This Detroit Fashion Brand is Tackling the City’s Dropout Problem

Published October 2017, Give Detroit magazine and 

One in four Detroit students will not graduate high school.

By Emma Klug // Photographs Courtesy of Merit

A sign tracking the number of high school dropouts in America — one every 26 seconds — illuminates the windows of Merit’s Twelve Oaks Mall boutique. Inside, rows of curated clothing racks, tabletops, and vintage school desks display T-shirts, caps, sweatpants, and accessories with phrases such as “Design Your Fate,” “The Future is Bright,” and “The World is Ours.” Black-and-white portraits line the walls, each image capturing the smiling face of a different student in a floor-to-ceiling mural.

“That’s Cobi, Kennedy, Ashton,” says David Merritt, the founder of the Merit fashion brand, which is only coincidentally related to his last name. “These are the young people I’ve been working with for the last five years, and they just finished up their first year of college.”

Merit uses its stylish apparel and experiential retail space to build awareness of the country’s dropout rate, but the business also works directly with students most at risk. Around the same time Merritt launched the fashion brand in 2012, he and his business partner founded Fate — a four-year mentorship program that works one-on-one with students in Detroit on a weekly basis.

The former high schoolers Merritt mentions are just three of the 22 Jalen Rose Leadership Academy students that received a $5,000 scholarship in 2016 for completing Fate and being accepted to college.

Partially funded by merchandise sales from Merit’s Novi location, as well as its boutique in Great Lakes Crossing and a web store, Fate is now working with a new cohort of nearly 30 Detroit students. Many face hardships throughout high school that can affect their academic performance.

“A lot of statistics and a lot of biases will paint our students in a particular picture because of their race, how much money their family makes, the area in which they live, and a lot of it’s not so positive — those statistics,” Merritt says. “Our premise with our program is that is not their fate.”

The nonprofit organizes workshops that give students a chance to learn from local entrepreneurs, including businesses like Carhartt, Zingerman’s, Shinola, Plante Moran, and Merit itself. The after-school sessions focus on everything from the process behind creating a commercial to finding your strengths and financing college.

Along with offering these educational opportunities, Fate requires that students maintain standards in their GPA, conduct, community service, and attendance. However, Merritt says it’s the familial nature of the program that may have the most impact: Past students have shared how the sense of community in Fate has inspired them to stay in school. It’s also the reason why many of the program’s alumni keep in touch and still participate in group workshops today.

The company is leveraging this momentum as it looks toward new projects, like manufacturing backpacks in the city of Detroit, offering mentorship to even more students, and creating a training program to expose young people to sewing and design.

“We love fashion and we love style,” Merritt says. “If we can make things that are actually making a positive impact on other people, it’s a win-win.”

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