Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
In December of 2017, Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid graced an official NBA tweet wearing a hoodie reading “Philly vs. Everybody.” Embiid is a fantastically popular athlete on a freshly revitalized and well-liked team, but reading the replies to that tweet, you’d never know it. “This is a Detroit thing, don’t look right,” reads one. “Detroit started this bruh.” “Either cut DVE a check or get sued.”
DVE stands for Detroit vs. Everybody, a clothing brand started in 2012 by Tommey Walker Jr., a 31-year-old Detroit native. His design — a vertical arrangement with the word Detroit on top, vs. in the middle with a hyphen on each side, and Everybody underneath — is everywhere. You can find gear from most sports teams, most cities, pop-culture franchises, even college fraternities and sororities, stating that they are somehow versus everybody. There are Detroiters who are annoyed at the proliferation. Detroit makes, everybody takes.
But Walker, surprisingly, isn’t one of them. His business sits at the intersection of authenticity and appropriation, gentrification and branding, provinciality and ambition. His story is American capitalism in 2018.
Walker is a graphic designer by trade, and was working for various major record labels when the idea for Detroit vs. Everybody popped into his head. On a business trip in California, Walker flipped on the TV news only to see that the multiple scandals of Detroit’s then-mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, had become national news. “It created a chip on my shoulder, because at that time the renaissance going on in the city of Detroit had already started, and me being a creative figure on the front lines, actually seeing it happen — it’s something you’d have to come to Detroit to see and know, it kind of frustrated me,” says Walker. In 2008, when the scandal broke large, Detroit’s status in the national conversation was still as a cautionary tale: a formerly great city, now derelict and dangerous. By the time Kilpatrick was sentenced, five years later, Detroit’s reputation had changed.
The New York Times asked if Detroit was the most exciting city in America. The city had blossomed with the modern signs of gentrification; new restaurants embraced local food, craft beer, and artisanal pickles. Abandoned factories and foundries became high-end Airbnbs. The Detroit Red Wings hockey team and Pistons basketball team moved to a fancy new stadium, Little Caesars Arena, located in Midtown Detroit; the Pistons previously played out in the suburbs. Streetcar lines are planned. A riverfront park offers bicycle lanes and views across the border into Canada. Detroit’s narrative as the comeback kid is the latest in an array of similar stories; it is the new Brooklyn, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia.
It’s also an incredibly misleading narrative; the city faces gigantic infrastructure issues outside the core of Downtown and Midtown. Even after a drop, over 35 percent of the population remains below the poverty line. Detroit’s public schools consistently rank among the worst in the nation. Income inequality is rising. “I feel in some way, not that it’s overblown, but we still have a long ways to go,” says Joel Stone, senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society, about the revitalization narrative. “There’s forward movement, but we don’t want to do it in the wrong way. We don’t want to become a gentrified city.”
Walker’s business is in some ways a continuation of a long set of Detroit traditions. Up until around 1910, Detroit was a hotbed of small industries: poured steel for railroads; mass production of agricultural products, pharmaceuticals, even cigars. There were, as in many industrial towns, also textile factories, turning out mostly workwear. Carhartt is based in nearby Dearborn, Wolverine is in Rockford, and many smaller mom-and-pop operations serviced workers in the Detroit area. “Auto manufacturing sucked the life out of small manufacturing, for the most part,” says Tracy Irwin of the Detroit Historical Society. “They couldn’t get employees anymore, because Henry Ford was paying five bucks an hour.”
The locations of these manufacturers were either knocked down, ignored, or, more rarely, repurposed into businesses like dry cleaners. The auto-makers weren’t too interested in these smallish, old facilities; they needed gigantic factories, and headed out to areas beyond Detroit’s borders. “Some of those big concrete-trussed buildings, those are still around. They were built to last for two hundred years,” says Irwin. “And they’re really expensive to knock down, so they’ve really just stood there, and people have been able to buy them really, really inexpensively.”
Walker already owned one of those facilities; as one of his hustles, he bought a failing screen-printing business and was using its machines for small clients, like churches and schools, or for family reunions. Walker was even living in the loft with the screen-printing machines when he came up with the idea for Detroit vs. Everybody. The first person to wear it, he says, was a rapper friend of his at a concert. “It kinda jumped in front of us to where people were calling us to find out where to get it, once they saw it,” he says. In a matter of months, the company had to move to a bigger location, and in 2014, some of Detroit’s biggest artists — Eminem, Royce da 5’9”, Big Sean, Danny Brown, Dej Loaf, and Trick-Trick — released a song titled “Detroit vs. Everybody,” which became a minor hit.
“Detroit has been the national punchline for decades,” says Lee DeVito, the editor in chief of the Detroit Metro Times, Detroit’s alt-weekly publication. “Probably because of that, I feel like we have a disproportionately high amount of city pride T-shirts.” There are plenty of these: Detroit Hustles Harder, Made in Detroit, Run DET, that kind of thing. But there’s something about Detroit vs. Everybody that transcended all of those competitors. “It speaks to that kind of hardscrabble, down-on-its-luck aspect of Detroit, but not in a jokey or novelty way. It’s not a punchline, it’s not making fun. It acknowledges the struggle,” says DeVito.
Detroit once exported its culture through the automotive and music industries; every time you drove a Ford or a GM or a Chrysler, you were driving Detroit, and when you listened to the Supremes, the Temptations, or Marvin Gaye, you were listening to Detroit. Detroit vs. Everybody is in that line of exported Detroit culture, but it’s not a product so much as it’s a message. The slogan is a signal of the come-from-nothing, of perseverance in the face of struggle, of recognizing that the deck is stacked against you and fighting anyway. Detroit is the ultimate underdog story, and everyone loves an underdog.
So here we have a company making a statement specifically about the city of Detroit, founded by a born-and-raised Detroiter, manufacturing its products in Detroit. Those people on Twitter yelling at Joel Embiid, they feel an ownership over the vs. Everybody brand. To see someone wearing a T-shirt reading Denver vs. Everybody, Philly vs. Everybody, Alpha Phi vs. Everybody — that’s a perversion, an appropriation of a homegrown Detroit slogan.
I had assumed that these were knockoffs, and a lot of them are. But many of them are not. In the sports apparel world, Walker has an affiliation deal with Fanatics, a major apparel company, to create “vs. Everybody” gear for, well, everybody. To Walker, seeing his design applied outside Detroit isn’t a perversion. It’s business. I asked him when he decided that the Detroit vs. Everybody design could be expanded beyond the Motor City. “I’d say about a couple seconds after I thought of Detroit vs. Everybody,” he says.
In the world of authentic and artisanal and small-batch, the Gen X ideas of selling out have come back around. Detroit vs. Everybody connected on a personal level with the city of Detroit, and to see it elsewhere — maybe especially applied to the country’s more privileged cities — is grating. There’s a decent chance Joel Embiid doesn’t know that his Philly vs. Everybody hoodie was made in Detroit, that it’s a Detroit brand. Walker doesn’t care. “The brand, vs. Everybody, is what I want them to connect to,” he says. “Then I feel that they’re automatically connected to Detroit, because that’s where it came out of. If they haven’t done their due diligence, I don’t care. I just want them to think it’s a dope brand.”
Walker’s slogan is uniquely well-suited to global domination. (Even if the company has since branched out into other slogans, “vs. Everybody” remains its hallmark.) Everybody has, at times, seen themselves as the lone fighter, attacked from all sides. It’s especially easy to apply to competition, either real or perceived. The Golden State Warriors, the most successful basketball team of the past half-decade, is based in the Bay Area, home of the most expensive city in the country. They are the complete opposite of underdogs. And yet they sell “Oakland vs. Everybody” shirts. Why not? It’s technically true. All of the other basketball teams are technically versus them.
It works for any city, any company, any group of people or location that has ever felt as if it is in competition with anybody else. That versatility, combined with the fact that the slogan is minimal and easy to replicate, has led to many, many counterfeits. Check Amazon, Etsy, eBay, or any of dozens of online markets and you’ll find ripoffs. Walker holds the trademark on “vs. Everybody,” and has had to issue dozens of takedown requests for ripoffs. It is probably a losing battle. (Most counterfeiters, he says, do stop once presented with legal notices, including controversial bro-sports company Barstool Sports. The only tricky one has been Toronto vs. Everybody, thanks to international trademark issues.)
But there’s a more nuanced interpretation here than the idea that Walker has sold out. Aside from the fact that it’s not really possible to sell out if your goal was always to sell, Walker does actually continue to support Detroit. He prints his gear just outside Detroit. He has seven retail locations, with more to come, in the Detroit area, and employs 59 people. (The company, he says, has doubled in size in terms of retail store numbers and employees since the beginning of 2017.) One of his proudest collections was a collaboration with Faygo, the Detroit-based soda company most often associated with the Insane Clown Posse (but enjoyed by Midwesterners of all sorts). His next phase, he says, is to take the brand from Detroit to everybody.
To Walker, the idea of selling out is not just irrelevant but also wrong-headed. Would Detroit have ever become what it was during the height of the automotive boom if Ford and Chrysler and GM had only sold within Michigan? A fundamental element of Detroit’s growth will be outside Detroit; the city’s businesses and products will have to reach outside the city’s borders.
Walker sees it as his responsibility as a young entrepreneur in and from Detroit to work and grow his home city. To him, a brand isn’t any one thing: Detroit vs. Everybody is a fervently local brand with international aspirations, a personal project that will work with anyone. None of that really needs to be contradictory. Simplistic views of authenticity and locality are fragile; they can’t hold up to the overwhelming weight of capitalism. It’s not that Walker is willing to sacrifice a passion project for mass success; he thinks they can comfortably coexist.
“I am a product of Detroit, I breathe Detroit with every breath that I take,” he says. “But I don’t believe that I have to keep my creation in Detroit in order to stay true to Detroit.”