Posted on September 28 2021
Former famed Detroit department store experiences online renaissance.
DBusiness article by Grace Turner - September 20, 2021
Himelhoch’s Department Store, which started out as a pushcart in Caro, moved to downtown Detroit, expanded to multiple locations, and ultimately ended up as a luxury online retailer, has embodied retail evolution since its establishment in 1876.
Carol Himelhoch, her husband, Steve Ball, and her brother, Charles (Chip) S. Himelhoch Jr., dreamed up Himelhoch’s latest iteration in November 2018. Ball serves as the company’s accountant, and Chip Himelhoch is an adviser. The online retailer is based in Detroit and offers clothing by up-and-coming designers from around the world, just as Himelhoch’s did when it operated out of its bricks-and-mortar location on the same block as the Hudson’s Department Store in downtown Detroit.
“It first kind of seemed like a crazy idea, but the more we thought about it, we thought we (could reimagine) the department store for this day and age, juxtaposing that on the traditions of Himelhoch’s, and where we came from, and being true to our identity,” Himelhoch says. “That’s what led us to want to focus on emerging designers.”
Himelhoch, the company’s president, is the fourth-generation leader of the business. She surmises her father, Charles Himelhoch, started running the store in the late 1940s and continued in that role after he was promoted to CEO in the 1950s; he held both positions until the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1979.
Fast-forward some 40 years, and the online store launched with a selection of specialty coffees. It has since added clothing for women and men; accessories; clothing for children and babies; skin, hair, and personal care products; fragrances; home goods; and additional food and beverages.
The brand’s main draw is its clothing, just as it was when it first moved to Detroit in 1907. Himelhoch began the search for the designers represented in today’s store by working with Design Core Detroit, a department in Detroit’s College for Creative Studies that champions design-driven businesses in the city. The organization connected her with a list of apparel designers in the area, and Himelhoch contacted them to find out whether they would be good matches for the company.
“Our collection is very unique and filled mostly with merchandise from emerging designers,” she says. “They have this fresh perspective. We love supporting small businesses and their creativity, and we want to be able to help them get the recognition they deserve.”
Himelhoch says growing up working in the store helped her develop an eye for beautiful styles that will sell. The entrepreneur also must make sure prospective designers are able to scale to keep up with demand.
While most of the designers have products in stock, some offer made-to-order goods. One such proprietor is Lavanya Coodly, a designer based in New York who hand-embroiders and beads formal gowns that sell for up to $6,500.
Most of the purveyors, however, are based in metro Detroit, including Deviate, a Detroit designer who sells accessories and casual clothing for men and women. To keep the fashions they offer fresh, Himelhoch’s works with a range of global design firms, including MJ Room in Casablanca, Morocco, which tans its own leather to make shoes, bags, and apparel, and Pretty You London in Britain, which offers nightwear and slippers. Himelhoch says many of the designers the company works with offer sustainable products and try keep their carbon footprints low.
Now that Himelhoch’s is growing, some designers have started to approach the company, she adds.
Himelhoch earned a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and management from the University of Michigan and teaches management courses at Siena Heights University in Adrian. She plans to retire from teaching at the end of the next academic year to focus more on the store.
“When the (bricks and mortar) store closed in ’79, I think I shut down a part of myself and my own identity because I grew up working in the business,” she says. “This is a new era, and I think I’m really being true to my legacy and carrying forth the Himelhoch’s tradition in the online world — and I’ve been really amazed how energized I am. I really feel like this is me. I feel like I’ve stepped back into the identity that I had shut down when the store closed. I’ve taken to it like a fish to water; I feel like this is my calling, and I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Wolf Himelhoch, Carol Himelhoch’s great-grandfather, immigrated to Michigan from Latvia and started the business on a pushcart in Caro in 1876 with his four sons: Herman, Zella, Moses, and Israel. Carol Himelhoch says she can only guess that they sold fabric and other materials to make clothes.
The family later opened a storefront in Caro, which burned down in the early 1900s. They rebuilt it shortly before relocating to Detroit. With the physical stores came a shift to finished garments. Himelhoch’s carried mostly women’s apparel, cosmetics, and accessories; it also carried a smaller selection for men; children’s clothing; a bridal department; and home goods. There was also a toy department for a short time.
In 1923, the store outgrew its original location and moved a couple of blocks north into the Washington Arcade Building at 1545 Woodward Ave., immediately south of the David Whitney Building, where its main store remained until the business closed.
Charles Himelhoch, Israel Himelhoch’s son, introduced a strategy in which workers would set up products from different departments in the same display, showing shoppers how they could pair items. This created a boutique feel in the department store, Carol Himelhoch says.
She adds that salesworkers received training across departments, allowing them to help customers more holistically — previously, salesmen and women only knew about the offerings in their own very specific departments, such as women’s trousers or men’s shirts.
Himelhoch’s was also among the first stores to offer a juniors department for teenage shoppers — a trend the store started with baby boomers, and which continues at most department stores today.
The company expanded and opened additional locations in the suburbs, including Ann Arbor, and had more than 600 employees in its heyday, Himelhoch says. However, she says her father believed the additional stores eventually overstretched the company and helped lead to its demise, along with a decreased focus on little-known designers and products that other department stores didn’t carry.
Charles Himelhoch passed away in December 2020 at the age of 101. Himelhoch says that after the last store closed, her father worked as a property manager for A. Alfred Taubman, of The Taubman Co. in Bloomfield Hills, started a consulting business, and taught retail management at Wayne State University and other area colleges. He also loved to run, swim, and play tennis.
“I take after my dad in this respect: I think life is always a growth process, and it’s just fun to be energized and grow,” Carol Himelhoch says. “I see no reason to slow down.”