Rachel Lutz helps return retail elegance to the city of Detroit.
By Lauren Hoffman, Contributing Writer
The story of the Peacock Room is the story of drop ceilings. Or rather, the story of finding what’s underneath them. “You don’t get the real richness of Detroit without really peeling back the layers,” says Rachel Lutz, founder and proprietor.
The first drop ceiling was in 2010 in the Park Shelton, where the then-building manager (community member Jay Bassin) showed Lutz the last available retail space in a sign-less, lobby-entry-only room. After losing her luxury retail job in the recession, Lutz had been re-selling vintage and estate sale finds at pop-ups around town but knew she was in it for a brick-and-mortar.
She was driven by two realizations: First, that there was a gap in the market. She and other Detroit residents had to leave city limits to shop for apparel, an experience familiar in a city long underserved by national and local retailers that disinvested during decades of the city’s decline. Second, the kind of sustaining human connection shared while shopping in boutiques is not replicable online.
The ability to thoughtfully buy for customers of all body types and to show genuine warmth, openness for conversation and styling prowess is a unique experience only a brick-and-mortar business offers.
That day in the Park Shelton, Lutz figured she would find a way to offer that experience in the cramped shop space. And then, hidden under the low drop ceiling for so long no one could remember, they found high ceilings with original plasterwork from the building’s historic dining room.
Lutz reworked the brand entirely, shaping it to match the remnants of gilded age history dotted across Detroit’s cityscape like a treasure map — so rarely appreciated for how precious a local treasure our architectural legacy is.
“These spaces give us a sense of place … The space inspired the next direction for the business. Out of respect for the architecture,” Lutz says.
It was then that she embraced the brand’s current identity as a vintage and vintage-inspired dress shop, paying homage to an era of women’s shopping we might only recognize from our grandmothers’ anecdotes and the scenes of B. Altman in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Over time, the space in the Park Shelton doubled and moved into prized, Woodward-facing storefronts. Frida was born, another shop featuring colorful, bohemian clothing and copious references to artist Frida Kahlo, who famously lived in the Park Shelton with Diego Rivera while he worked on his iconic DIA frescoes. Lutz was thrilled and just beginning to breathe easier.
That’s when, in 2017, real estate agents Benji Rosenzweig and Ben Hubert were sitting in a retail strategy meeting in the Fisher Building office of the Platform, Peter Cumming’s real estate group that had recently purchased the building. They were talking about their vision for a creative combination of special national retail (like the City Bakery that opened in 2018 — the first location for the cult favorite outside of New York and Tokyo) and energetic, community-building local entrepreneurs creating magnets of unique experiences.
Benji immediately thought of Rachel and started talking about her and pulling up her store’s social media to show Peter and his partner, Dietrich Knoer, who stopped the meeting and said, “Go talk to her today and let her know we want her in the Fisher Building.”
And so, promptly dispatched, Rosenzweig and Hubert drove down to the Park Shelton to sell Lutz on the idea. This new, friendly little Jewish mafia won Lutz over, sharing their conviction that there was no one better to do justice to the ground-floor arcade space occupied from the late 1920s-1970s by “Julie’s,” a two-story dress shop.
Lutz says with a sigh, “I didn’t want to open another store, but I really wanted to save that room.”
The first thing they did, per usual, was peek under the drop ceiling. Once again, arches with intricate moldings were on the other side. What else? Lutz inventories the architectural details she painstakingly preserved. “There were two-story beveled mirrors with glass rosettes; there was a fireplace, this gorgeous spiral staircase, bronze elevator doors with carvings of ribbons, unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Preserved is actually an understatement. With the help of artist Theresa DeRoo of Paintwork Detroit, Lutz transformed the store into a masterpiece. They selected a Cinderella-esque color palette and set about adding intricate details and sourcing the perfect chandeliers (which Lutz still doesn’t think she got quite right).
“I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate beauty for the sake of beauty,” she says. “We don’t build public spaces like that anymore.”
The result is a jaw-dropping, completely transporting portal into the early 20th century. One doesn’t know where to look first: the glittering chandeliers, the gold mirrors, racks of colorful dresses (ranging from modest workwear to sparkly, floor-length numbers), towering stands of top hats, oddities like bejeweled purses shaped like pagodas, fancy embossed stationery full of swear words, and devotional candles featuring illustrations of James Baldwin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Along with the flagship Peacock Room, Lutz also runs Yama out of the Fisher Building. Yama offers streamlined, sleek and simple women’s fashions.
The interior design is in step with the larger setting of the Fisher Building and New Center. Built in the early-20th century around the GM headquarters in Cadillac Place, across Grand Boulevard, and with the premise this was a thriving business center, densely packed with offices and homes for white-collar employees and executives, the neighborhood’s density took a serious hit when GM moved to the Renaissance Center in 1996.
Only in the last few years is New Center starting to look like its former and future self. But a chicken-and-egg game keeps storefronts empty: Will the retail development and amenities come first or will their consumers?
New Center is Back
Was it, therefore, a gamble to open a clothing store in New Center? Lutz responds with a vehement no. What she realized, sitting in the Fisher Building lobby with Rosenzweig, is that a huge population of office workers and diverse residential neighbors have been dramatically underserved for years. “The building and the neighborhood were bustling, but the business community missed the memo.”
Rosenzweig says 35,000 daily employees can be found in New Center. “Right now, Corktown is the big deal because of Ford. After Ford moves in, there will be 6,000 daily employees in Corktown. New Center has five, six times more than that already.”
Those populations are growing daily — literally hundreds of new people will be moving into residential developments opening in the next five years.
“If you’re looking to open a business today, you should be looking at New Center,” Rosenzweig insists.
The way Lutz sees it, those still-empty storefronts are a tremendous business, economic development and urban planning opportunity. “If nobody occupies these storefronts,” she reasons, “then nothing in these neighborhoods will change.”
That said, she pays tremendous respect to her retail neighbors, like the Fashion Place and Russel’s Pharmacy, that held down the fort for the neighborhood and its underserved foot traffic for so many years.
She also credits the Platform for its thoughtful, local business-forward redevelopment strategy, and for being wonderful partners in recreating the building’s image and occupancy inclusively and compassionately.
The retail corridor emerging within the Fisher and New Center more broadly is much loved and lauded by thousands of neighborhood residents and workforce members, and Lutz wants to make sure the broader Metro Detroit business community knows there’s more demand to meet.
Retail can thrive in Detroit and engage in a meaningful conversation about neighborhood development and urban planning at the same time. Every new business makes a measurable profit and difference. Lutz is humble, but Rosenzweig sings her praises, sharing anecdotes of an elderly couple who drove from Armada to Detroit to see the store, their first time in the city since 1994, and of the other businesses that the Peacock Room has helped to attract and support (“The tailor downstairs, William & Bonnie, is going gangbusters”).
“Rachel delivered exactly what we were hoping, which is that new energy,” he says.
One hundred years ago, we built beautiful public spaces in which to work, play and live. We then spent decades slowly abandoning them, replacing them with surface lots, and plastering them over with drywall and drop ceilings. But good bones, good buildings last, standing in wait for imaginative people to fill them with new community assets. Rachel Lutz and the Peacock Room set a standard for just how thoughtfully and successfully we can do the work of honoring and refilling those spaces.
Click through the gallery to view before and after photos of the Peacock Room