City Girl Tina DeRusha: Changing the Face of Fashion in Grand Rapids

Style Battle, a collaborative fashion competition featuring local clothing retailers, photographers, models, makeup artists, and hairstylists, is back for its third consecutive year, bigger and badder than ever. Taking place at September 27 at the Goei Center (818 Butterworth SW), the event expects upwards of 800 people to attend. The brains behind this competition and other events such as Artprize Fashion Force Challenge, Holly Jolly GR and Studio 254 (the afterparty to Laughfest), is Tina DeRusha. Her efforts have been instrumental in changing the face of fashion in West Michigan by shining a spotlight on local fashion entrepreneurs with the hope of retaining local talent and improving Grand Rapids overall.

“I’ve always loved fashion,” says DeRusha, though her focus for the first 15 years of her professional life was photography. DeRusha was born and raised just outside of Grand Rapids in Kentwood, Mich. After graduating from East Kentwood High School, Tina went on to Grand Rapids Community College. A short stint in modeling opened her up to the world of photography. She participated in an interactive game show called “Blizzard of Bucks” and traveled the nation working as the “Vanna White” of the show. “When I worked for Blizzard of Bucks, I got my first camera and began to explore the world through my camera lens; I knew this was what I wanted to do,” says DeRusha.

After graduating from GRCC, Tina went on to work with Brian Kelly at The Photography Room. This experience helped to hone her skills as a photographer and gave an inside perspective on the fine art world of the city. At The Photography Room, DeRusha saw potential for what Grand Rapids could become with the right collaborators. “In 2002, the Grand Rapids community was just beginning to thrive,” says DeRusha. “I wanted to see it grow as an art community. There wasn’t a large outlet for artistic talent back then; many people left because of it.”

In the mid-2000s, DeRusha began to feel frustrated at the pace of progress taking place in Grand Rapids. DeRusha and her husband began to seriously think about moving out of the area to a bigger city with more opportunity. “I wanted to engage with the community. I was continually looking for my niche and struggling to find it,” says DeRusha. She loved photography, but wanted to do something more impactful on a larger level. “I wanted to really sink my teeth into something and make difference,” she explains.

Then Artprize was launched in 2009 and everything changed. The Artprize model was based on community collaboration with a strong focus on the arts. “Artprize opened so many doors and set the tone for a thriving artistic community,” DeRusha recalls. She began to realize that her attitude was contributing to the problem, not the solution to community engagement in the city. The DeRushas responded by going hyper-local. DeRusha and her husband moved into the heart of downtown. “I began immersing myself in the local culture of Grand Rapids,” she says.

In 2009, Tina took a chance and followed her instincts, founding Spotlight 616, an event production company. After a year of soul searching and making community connections DeRusha, influenced by the Artprize model, produced her flagship event, Style Battle. Style Battle is an interactive fashion competition that highlights local fashion entrepreneurs, gives the audience a voice and makes art a platform to showcase the competitors in a fun, interesting way. Teams of fashion professionals (one clothing retailer, photographer, hairstylist, makeup artist and four models) set up style stations in an open floor plan to collaboratively create four unique, thematic “looks” on their models in three hours. The floor plan allows audience members to congregate and observe each station as the professionals work their magic. Team photographers shoot, edit, and project images during the entire process. The climax of the event takes place as a fashion show showcasing every team and their completed looks. A panel of judges along with the audience and the producers have the opportunity to vote and determine the winners. Winners receive a cash prize and some serious notoriety in the Grand Rapids Community. “Style Battle plays a big role increasing awareness of emerging local talent and retail,” says DeRusha.

This event has been incredibly successful since inception. In 2010, they were over capacity. In 2011, had roughly 500 attendees, and this year, they estimate upwards of 800 participants at the Goei Center. “Style Battle is an amazing event,” says Kate Schick, executive director of Style Battle. "People get a first-hand look at the live construction of a fashion show and have a chance to learn something new and give their feedback. That’s huge.”

2012 is bringing some new and interesting additions to the event. “This is Art” has been slated as the theme for the upcoming competition and the retailers associated with each style station vary in their location and specialty. “I created this event with West Michigan in mind,” says DeRusha. "This year, we are working with some amazing emerging talent from Holland, Saugatuck and Muskegon in addition to new Grand Rapids competitors. Artprize and Spotlight 616 collaborated this past month to produce Fashion Force Challenge, a high-energy fashion competition centered on upcoming Artprize merchandise. The winner of the event has been named “Artprize Ambassador” to Style Battle and received a style team and stipend in preparation for the upcoming competition. “The event was highly successful,” says DeRusha. “It was a chance for Artprize to engage with the community in a new way, [and] it also helped link fashion to the art world in a more meaningful manner.” Look forward to personal style stations for attendees and on-site T-shirt printing in addition to music, food, drinks and fun.

Though DeRusha is best known for Style Battle, it has been a catalyst to other community-minded events coordinated by Spotlight 616 including Holly Jolly GR, Studio 254, Straight from the Heart and a Japanese New Year Celebration. DeRusha grimaces when people assume she is the only person behind the scenes during her events. “I wouldn’t be anything without Reagan Van Antwerp, Todd Ernst, Kristen Dunn, and my two interns, Kate and Kristen. They work just as hard as I do, our events are what they are because of their hard work,” says DeRusha.

Tina has officially found her niche in the community. “I want to get people out of the ‘mall mindset’ and elevate the local fashion industry,” she says. “You have to support what’s going on locally if you want a thriving community.” She saw the potential Grand Rapids possessed and has worked hard to structure events such as Style Battle that capitalize on our local talent -- and celebrate it. 

Chelsea Slocum is a resident of Grand Rapids. She works as an educator and enjoys learning about new and different things happening in the city. Follow her on twitter @cslocum.

Photography by Adam Bird
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