All throughout Carol Himelhoch’s life, so many people have asked if she was connected to the department store, it became second nature for her.
It wasn’t for her husband though, who noticed the question being asked everywhere they went.
“It dawned on us, the brand is still alive. So we thought, given the wonderful energy that’s in Detroit and the renaissance, that it might be a good time to revive our legacy and to bring it back,” said Himelhoch, who grew up in Birmingham and graduated from Cranbrook Kingswood High School.
Which is how the duo found themselves planning to bring the iconic Detroit store back to life last summer, but not by opening a traditional brick-and-mortar incarnation.
Last November they brought Himelhoch’s – which opened its first Detroit store in 1907 before closing the doors in 1979 – to the internet, where they sell men’s and women’s fashions, fair trade coffee, as well as items for babies, kids, and homes.
“E-commerce has so much growth potential,” she said. “We thought this was an opportunity to provide the same type of high-touch customer service to people who shop online, who want some approachable, luxury items.”
The transition to online was relatively smooth for Himelhoch. She and her husband, Stephen Ball, have been college professors for over 30 years, including teaching online.
While the department store’s founders would probably be very confused by the entire internet – especially the Facebook Live videos they now do with designers – the heart of Himelhoch’s is still the same – providing excellent customer service and making sure guests can get items they wouldn’t find at just any department store.
“One of the things I’ve seen as a weakness over time, and even my dad used to say this, is that if you walk into one department store after the next, all their merchandise is the same,” Himelhoch said. “It’s become very homogenized...so we wanted to be unique.”
They’re able to do that by continuing another tradition: working with designers who are building their brands and haven’t been discovered.
Those local designers they’re working with now are in good hands. Himelhoch’s helped launch the early careers of Calvin Klein and worked with Estée Lauder when she first began selling her cosmetics.
For this new adventure, Himelhoch said they worked with Design Core Detroit to get a list of local designers – the list included about 200 names – and now have 19 designers they’re working with through that partnership.
Plus, getting to work with a new generation is just plain fun for Himelhoch, who started working in the store at 16, but remembers going there her whole life.
“It just feels like that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Himelhoch said. “We’re supposed to be here – that’s one of our purposes. I feel that when I look back at the history of the store, that’s part of our DNA.”
Even though they launched less than a year ago, Himelhoch hopes they become well-known all over the internet, and become a connection among the generations, both to the people who used to visit the department store and those who are discovering it for the first time online.
It seems they already have the support. Himelhoch said they’ve had an overwhelming sense of support from people – who are simply excited they are back – even those who are no longer here.
“In a sense I feel their presence with me all the time,” she said of prior generations. “I feel a responsibility to honor the legacy that they passed on to me."
Photo: Laurie Tennent