Dearborn Gets Brightly Twisted
Every morning at the Brightly Twisted
facility begins with a little bit of magic. Owners Tammy Bourque and Greg Stemas, along with their seven employees, huddle around the washer and dryer in the basement of the Village Plaza Building in Dearborn to see what their creations from the previous day will look like when they emerge.
"Everyone is saying, ‘Look at this', and, ‘look at the color here', says Bourque. "It's kind of grunt labor work, but it's fun unwrapping them all when they're done. You think you've found the prettiest one and the very next day you'll find an even prettier one. There is still a buzz every day to see what we did."
This charming ritual is not exactly the origin story one imagines for a scarf found on the posh racks of Nordstrom
. And yet the national fashion retailer orders hundreds of scarves from Brightly Twisted every month -- and they're not alone. Bourque, 48, estimates that she, Stemas, 44, and their two trained tie-dyers produced 12,000 scarves in 2011 -- and that's not even counting their new line of apparel designed, made and tie-dyed by hand on Michigan Avenue.
"We really bucked the system by making things one at time," says Bourque. "It took some convincing that they would sell, but I'm convinced that that is why they sell. Every batch they get is always different."
In addition to Nordstrom and a variety of independent, regional retailers, Brightly Twisted scarves are now sold at such national retailers as Intermix
and Gus Mayer
, as well as stores in Australia, Dubai, South Korea and more.
"It's been kind of a ride," says Bourque. "We grew really rapidly."
Both Bourque and Stemas are former Montessori school educators, and the couple runs their business with principles grounded in their training in the teaching method. In training their staff to dye scarves in the Brightly Twisted style, creative freedom is as important as the guidelines.
"I can't prescribe what is beautiful," says Stemas, from whose summer tie-dye hobby Brightly Twisted was born. "It sounds very hippie-ish, but when someone is kind of just channeling their own creativity, what resonates with them, it will be a more pleasing result. It's what works for us and leaves us open to grow."
Adhering to such a business style while producing enough scarves to fill corporate-sized orders might sound like some sort of loaves and fishes-style miracle, but then, Stemas and Bourque's success was built on seemingly unlikely good fortune.
Before Bourque came along, tie dying was just something to keep Stemas busy during his summers away from school. "I liked messing around with my hands," he says, "and I just discovered I enjoyed working with color. It was pretty typical summer fair stuff, versus more stylish clothes. I was just about the dyeing; I had no clue what people would actually like to wear."
He took his t-shirts and dyed dresses to various art fairs. When Bourque helped him sell his work at the Ann Arbor Art Fair one year, however, something clicked.
"I was so surprised how many people came looking for his work in particular," says Bourque. "It was kind of an ah-ha moment for me. He's really quite brilliant at color. It's not the typical tie-dye."
As it turned out, all that was needed to take Stemas' work to a new level was some fashion and merchandising guidance. Fortunately, Bourque studied fashion and merchandising in New York prior to her teaching days. Not long after Bourque got involved, a store owner from Birmingham came across a new Brightly Twisted item at a fair -- scarves -- and asked to have some made for her store.
"We probably made a dozen, delivered them to her store, and she sold out in 24 hours," says Bourque. "We made her almost a dozen scarves every two days."
In 2007, Bourque left her administrative position at the school where she and Stemas taught and jumped into Brightly Twisted full time. The couple's list of local clients grew and grew, but their biggest break happened -- as per usual for them -- entirely by accident.
"I went to the Las Vegas market to buy white scarves," says Bourque. "I was wearing one of our scarves and a vendor at the market asked me where it was from. She liked it and asked if she could represent us."
Within months, Brightly Twisted had scored the Nordstrom account and things really began to take off. Their operations moved from the basement of their home into a small commercial space in Dearborn, and their staff began to grow along with their clientele. Just as Stemas and Bourque were ready to start branching out into a wider inventory of fashion options, another happy accident came along.
"We would bring our puppy with us to work," says Stemas, "and we would walk him in the neighborhood near a sewing store. Our dog met [the owner's] dog and we started talking. We were starting to produce our own clothes in a matter of a month or two."
The addition of blouses, dresses and other accessories, designed by Bourque and made by their new partner, Velda's Silver Thimble, only led to more growth for Brightly Twisted. In April of 2011, their operations moved into the 6,000-square foot basement of Dearborn's Village Plaza -- just in time for celebrities to start noticing the line.
While filming a movie in Ann Arbor, Drew Barrymore reportedly bought a Brightly Twisted scarf from a local yoga studio. More recently, Terri Hatcher was spotted wearing a scarf on a fashion blog
. "Both of those are just coincidental," Bourque says. "Most of the time to get a celebrity to wear your goods, you have to pay them -- a lot of money."
The future of Brightly Twisted is, well, bright
enough to take the company just about anywhere. They don't see themselves, however, traversing too far from home. The Brightly Twisted website recently launched an online retail store so shoppers can get the goods right from the source. The next step for the company is a retail store planned for Glen Arbor to potentially open in the summer of 2012, to be operated by business partners of Stemas and Bourque who are local to the area.
From there, anything's possible. "I have really big, lofty ideas for what Brightly Twisted could be," says Bourque. "Some people say they don't do tie dye, but it's really art. We hear it all the time from people that they just feel good when they wear it."
Bourque foresees a future in home goods, menswear and children's clothing, and even digitally printing tie-dye patterns onto items such as dishes. While the pair admits that it can be a challenge to stick to their principles of hand-making each Brightly Twisted piece of art while meeting their exploding, worldwide demand, when it comes down to it, they see the challenge as simply worth it.
"Doing what you love kind of pays for itself," says Stemas. "While there have been many long nights and weekends -- for what would probably not be very much financial gain if you added up the hours -- we have that atmosphere of four people together dying and making beautiful things. It's labor intensive, but it's a labor of love. I think that's what we're about."
All Photos by David Lewinski