For most people, the words “local boutique” likely conjure up images of an ambitious, somewhat characteristically feminine, entrepreneurial effort — smaller, local, independent fashion shops for women or high-end stores for both sexes. One might, then, be surprised to learn that the store Motivation on South University Avenue, with its ominous window mannequins, sleek modern interior and masculine sensibility, is also technically a boutique — an independent fashion company founded and based solely in Ann Arbor.
Motivation is owned and operated by University alum Mike Moeller and was opened in 2007 after Moeller graduated from the University’s Business School with a Master’s of Accounting. Originally from Pittsburgh, Moeller came to Ann Arbor for undergraduate studies as well, and he met his fiancée, Indra Lachhman, with whom he owns and operates the store, while working as a card swiper at Stockwell Hall.
The summer before he started graduate school in 2003, Moeller started an online business selling rap mixtapes, and in four years, had made enough money from the website — nearly $1 million in sales in the last year alone — to purchase the property he currently owns on South University Avenue and open Motivation, his envisaged clothing store (and later, fashion brand).
Moeller saw the opportunity to capitalize on a largely untouched local market — the sale of fashion lines indigenous to Los Angeles and New York City — so he launched a business selling streetwear apparel.
“I just felt like there was nothing like this at the time in Ann Arbor,” Moeller said. “There was Bivouac for guys clothes, but that was pretty much it. American Apparel wasn’t even around then. … There were only one or two other stores in Michigan selling the brands that we were selling.”
Streetwear: Wherefore art thou so dope?
The numerous shelves and racks of attire that envelope you upon entering Motivation are pleasantly overwhelming and filled with high-top shoes, eye-catching shirts and designer hats, all of which essentially comprise the fashion mishmash that is streetwear.
“Streetwear isn’t urban; people kind of confuse it with that,” Moeller said, “It’s like a mix of hip hop, skate, surf, punk rock, high-end influences, and kind of all of that mixed into one.”
Streetwear is a conglomerative style for an evolving and hip-hop-fluenced Generation Y. It’s one of outrageously patterned pants and bucket hats with tropical accents and Toucans — as well as more subtly appealing attire such as designer, print t-shirts and crew neck sweaters. In its first years of operation, Motivation solely featured established, exclusive West Coast and East Coast streetwear brands.
“In general, the brands that we carry kind of limit who they sell to,” Moeller said, “They don’t really sell to the malls — so you can only really find them in boutiques like this.”
Though Moeller initially only sold streetwear brands such as L.A.’s The Hundreds and N.Y.C.’s Mishka, in the past five years, he has steadily been cultivating and expanding his own brand.
“When we first started the store, we carried about 20 brands, and we didn’t have our own stuff,” Moeller said. “But in 2009 and 2010, we started developing our own Motivation line, and now we’re up to around 40 different brands that we carry, and our own brand is about 40 percent of our sales. We’re always trying to transition into carrying more of our stuff and less of other brands.”
From the outset, Moeller was the sole conceptual voice behind the brand, and the Motivation line as it stands today is still almost exclusively his creative brainchild. He is, however, looking to incorporate outside voices from other designers in the future.
As with any fashion company, Moeller recognizes that the Motivation must keep up with changing trends:
“Since we’ve opened, styles have definitely changed. Back then it was all about the bright crazy shirts and people were wearing stuff a lot baggier,” Moeller said. “Now, six years later, everyone’s wearing it super tight or their size, and everything’s a lot more subdued.”
These days, Moeller explained, people still want animal print clothing, just not the wild neon prints they wanted a few years back. Graphic t-shirts aren’t en vogue anymore, and snapback hats have replaced fitted caps as the preferred piece of headwear. Moeller noted that while he does take trends into consideration when creating his own products, he normally tries to keep with the established Motivation line style — blacks, greys, darker palettes. Still, he does look to other sources for inspiration.
“Since we’re in a college town, that’s kind of like our theme,” Moeller said. “Everything here kind of ties back to college in some way.”
“We do roses on a lot of stuff,” he said, handing me a black t-shirt with a pattern of red flowers, “You know, a shirt like this that basically looks like it has the Rose Bowl all over it.”
Los Angeles: The streetwear mecca
To a certain extent, it seems like Moeller is comfortable, yet not entirely satisfied, with his store in Ann Arbor; He talks about possibly expanding to a second store in Los Angeles — a streetwear mecca that’s almost never affected by the unholy wrath of God that is a Michigan winter — or possibly somewhere else in Michigan if L.A. is out of reach.
Recently, Motivation has largely survived on the strength of the sales from its worldwide online store, which account for 30 percent of the store’s business. (Moeller explained how Instagram is a particularly useful tool for the store, as it allows Motivation to visually present new apparel to its followers as soon as it arrives in store.) Another 30 percent of sales are wholesale to other stores that want to carry the Motivation brand — of which there are currently over 80 such establishments across the country — and the final 40 percent comes from the business’s in-store demographics.
“I always tell people that we have two types of customers,” Moeller said. “The University kid who’s just walking by that maybe needs a pair of shoes — you know, you might not be into all the streetwear brands, but you like the shoes or something like that.
“And then we also have the streetwear consumer who will seek us out because we have all these brands that they like. We have people driving from Detroit and Toledo just to get here.”
It’s probably fair to say that some of the prices at Motivation are prohibitive or excessive for University students. Moeller recognizes this discrepancy:
“There are definitely brands we sell like Billionaire Boys Clubs that have t-shirts for 50 dollars,” Moeller said. “And that’s expensive even for me.”
“But we always try to bring in pieces that aren’t going to bust people’s budget, and because our consumers are the students, we have to be aware of that. Our particular brand might be a little expensive for the average consumer, but it’s better-quality stuff; it’s not mass produced, and a lot of it’s made in the U.S.”
A brand building notoriety
To gain traction in any pop culture industry, an enterprise needs popular culture support. So just as rappers need the backing of a record label and fans, so too does Motivation need the promotion and credibility it receives when hip-hop stars wear Moeller’s now-famous “MTVTN” emblem.
Notable artist and felon Chris Brown has, on numerous occasions, been seen wearing the Motivation brand after finding the line at a store in L.A. Though Brown isn’t necessarily an artist that Moeller would traditionally support as a sponsor of the brand, there are many other hip-hop stars that not only rock MTVTN but also show love by coming to the store on South U when performing in Ann Arbor or Detroit.
“Because I had that CD business earlier and my relationships with record labels and with people in the industry,” Moeller said, “we’ve always tried to just use that to our advantage. Our first week here we had Lupe Fiasco in the store for a meet-and-greet.”
In the back of the store, behind the black curtain that separates the storefront from the manager’s office, there is a wall covered in a Jackson Pollock-like splattering of signatures from artists that have visited the store. Among the many names are members of A$AP Mob, Big K.R.I.T., Big Sean, Wiz Khalifa, Trey Songz, and The Clipse. When rappers are performing in Detroit and aren’t able to stop by the store, Moeller makes sure to send them complimentary apparel.
The Detroit art and music scene undeniably has respect for Moeller’s store as well, and Motivation feeds off the energy of the city — having local rapper Boldy James, for example, model various MTVTN items in last year’s spring lookbook. Nonetheless, cities like Los Angeles, where about half of Motivation’s manufacturers are based out of, certainly remain more desirable locations for business and music industry connection.
The future of MTVTN
In 2014, Motivation has already expanded its reach by selling some of its products on major web retailer KarmaLoop and in mall retail outlet Zumiez. Moeller explained that the store’s future expansion will, naturally, be largely dependent on the social networking diaspora it can build among the streetwear crowd.
Ten years from now, Moeller hopes to have four or five more stores established and a streetwear brand with a more worldwide name, like L.A.’s The Hundreds. Despite his belief that the business’s success will come through its Internet promotion, Moeller admits that the storefront boutique is equally as important to Motivation’s image and local, grassroots appeal.
“People want more exclusive stuff, so they come to boutiques like this, not PacSun,” Moeller said, as Drake’s “Successful” played and one of the workers greeted a young couple from L.A. that walked through the door. “And you see that we’re more hands-on with the customers, it’s not just like fashion fast food.”
Moeller just recently purchased a house in Ann Arbor, and though he and his fiancee Indra are getting married later this year, he still has his eyes set on L.A. Six years after opening the store and building a dedicated fanbase in Ann Arbor, Moeller still burns with the same undying motivation for the business of fashion.
“I came up with the name Motivation because it described my mindset when I started the store, and it still does today,” Moeller said. “I was a young ambitious business owner ready to take a major leap of faith and build a business form the ground up.”