Michael Wilson designing his next career move with help from Tri-C
January 23, 2017
Michael Wilson arrived at Cuyahoga Community College in 2015 with what was already an impressive resume. For more than 30 years, he had built a career in men’s fashion design from the ground up, becoming one of the most sought-after designers in the industry.
But even someone as accomplished as Wilson discovered he could further his education as his career, and his industry, continue to evolve.
Wilson found his life’s passion before he even graduated high school. At an age when many kids are searching for direction and purpose, Wilson found men’s fashion – and he found it through a common teenage pathway: his friends.
“I was going to school in Bratenahl, back in the ‘70s when they still had a school district,” Wilson said. “It was always a more artistic and creative school district, so when I saw a friend of mine designing and making clothes, I thought ‘I could do that.’”
Using his grandmother’s sewing equipment, Wilson started cutting and sewing fabric, producing his first articles of clothing. Wilson instantly knew he loved designing and making clothes. Turning it into a career, however, was another matter.
Though Wilson attended Virginia Marti College of Art and Design, graduating in 1981, he hadn’t yet discovered a way to turn his developing design and tailoring skills into a profitable career. To pay the bills, Wilson relied on another talent of his – sales and marketing.
Working on the sales side of The Plain Dealer while continuing to hone his design skills, Wilson accomplished two goals simultaneously, building out his collection of men’s apparel while developing a customer base through word of mouth.
“Word got around the office about the work that I was doing, and some of my bosses at The Plain Dealer started ordering pants and shirts from me,” Wilson said. “It also helped that during those early years, I was in a professional job doing sales and promotions, so I had to dress a certain way. It helped sharpen my fashion eye in a lot of ways.”
Wilson always knew his focus would be on men’s fashion, which has historically been an underserved market when compared to the number of designers who gravitate toward women’s fashion. Save for a brief foray into maternity wear prior to his daughter’s birth, he has always maintained menswear as the core of his clothing business.
As Wilson became a veteran of the industry over the course of the 1980s and early ‘90s, word circulated around the Cleveland area and beyond, and he became a preferred custom-clothing producer in the upscale market. In fact, some very famous people started to place custom-clothing orders.
“One thing led to another, and I started designing clothes for NFL players, including some pretty well-known Browns players back in the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Wilson said. “I was starting to get business from around the country.”
But Wilson knew he couldn’t keep his business afloat just doing custom work – he had to get into the wholesale market, which would allow him to increase the volume of his output. That’s when he found a market for clerical vestments and accessories.
“It fit, because it all more or less fell under the heading of menswear,” he said. “I started out making prayer mats for my pastor, and from there, I began designing all the robes and vestments he wears. From that point, I started getting in touch with Catholic bishops around the country. I found a need for contemporary bishop’s vestments, which I am still making.”
Wilson launched his High Church Vestments division and has been producing clerical vestments for nearly a decade.
Through it all, Wilson has been a one-man shop. It has allowed him to maintain artistic control over his creations, from design to production. But it also means growing the business, finding new customers and retaining existing customers has been an ongoing challenge for more than 30 years.
With a sales and marketing background, Wilson has done an admirable job of developing a small core of customers and a longstanding reputation as one of the best menswear designers in the country. But he knew he could do better. He knew he could market his business more effectively, he knew he could build a better website – in short, he knew he could do an even better job of reaching new customers.
After a tour of the fashion industry in California several years ago, Wilson realized just how much the industry had changed on the marketing side. When he returned to Ohio, he made the decision to enroll at Tri-C and begin studying for an associate degree in interactive media. Wilson is also studying for a graphic design certificate.
“The good thing about those skills is you can do so much with them,” he said. “You can do things for your own business, and you can market those skills to help other businesses. I recently designed the logo for Woodbine & Co., a jewelry and watch kiosk at Beachwood Place. That logo is everywhere now."
Wilson is on track to graduate from Tri-C in the spring of 2018, but doesn’t want his formal education to end there. His longer-term goals are to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“I’ll be in school for a while, and try to continue to do enough business to support myself while I’m a student,” he said. “But fashion always has trends, and you know something could always blow up tomorrow. I’m 55 years old, I’m self-employed, and if something big blows up and hits the scene tomorrow, I might have to go after that. Even around campus, you see what some of the kids are wearing, and you think that might be the next big thing.
“But for now, I want to make my business the best it can be, so that I can keep doing what I love to do. So I’m going to keep pursuing my education, at Tri-C and wherever else it takes me.”