Byline: Stan Donaldson, Detroit Free Press
Dec. 16--One of the hippest urban fashion trends isn't coming from L.A. or New York City, but from a design studio in Livonia.
Al Wissam leather jackets are hard to miss.
They are bulky and intricately stitched with political images of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, even the Bill of Rights. Some have sports themes and others are simply fun, like the 'Hugs and Kisses' jacket -- a ladies black and white bomber displaying huge X's and O's. They cost between $700 and $1,200.
The jackets have been seen on the backs of actor Mike Epps, rapper the Game and current heavyweight boxing champ Hasim Rahman.
Detroit's Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick owns the 'Detroit Big Game' jacket. He donned his -- with stitched images of Detroit landmarks such as the Compuware building and Campus Martius -- at this year's Thanksgiving Day parade.
The jackets are sold locally in Detroit, Dearborn, Southfield and Farmington Hills. They are also sold in more than 25 other states, Canada and Denmark with its creators often being courted to relocate their business outside metro Detroit.
'Detroit is a fashion city and Detroit is a city where people like to dress,' said Bassem Souwaidan, who owns Wissam Exclusive, a line that started modestly and has grown into a multi-million dollar business that includes jeans, T-shirts, jogging suits and watches for men and women. 'I think they like' the jackets 'because they want something different.'
Part of the popularity is their exclusivity. Like cars, new models come out every year.
So in demand are the jackets that knock-offs are sold on the streets.
'Everybody gets bootlegged,' Matrice (Wood) Dudley said. 'Gucci, Prada, if no one is knocking you off, then that means they know people are not going buy it.'
But the coats have also led to tragedy. Dietrich Davis, 30, of Detroit was shot and killed for his leather Wissam jacket more than a year ago. In October, Detroiters Brian Doss and Damon Goins were convicted of first-degree murder in the case.
The Wissam Exclusive line spawned from his southwest Detroit store and has made the line a household name for those who rock urban wear.
Oak Park resident Angel Rodriguez, already owns a couple of the stitched leathers and recently bought another one for his 17-year-old son.
'They rep the city, man,' Rodriguez said, while he watched his son, Steven, toss on a $1,000 leather that had stitched themes from the movie 'Scarface' at the Wissam store at 7940 W. Vernor in Detroit.
Sixteen-year-old Cedrina Mitchell of Detroit is dreaming of one of her own.
Her father, Cedric, bought her a Wissam purple nylon winter jacket from the Detroit store, but she wants a leather, too.
'I am going to work on him so he will get me a leather jacket for Christmas,' Cedrina said.
How it started
Souwaidan met Dudley, his vice president, in 1992 when he opened his first Al Wissam store, on West Vernor in southwest Detroit and the two quickly became friends. Dudley, 37, used to shop at the store before he was tapped to help Souwaidan market the urban fashions sold there.
Souwaidan, also 37, said at the time he did not speak English, but learned the language by interacting with people in the store. He had moved to the area just three years earlier from Lebanon. His first business venture was selling urban fashions out of a kiosk at the Gibraltar Trade Center in Taylor.
The idea to create a jacket came in the mid-90s at a promotional event. Souwaidan and Dudley befriended Jeff Piper, 36, who owned a leather coat business in Troy. He agreed to create a varsity jacket for them. And the success of the red, black and white jacket spurred them to create a leather one. Piper designed it, and it quickly sold out. With about $100,000, the group made its first line of leathers for wholesale in 1999.
As Detroiters snatched up the jackets, the crew also began to gain popularity in New York and was embraced by sports and hip-hop celebrities who wore the jackets at parties and in music videos.
'A lot of people think we are out of New York or Los Angeles,' Dudley said, adding that the business is often courted to move. 'We gave a lot of those first coats away because it was a way to promote the store,' said Dudley. 'When we put out the first leathers and they sold out real quick, I knew that this could be big.'
The group's most popular jacket in Detroit is its city-inspired jacket they develop every year and February's NFL Super Bowl in the city inspired the 2005 design. The jacket shows Interstates 75 and 94 and on the back of the coat the stitched highways lead to the city's downtown stadiums, Ford Field and Comerica Park.
'It's like wearing a piece of art,' Dudley said.
Souwaidan, Dudley and Piper say they often turn down deals to move to New York City, which is considered a fashion mecca, because they love Michigan. He said two years ago Bloomingdale's offered to help bring Wissam Exclusive to the Big Apple, but the partners declined, saying they want to finish where they started.
'We are proud to be in Detroit and are very loyal to the people who support us,' Souwaidan said. 'We make good living here and we have fun.'
And there are ways to expand without moving, the trio said. Next fall they are set to release a line of shoes and boots and are also working on developing more apparel for women.
These jackets were designed in honor of Detroit's Super Bowl XL. (WISSAM EXCLUSIVE)
Wissam Exclusive facts
The name: Al Wissam isn't the designer. It's Arabic for 'the pride' or 'the trophy.'
Local: Designed in Livonia, but made in Hong Kong. Where to buy one: Al Wissam stores at 7940 W. Vernor in Detroit and 13520 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn. Other locations can be found at: www.alwissam.com.
Price: They range between $700 and $1,200.
Most popular: War and Peace coat, which features hieroglyphic symbols on the back and the Bill of Rights coat, which has more than 3 million stitches of the United States' first ten constitutional amendments.
Mayoral support: 'Al Wissam is a great example of a strong business here in Detroit. The reason they have been so successful over the years is because they remain connected to the people of Detroit,' Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick said through a spokesman on Wednesday.The new line: The 2006 coats will debut in February. Watch your back: The exclusivity of the coats makes them highly coveted -- not only by hip-hop fashion lovers, but also by thieves who have robbed people for their leathers. On occasion, the company has replaced the coats of people who have been robbed.
The real thing?
In recent years, imitators have bootlegged the popular leather coats created by Wissam Exclusive. In 2003, the company obtained copyright protection, making it illegal for them to be copied. In order not to be swindled, here are a few tips.
* An Al Wissam custom leather jacket has the name of the company sewed in the interior lining throughout the coat and its logo is stamped into the jacket's metal zipper.
* Buy the leather from an official Al Wissam retailer. Go to www.alwissam.com to find all locations or information on how to order one.
Copyright (c) 2005, Detroit Free Press
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