Posted on September 28 2021
March 27 / 2020
Article by Serena Maria Daniels, Photography by Ali Lapetina
There was a time in the early 20th century when the department stores of downtown Detroit were symbolic of a certain middle-class aspiration.
Families were earning more than ever before from the city’s booming automotive industry and could afford to realize a version of the American Dream. For many, that meant shopping.
It meant going to downtown Detroit’s many department stores every Christmas to meet Santa and be mesmerized by lavish window displays. It meant Mom could buy a new dishwasher on layaway and while away an afternoon with girlfriends over Maurice salads at Hudson’s store restaurant. It meant that the ad men who supported the auto business could walk into the men’s department of any one of the outsized shopping centers, try on a new power suit, have it tailored and then meet with clients at any one of the swanky steakhouses nearby.
But by the 1950s and ’60s, that dream began to unravel as the city’s middle class began a long flight to the suburbs, a trend exacerbated by racial discrimination and the development of freeways and new housing on the urban fringe.
By the 1970s, entire neighborhoods were bleeding population and the iconic department stores of downtown gave way to the next chapter in retail, with the opening of America’s first shopping malls in Detroit’s suburbs.
Carol Himelhoch knows this story well. She is the great granddaughter of Wolf Himelhoch, founder of one of downtown Detroit’s iconic department stores. Opened in 1907, Himelhoch’s sat just south of Grand Circus Park.
“In September of 1979, we closed our last brick-and-mortar store,” says Himelhoch.
But that’s not where the family legacy ends.
“In November of 2018, we decided to open back up and bring it back from hiatus,” she says of the decision she made with her husband, Stephen Ball, to relaunch the brand.
The new site showcases indie fashion designers from Detroit, other parts of the U.S., and even abroad, whose collections are sold on consignment. Himelhoch, a fourth-generation head of the family business, says this is her way of carrying her family torch into a new and reenergized era of Detroit.
“I think that there’s all this creative energy right now in Detroit and among indie designers. So I see the circumstances I’m in as almost a calling. To be true to the spirit of Himelhoch’s means, we’re taking risks. We want to be able to partner with designers to give them the exposure and recognition they deserve, because there’s a lot of talent here.”
Himelhoch says she and Ball worked with Design Core Detroit to compile a list of some 200 local designers and now feature a small but growing selectionon their online platform.
One feature unique to the Himelhoch site is its “fashion partner program,” which provides up-and-coming artists who may lack an online presence with their own “department” section on the website. This features a curated collection of the artists’ products, which Himelhoch likens to the departments of the old-school brick and mortar stores.
It’s these sorts of collaborations that she says are reminiscent of what her father, who ran the company for 35 years, did back in the day. Himelhoch’s began carrying a line by a relatively unknown suit and coat maker, Calvin Klein.
“My dad took a risk and decided to just carry this line in full in the stores and helped him get recognized and launch his career,” Himelhoch says.
Other internationally known brands to-be, included cosmetics maker Estée Lauder, making Himelhoch’s known for taking chances on labels in their early stages.
“We have a history of doing that kind of thing with designers who are emerging,” she says.
That kind of innovation didn’t last, however. As much of Himelhoch’s clientele moved to the suburbs, so too did the store. As shopping habits shifted, the company had to adjust. Instead of breaking ground on new trends, by the 70s, the store was carrying the same things as all its competitors.
That period marked the end of a number of Detroit department stores. Crowley’s had held on until 1977, two years prior to Himelhoch’s closing. Hudson’s closed its doors in 1983. And Kresge’s had long shifted its focus to its national discount chain Kmart, starting in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, Carol Himelhoch, went on to earn numerous advanced degrees, including a B.A. in communications, an M.B.A. in management, and a Ph.D. in management and organizational behavior, all from the University of Michigan. She is also a professor of management and organizational behavior at Siena Heights University and authored the book, “Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training” that was published in 2014.
Still, her association with the Himelhoch name kept the family business in her mind.
“People would hear my last name and say, ‘Oh, are you connected to the store?’ And then I’d say yes. And then people would be just gushing with, Oh, I loved to shop there.'”
“Steve and I one day said, ‘you know, the brand is still alive and it means a lot to people. There’s a lot of passion toward that brand,’ and so we felt that the timing was good to bring it back out of hiatus, but in a new form.”
And so in 2018, Himelhoch’s was reborn, just in time to welcome the digital age of shopping.
It seems that a week doesn’t go by when news breaks about yet another major retailer that has collapsed after failing to adapt to online shopping trends, with international brands shuttering stores en masse as they struggle to adjust into the digital age.
Carol Himelhoch says the company’s latest iteration is uniquely positioned to stand out against others that are struggling because it’s nimble. There is no real estate to manage or countless sales clerks.
“The more established department stores have a hard time adapting to change. You have your patterns and your ways of thinking and your paradigms and that’s how you’ve operated for years. And even though you’d see a need to change, it’s really hard to just completely disassociate with some of those old ways of doing business. And so I think the consequence is that a lot of the department stores that are brick and mortar are hurting.”
But just because Himelhoch’s is all digital doesn’t mean it’s yet another nameless, faceless online brand. Carol Himelhoch says her upbringing in department stores’ golden era has prepared her to interact with customers in a way that other online retailers can’t compete.
“In the brick and mortar days, we were known for really high customer service and our customers are going to get customer service directly from me, as the president of the company,” she says.
It’s that direct connection that Himelhoch is banking on for the success of the next generation of the family business.