a laboratory for budding fashion designers looking to make their mark in a city with a long legacy of creativity. They come here to collaborate and get advice. One of Three Thirteen’s vendors pops in with a set of custom Detroit Tigers and Lions hats, each bill modified with wood or faux gator skin, an upscale spin on the traditional baseball cap (one hat even sported the image of a pair of Cartier sunglasses, a nod to Detroiters’ love for the luxury brand). Another guy, an old friend of Brown’s, walks in with a box of T-shirts with “Believe in 313” printed on the front, hoping to sell them at Three Thirteen on consignment. Brown takes a quick scan of the merchandise, suggests a few design edits, and encourages him to come back.
Others, unfazed by construction detours, are here to shop. One of Brown’s childhood friends and her daughter show up midday to browse. The mother is wearing a fly-looking, multicolored sweatsuit she purchased from the shop. It looks like it came straight out of a 1980s freestyle video and would probably go perfectly with the custom, throwback adidas kicks designed by Brown.
“When a brand gets to this store, it’s like they’ve earned their square foot,” says Brown.
Three Thirteen doesn’t bother with brands riding the wave of hype the city has enjoyed in recent years. Brown sees through that, recognizing that you can’t just slap Detroit onto a T-shirt. The Detroit brand, he says, is something you’ve had to live to understand. The vendors who sell at Three Thirteen embody everything it means to be a Detroiter, and they’re here for the long game.
“Detroit is a battleground for creativity, man,” says Brown. “You could be riding your bike down the street, juggling fire balls, eating a shawarma, talking on your phone at the same time, and five or 10 people could be like, ‘Wow, look at this guy!’ And the 11th person is gonna be like, ‘Aw, my cousin can do that better than that guy!’”
“It’s hard to impress people in Detroit. It’s hard to out-create in Detroit because, you know this is the birthplace of Motown. This is the birthplace of the most creative energy on Earth,” Brown says. “To actually get a spotlight in Detroit for doing anything creative, whether that’s fashion, art, music, entertainment, you really have to be that deal.”
For Brown, 38, his authenticity was cultivated through a lifetime of trial and error and by leaning into relationships with mentors, from family members to people he’s worked with, to friends from the streets.
Brown says his upbringing presented obstacles that could have stood in the way of success. He was born in Buffalo, NY, to an immigrant Ghanaian father and a mother who had her first child, Brown’s oldest sister, when she was just 15. The struggling family moved to Detroit when Brown was 8. Even his stature—Brown considers himself a “little guy”—meant that he had to work just a little bit harder to prove naysayers wrong.
At 11, Brown got his first job working for Art “Mr. Leddy” Nall, who owned a candy store on Grand River, now known as JANCO Distributors Inc. More of a mentor than a boss, Nall planted the entrepreneurship seed in Brown’s head, telling his young protege that he would never get rich working for someone else.
By 12, Brown linked up with a friend, Edsel Marshall III, to launch a T-shirt airbrushing design business. Within a few years the pair opened a kiosk at Fairlane Mall. By 22, he had sold $1 million worth of merchandise in a single year.
With each gig, Brown picked up a new skill, which translates to authenticity in everything he makes and sells. Take his “Do #’s” clothing line. It’s a hip hop reference to the aspiration of making it big. However, instead of applying the phrase to the unrealistic aspirations of acquiring wealth as a hip hop mogul or a pro athlete, Brown uses the phrase to describe the everyday, little ways that Detroiters are making changes, like being a good father or studying for the SATs.
Brown eventually purchased an embroidery business from a retired couple on Joy Road, on the city’s west side. It was here that he opened his first retail space called the FAME Shop (FAME stands for Fashion, Arts, Music, and Entertainment and is also the moniker that Brown uses) and started to see the potential in helping others along their path toward business ownership. He transformed the property into a maker space where other creatives could launch their own ventures. This experiment in community-minded entrepreneurship lasted a few years before the FAME Shop closed in 2015.
By 22, he had sold $1 million worth of merchandise in a single year.
But Brown’s biggest breakthrough came when he launched the Three Thirteen brand in in 2009. The country was in the throes of a recession, and Detroit, with a long history of urban decline and crime, was feeling the effects more acutely than perhaps any major city. Brown wanted to use his branding power to boost his hometown’s image, something few, if any, clothing labels were doing at the time. The shop opened first on Jefferson, just east of downtown. At the time, others were throwing the name “Detroit” on shirts, bicycles, and even surfboards. Brown’s Three Thirteen, in homage to the city’s area code, was a more subtle nod. Marketing Three Thirteen as “Detroit’s Brand Name,” Brown and his shop began to do numbers.
To beef up his business acumen, Brown has gotten involved with several groups like Black Male Engagement, an MIT Media Lab innovation workshop at OmniCorp. He’s also participated in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program to help him connect with resources and other sources of mentoring.
And he’s fought to maintain the integrity of his brand. In 2018, he contested a trademark request sought by Detroit rapper Eminem for his E13 clothing line. The label would render the E backwards to resemble the number three. In previous statements, Brown said he respects Eminem; however, he said it was imperative that creatives have ownership of their intellectual property.
Though Brown has reached several milestones in the fashion world through his nearly 30 years in the business, he’s had to overcome several obstacles. Last year, thieves slammed a car into his Jefferson Avenue shop and snatched tens of thousands of dollars in merchandise from inside. The theft crippled business and morale for months, but Brown says it also lit a fire in him to continue fighting.
Last year he relocated the shop to the Avenue of Fashion, where his sales floor functions like a gallery where shoppers experience an insider’s view of Detroit through brands that line the shelves, from the “Make 7 Mile Great Again” baseball caps, a limited run of “On the Lodge Wit It” T-shirts, a line of Detroit Bad Boys apparel, and another Brown brand, “Detroit Raised Me.”
But the streetscape construction project has hurt Brown’s and other Livernois businesses’ ability to maintain foot traffic. On Cyber Monday, December 2019, Brown announced to his Facebook followers that Three Thirteen would be closed for the day as a result of the work being done in front of the store.
The literal roadblock proved to be of no consequence, however. That day he made record sales online thanks to the fans who responded to his call for support.
Of obstacles like these, Brown likes to use an analogy to help him weather the storm.
“Nightmares are dreams too,” he says. “We like to have this infatuation with business and living our dreams, and don’t realize that (there’s) bad parts of your dream too. So to have a nightmare, it’s still a dream and it has value. The bad has value… so stick to the script ’til it flips, and do numbers.”