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How Savant Studios built a beloved New York City ‘it’ brand

Since opening Savant Studios in 2019, Michael “Grapes” Graham has already taken over Brooklyn with his trucker hats, which have a cult following reminiscent of the Telfar bag’s. Now, Graham is on track to become an emerging star within the global fashion scene.

The brand’s been worn by Zendaya, Lena Waithe, and Steph Curry. New York menswear designers like Todd Snyder, along with Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne of Public School, have designed collaborative collections with Savant Studios.

Trucker hats from Savant Studios have a strong fan following.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

Savant, which is based in Bedford-Stuyvesant and operated by five employees, designed merchandise for the Brooklyn Museum in December and is scheduled to release a Visa-sponsored collection that athletes from dozens of countries will wear for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

But how did someone with a background in youth organization and no professional fashion experience become one of the city’s buzziest designers?

Michael Graham, owner of Savant Studios and host of Sunday Vibes.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

If you ask Graham what was key to his label’s success, his answer is simple: community.

“Community” is often a marketing buzzword used to romanticize large swaths of consumers who are invested in buying the same brand or product.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

Yet with Savant Studios, Graham has created an actual, real-life community by offering a physical and intimate space for fans of his label to interact with one another.

Graham spent years reaching youth communities as a globetrotting minister before returning to Brooklyn to open Savant.

For nearly three years, he’s hosted a weekly gathering called “Sunday Vibes,” which takes place every Sunday evening at his store on 1463 Fulton St. Fittingly, that address was once occupied by a church.

The Savant Studios store is a venue where the brand’s fans — who include rapper and producer Swizz Beatz – gather to participate in open-ended and free discussions about creativity and current events, among other things. It has been Savant Studios’ most popular offering without a price tag.

A scene from a Sunday Vibes at Savant Studios in April.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

“That’s our special sauce and it’s just authentic to who we are and who I am,” said Graham. “This place serves our community, it doesn’t take from them.”

Sunday vibes

On a recent Sunday, about 25 people trickled into the roughly cafe-sized store for a meet-up that felt more like a casual gathering with friends and family. Several simultaneous conversations — rather than a DJ — provided the room’s soundtrack. Attendees brought their own refreshments to share.

Guests formed a campfire circle in the middle of the store, surrounded by clothing racks and sewing machines.

Isaiah Johnson, Tatiana Monet, Neimra Coulibaly, and Omar Sandy-Bourne converse during Sunday Vibes at Savant Studios

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

When Sunday Vibes officially started at 9 p.m, Graham made his way into the center of the room and guests took their seats on wood stools and benches.

That week’s theme was “Style and Grace,” which Graham had shared hours earlier on Savant Studios’ Instagram story. He invited guests to speak broadly about what that open-ended theme meant to them.

One young woman shared the emotions she felt after she was passed up for a fellowship opportunity at the Brooklyn Museum. Others followed by sharing their own experiences with rejection and how they persevered.

Omar Sandy-Bourne and David Famous

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

Graham moderated the discussion with the ease and welcoming vibe of a pastor, occasionally chiming in to emphasize his own perspective or invite others to weigh in.

“I always call this a church for creatives,” said Kahdeen Jefferson, a 29-year-old photographer and director from Elmont, Queens who was among the guests. He says he’s attended over 50 Sunday Vibes gatherings since 2022. “I literally applied to 50 jobs this week. It’s tough out here and this group makes it easier for me to keep going.”

Devin Hentz and her 6-year-old daughter, Zaïre Diop.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

Stay in your lane and do your own thing

Savant Studios’ clothing, which includes everything from $50 graphic T-shirts featuring Nina Simone to $4,500 one-of-a-kind jackets, is what originally introduced most Sunday Vibes attendees to the brand.

But what keeps them coming back to the store every week is a brand experience that’s more meaningful than purchasing another item at the cash register.

“When you go into Ralph Lauren or Rick Owens, they treat you like you’re going to buy something and that’s all you want to do,” said Anthony Pointer, a 31-year-old East New York resident who’s visited Savant Studios weekly since 2019. “You come here and it’s more like ‘Oh, have a seat, let’s talk, what’s your name?’”

Tatiana Monet greets a friend during Sunday Vibes.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

Sunday Vibes and Savant Studios’ experimental approach to fashion retail is working as the city’s fashion retail sector declines.

According to a June 2023 report from the Center for an Urban Future, clothing stores were the worst-performing retail category in New York City. Jobs at clothing stores have declined by 26.9% since February 2020. Savant Studios bucked this trend and survived COVID-19 as well as disastrous flash floods within the past five years by not following a traditional retail approach.

“The old model is owning a boutique that sells to larger department stores like Barneys. They wanted to carry us early on and after a couple meetings, it didn’t exist anymore,” said Graham, who adds that most of Savant’s sales are in-store purchases and that he only recently began wholesaling to stockists in Japan and Paris. “Now we’re more relevant than Barneys, just like that. That’s when it clicked for me to just stay in your lane and do your thing.”

A place for creative growth

Graham said that none of his success was planned or expected. He studied theology and psychology at Life Christian University and York College. Making clothes was originally just a side-hobby for him while he worked for a Christian youth organization called Firestarters.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

While traveling the world ministering to young people, he ran different iterations of his label since 2007. Although he sporadically held pop-ups and dropped collections with stockists like VFILES, a New York City-based boutique and nonprofit fashion incubator, he says the seeds of Savant Studios were really sown in 2016 when he opened a community-centered fashion boutique while living in Lexington, Kentucky.

“A dollar goes a long way there so it wasn’t a heavy lift,” said Graham. “It really worked and I was never interested in traditional retail. So [it] let me do it this way and bring it back home.”

Graham, who was born and raised in Bed-Stuy’s Tompkins Houses, doesn’t believe a store like his has ever existed in the neighborhood. Yet he points out that new restaurants, shops and galleries presently in Bed-Stuy are signs of the neighborhood’s burgeoning creative community.

Photo by Bess Adler for Gothamist

Tatiana Monet, a 29-year-old who moved to Bed-Stuy from upstate New York last year to pursue fashion, is another weekly Sunday Vibes attendee.

Monet currently works on womenswear production for the luxury brand Christopher John Rogers and feels that the community she’s found at Savant’s Studios has been life-changing.

“Savant Studios is not just a really important place to Bed-Stuy, but to Black creatives such as myself because we all go through these struggles,” said Monet.

“Having a space where we see people that look like us that are going through the same thing, it’s really important for creative growth,” she said.

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