Not very many fashion designers begin their origin story with, "When I was in the Marines," but that's only the first of many reasons Montee Holland's career is unique. From creating relationships with Korean garment vendors during his military service to a recent partnership with a Turkish clothing manufacturer, Holland has paired his Detroit-born business savvy with international connections to build his Tayion Collection
into a men's fashion powerhouse.
"I always loved fashion," says Holland. "My mom was a great dresser growing up. But I didn't know how to get into the fashion world, so I decided to join the Marine Corps."
Though the connection between the military and fashion design may not be obvious, Holland took his dream along with him on tours in Japan and Korea, and the travel led to his very first step into the industry. While in Korea, he met garment vendors in a market who offered him the opportunity to make his fashion ideas come to life.
"I didn't know how to draw or how to sew," he says, "but I knew what I liked."
He described the suits to the vendor who made everything to his specifications and in his size. The suits he had made became his trademark. He wore them when he came home and studied education in college. He wore them through graduate school, and when he had his first teaching job.
"I was still wearing those same suits," Holland says. "I left teaching and went to corporate America. The same questions kept coming up - people wanted to know where I found those suits."
Through developing interest in his unique style the years following military service created an awareness of his talent. Holland's next step into the business came when he began working for Pfizer in Ann Arbor.
‘That's when I started having more resources," he says. "I learned more about business because I had my own territory to manage."
Holland took that business knowledge and began creating some of the styles that would eventually build up to his Tayion Collection. Having been an athlete in college, he started designing suits for athletes he knew around the country.
Though it was a side job, interest in his suits was growing quickly - and for good reason. Holland was creating suit concepts no one had ever seen before.
"We kind of changed the landscape of the 'fashion suit,'" Holland says. "That's a suit you wear to an award show; you wear it to events. Before we came along, they were making suits with these loud, crazy colors, and jackets that were ridiculously long. They looked like costumes."
Not so with the Tayion collection. Holland describes his look as the intersection between the Renaissance and the new millennium. He is inspired by the Renaissance era-practice of dressing up to go to work, coming home and changing into an evening suit for socializing. His designs give men a choice between the boring, everyday suit and the "costume-like" fashion suit.
"We came along and made them with some class," he says.
Things really took off for Holland when he attended the MAGIC Fashion Convention
in Las Vegas in 2003. There he met comedian and actor Steve Harvey, who was introducing his own clothing line. By the Spring 2004 MAGIC show, the two were collaborating, sharing a booth and selling lots of suits. Before Holland even realized what had happened, his designs were generating some serious excitement at the biannual event.
"You know how kids line up out side the Footlocker for the new Jordans when they're coming out?" asks Holland. "We created this kind of buzz. [The Tayion Collection] started being hot, at the next who, we were going to make a big splash."
The big splash wasn't going to come out of nowhere. Tayion Collection suits have been featured in more than a dozen magazines and four movies, including Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman
But just as as the business was starting to gel, Holland came up against an unexpected challenge: knock-off versions of the Tayion Collection began showing up at the MAGIC Convention. Though surprised and disappointed, Holland quickly figured out how to beat the imposters at their own game.
"We decided to knock ourselves off," he says. "So the stores who couldn't afford the Tayion Collection prices could have less-expensive versions of the same suits."
After shipping 100,000 units in two years, the lower-priced T-Fusion
Line proved to be a success. There was still one thing missing from Holland's growing fashion empire, however - control over his operations.
While Holland has lived and worked out of his Van Buren Township home for years, his fashion operation has taken place all around the globe. His early successes came from licensing his designs, which were then prototyped, manufactured, marketed and sold from a variety of locations through business partners. Though successful in both sales numbers and high-profile appearances, the licensing approach didn't give Holland hands-on control of his fashions. When Holland's desire to build a more brick and mortar headquarters in Michigan paired up with East Lansing-based economic development non-profit the Prima Civitas Foundation's
Michigan Fashion Council initiative, the timing couldn't have been more perfect.
It all began when the Michigan Economic Development Corporation
found a number of fashion-related businesses like Holland's cropping up in Michigan. Until recently, however, many of them didn't know about each other. Recognizing that connecting some of those dots could help launch a thriving new industry, the MEDC partnered with Prima Civitas to develop ideas. It took less than a year to form the Michigan Garment Industry Council and for that group, including Holland, to embark on a trade mission to Turkey for Istanbul Fashion Week in February of 2012.
While partnering with Turkish businesses doesn't seem to be the most direct way to transition his business to Michigan, the mission ended up providing just that.
"My goal was to have a relationship with a manufacturer and create a direct-from-factory situation, but to have them finance it," Holland says. "It would change the relationship where I was the licensee, I would go to a licensers, and they go to a factory."
Removing that third hand from his business allowed Holland to take full control of his line, open a headquarters in Detroit, and grow his business - from sales and marketing to design - the way he wanted to.
Which is exactly what he did. On the last day of the February trip, Holland found the perfect Turkish manufacturer to partner with. He now awaits his first shipment, which could springboard his local headquarters, as well as additional international sales through his Turkish partner's connections.
"And I'll be their bridge to the US," Holland says. "It's a beautiful situation, and that's why I'm so excited. It's the best business move I've ever made."
Holland hopes to move forward with his plans to develop a headquarters in Downtown Detroit, including a showroom, in the near future. After working with fashion industry professionals across the country, he's learned that there's nowhere he'd rather build his company's future than home.
"I've learned through the school of hard knocks what this business is," Holland says. "I needed to be around people who don't measure themselves by how many times you get knocked down, but how many time you get back up, and that what Detroit is."
Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, the news editor for Capital Gains, and a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
ALL PHOTOS BY DAVE LEWINSKI