Local clothing company is having a moment in Traverse City business heaven; the store has just moved into a space downtown on East Front Street. Prior to the new space, owner Michael Wahlstrom was in a lower level location across the street. The new space has a modern aesthetic, a quintessentially Traverse view of both the Boardman River and Lake Michigan, and an open work area where he creates all of his clothing.
“This new space is larger and more focal, I think adding a part-time employee is probably going to be inevitable. I like to be on task in the workshop making stuff.”
I met up with him Wednesday so we could talk about the current line Human Condition, the new space and inspiration. I also went back to attend the store’s opening.
Before meeting Michael and seeing Gitche Gumee in person, I had seen their clothes and beautiful Instagram models pop up on my explore page. The chic streetwear line is reminiscent and pulls some inspiration from Off White, Louis Vuttion , Palm Angels and others but Michael has really made Gitche Gumee stand out from anything else that’s been done.
“I like to say that the company is a cross between heritage Americana and a Midwest flavored, streetwear fashion.”
Michael made bags before he began designing and making clothes for the store. He liked to use leather because of its easy nature to work with, but he also liked to use unconventional textiles that contrast against each other.
“I like using materials like plastics and metals and then mixing them with really soft and beautiful fabrics and leather and throwing the two together.”
Gitche Gumee, an old name for Lake Superior referenced in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1885 poem Hiawatha, means the shining Big-Sea-Water in Ojibwe. The lake is Michael’s favorite out of the Great Lakes because of the lake’s duality.
“We used to go up to the U.P. when we were kids, once in the summer and in the winter we would go skiing in Ironwood. I wanted a brand that would personify the lake. One day it could be soft and serene and beautiful, and the next it’s deadly.”
That contrast is the inspiration that Michael draws upon for Gitche Gumee. Many of the clothing pieces are made to be unisex, but he does make more women’s clothing than men’s for the time being.
“It’s harder to get men to take clothing risks than women. However, now that we have more space we can definitely go back into having more mens items.”
Some of the women’s clothing is more risque, with several designs featuring cropped cuts or short skirts. They’re well suited for VSCO girls, the elusive Gen-Z market I find myself trying to encapsulate my youth by emulating. Michael is ahead of the game.
The clothing also references local culture. A shirt from a past collection featured a t-shirt printed with the words Not A Cherry Queen.
“It’s one of the cliches that we like to poke at. Anything that kind of ruffles some feathers.”
The clothing is on display with a backdrop of a clean and white color palette and house music. The space had previously been a barber shop and has a wall of windows with a balcony overlooking the water. Michael and his father designed the space and it’s meant to be simple and uncluttered.
“The concept of the store will always be more of a museum than a typical retail store. We won’t have inventory in every corner, packed floor of product everywhere. We want to be sparse and very minimal so there’s not that department store vibe or any of that. Very minimal, very clean. We want people to feel like they can hang out.”
The store has a 2 way fireplace that provides ambiance and style, and he plans on using the balcony for extra lounge space when the weather gets warm again. He has big plans for the store, and some of those plans include supporting other Traverse City artists. The opening party featured art work from local Traverse City artist Spencer McQueen for sale. The minimal look of the store would be complimentary for gallery showings, which he is not opposed to doing if the art aligns well with the Gitche Gumee brand.
“The space will also function for live music. Not bands or acoustic, more like DJs.”
Gitche Gumee is a trendy, modern and local business that is unlike anything else being done in Traverse City and Northern Michigan and Michael’s inspiration has room to grow in a brand new space.