Couture cameos

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The first time I met 33-year-old Cedrick Johnson – everyone calls him Cedi, pronounced said-ee – was outside FashBash in ’97. He doesn’t remember me; the night was a blur. But I was so impressed by the attire of his entourage that I inquired where the clothes were from.

Of course, they were Cedi’s.

"Is he part of the show?" I asked innocently. "No," replied a young woman wearing one of his signature sweeping white pantsuits, "That’s certainly not what this event is about. He’s a local designer," referring to the fact that it’s usual for big-name designers to be represented at such events. Plus, at the time, he worked solely on a piece-by-piece basis – no stores in the area carried his clothes.

Being "local," of which Cedi is proud, takes its toll on even the most talented and tenacious in the world of fashion. While metro Detroit represents a robust fashion-consuming public, hopeful designers generally have to go through New York to get seen back in the city better known for auto design than fashion design. Such is the tale of Maurice Malone and Anna Sui, two Detroiters who’ve made it, relatively speaking, in the couture big top.

But Cedi has gone all-out to make his vision a grand Detroit affair.

Inspired at age 7 to cut and hand-sew old blue jeans to make a skirt and vest for his cousin, he went on to spend his free time throughout school creating his own clothes. Since that first garment, he has designed for gospel music’s "first" family, the Winans, gospel artists the Thomas Whitfield Company, Michael Mindingall and Special Gift, as well as Judges Ted Wallace and Patricia Fresard, comedian and local personality CoCo, and record producer Michael Powell.

In the meantime he supports himself, his wife and two children with his job at General Motors, where he’s worked in operations for 15 years.

The next time Cedi and I met was this past May at the Whitney restaurant, where he debuted his fall ’99 collection at a crowded morning brunch. "How’s it going?" I asked him before the show. "Absolutely wonderful!" he said with a large happy smile. "The models are set, the makeup is done, the hair stylist didn’t show up ... Now it’s just waiting for show time!"

Set against the sumptuous furnishings, models streamed down the grand staircase to the strains of Billie Holiday’s "Let’s Fall in Love." Matching hats, with gloves, with fabrics from jersey and knits but made to look like cashmere – there was something about those cuts and all those reams of flowing fabric that made me want to be fabulous.

"The collection is somewhat influenced by the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s – when people dressed – meaning, they wore ensembles and not just pieces of clothing," he says.

While his designs are all about uptown flair, his style is entirely downtown attitude. "It’s important to understand that you shouldn’t take fashion so seriously. People should experiment with different levels of elegance and try to wear something they may feel daring in. They might surprise themselves!"

The last time I visited Cedi in his workspace-loft in downtown Detroit, he was wrapping a salmon-colored, Eastern-inspired-print, floor-length shirt-jacket to send to a moderately known Hollywood actress who saw his collection at the 100 Black Men of Detroit fashion event in June.

He’s been inserting his collection wherever he can: For the moment it’s a guerrilla-lunchtime showing some Fridays at Niki’s Restaurant in Greektown. "I always try to showcase my collection on a mainstream level to make it real," Cedi says.

"But now I’ve got a publicist in New York."

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