Growing up in Finland, Birmingham resident, Aki Choklat, had a love of fashion from an early age. When he was two years old, his father bought him a pair of red cowboy boots that he laughingly remembers refusing to take off. This led to childhood drawings of cowboy boots – and a footwear designer was born.
However, it was not a linear journey to the fashion industry. Choklat first attended Brigham Young University in Utah where he studied political science and international relations and was able to intern at the U.S. Capitol. He recalls, “While politics were not for me, I learned how diplomacy works and how to deal with people in power, which are both helpful in life.”
After graduating from BYU, Choklat moved to New York City and worked for CBS News and American Express until his early 30s – when he decided to embrace his true calling. He quit his job, cashed in his savings, and moved to London where he started his own shoe label.
“I made every mistake, lost money and decided to go back to school for a master’s degree at Royal College of Arts,” Choklat says. “I am a textbook example of how you can change your life if you’re not happy with it.”
Choklat worked for many years in the fashion industry, based in London and Florence. He led his own international label of shoes and accessories as well as design collaborations with other brands. He taught at one of Italy’s top fashion schools, Polimoda, and in England at London College of Fashion and De Montfort University. He has also authored four design books including Footwear Design, which is considered an important shoe design industry resource.
In 2015, Detroit unexpectedly came calling. Shortly after Choklat casually mentioned to his husband that it might be fun to work in the U.S., he was contacted about an opportunity to develop a new fashion accessories design program at College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit. He was intrigued.
After meeting with a CCS representative in London, Choklat flew to Detroit for an interview. “I just knew the minute I stepped into CCS that I needed to be here. I was so impressed with the facilities and the people were so nice. I was shown a 6,000 square foot empty floor and was told ‘create whatever you want here.’ I was quite honored by the offer.”
Choklat explains, “Fashion accessories is a growing business and represents billions in revenue annually. CCS is one of the few institutions with this type of program.”
The Fashion Design program at CCS blends the study of apparel and accessories design as a business and craft. Choklat is currently the college’s Chair of Fashion Design. “CCS is like a little family. I’m surrounded by youth and enthusiasm all day and it keeps you young. It’s a really good atmosphere.”
As Choklat helps educate and mentor the next generation of fashion professionals, he wants his students to know the often harsh realities of the fashion industry.
“I don’t want to be a dream crusher, but fashion is a tough business. Media gives a false impression of the industry – that it’s easy, but it’s super difficult,” says Choklat. “Anyone interested in fashion needs to study fashion, really study it and take courses. There are so many facets of the industry.”
“Detroit has the opportunity to be an incredible fashion destination,” Choklat muses. “There are little pockets of discovery in Detroit and the state – a sense of history and future and that anything is possible here. I really enjoy my life here. This is my most important experience.”
Story: Tracy Donohue
Photo: Laurie Tennent