Creative Collaborators of Leelanau: Clothing designer Elijah Nykamp


By Mae Stier

Sun contributor

The second in a series highlighting artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs in our community who collaborate with others. Our first profile on Fernhaus Studio’s Kelsey Duda published in February.

Photos by Mae Stier

Living in Leelanau invites the wearing of many hats, with individuals often finding themselves sitting on multiple boards, working more than one job, or filling numerous needs throughout our small communities. Many of the most successful businesses also operate in this way, meeting multiple needs under one roof: the coffee shop that is also a music venue, the vintage store with the art club, the restaurant with an inn above.

At one such multi-functional establishment—Farm Club—I sat down to talk with Elijah Nykamp, who is himself a wearer of many hypothetical hats. Owner of the clothing studio and shop Nykamping in Suttons Bay, Nykamp is the designer and sewist of all the clothing he creates. Not only does he design and create beautiful, wearable pieces, he is also a community builder, frequently partnering with other artists.

Nykamp’s passion for working collaboratively was evident from the very beginning of our conversation. Passion isn’t even the correct word; instead, it seems that collaboration is the mode through which Nykamp creates. In just over a year of being in business, he has already created collections in partnership with a local painter (Kristin MacKenzie of Leland) and writer (me, Mae Stier, via my project “Lake Letters”) and has a multitude of upcoming multi-dimensional collaborations planned with an event venue, alchemist, and embroidery artist.

Nykamping clothing promises to be “a tent for your body.” The shop’s concept developed from owner Elijah Nykamp’s love of oversized clothing, thrifting, and sustainable, zero-waste fashion.  Clothing items are labeled one-size-fits-most, made oversized “to drape from the shoulders,” and often with textiles that are purchased second-hand. His collections feature tote bags, breezy tops, and long jackets, with stylish cuts and an artistic flair. The business first opened in January 2023 with an online store. Nykamping opened a storefront in downtown Suttons Bay by June of the same year.

Nykamp’s background is in education. After graduating college, he worked as a teacher in Nigeria, then moved to Glen Arbor in 2019 to work on the residential life team at The Leelanau School, a boarding school. When students were sent home in March 2020 because of COVID-19, Nykamp took up sewing and gardening. He worked for the school until the end of the 2021/2022 school year before following his newfound passions down a new path.

In September 2022, Nykamp moved to downtown Suttons Bay and began working as a co-interior designer and landscaper for The Foxglove Farm, a 140-acre farm, orchard and event venue just north of town. By the following summer, Nykamp would open the storefront for his business, Nykamping, just a few blocks from his apartment.

“The connections I have made and the life I have are now centered around Suttons Bay,” Nykamp says. “The people, artists, and business owners I meet are mostly also from Suttons Bay. Having a shop and putting down roots has made me more connected to the Leelanau community.”

Many small business owners experience the loneliness that comes from being so highly focused on their own goals and objectives, and of juggling the many roles required to manage a business. Nykamp acknowledges how easily his work could become highly solitary. To combat this, he likes to connect with other creatives. “It does really help having more people on your team to get dreams streamlined into action plans.”

Nykamp is excited about the ideas generated when more than one person brainstorms and about the upcoming projects he is currently collaborating on. “A shared dream is so much more beautiful when it comes to fruition than just something I can come up with by myself.”

Nykamp believes that northern Michigan is a unique place for creation. He owes this to the high concentration of talented artists in a small region. He considers Lake Michigan partly responsible for the sense of community on the Leelanau Peninsula, where everyone is “pushed together,” artists included.

The region’s remoteness and the nature of rural life, where social interaction requires more intentionality than in places with a higher population density, seems to create a greater openness to working collaboratively with other artists. Social events in Leelanau tend to welcome a broad spectrum of individuals, with winter swim groups, local concerts, and weekly trivia nights engaging individuals across generations, socioeconomic statuses, and political preferences. Living in a rural region invites individuals to let go of preconceived ideas that may elsewhere cause them to self-select, encouraging a type of communal living that feels unique for 2024.

In the same way, Elijah Nykamp’s experience of collaborating with other artists has opened doors to cross-medium partnerships that may not have happened elsewhere, where a clothing designer creating work based on poetry may not be the most obvious connection. But in northern Michigan, where the degrees of separation are reduced from six to about two, and creative energy is intertwined with a shared love for natural spaces, it is entirely plausible to purchase a piece of clothing representative of a poem that is representative of the very place where that piece of clothing was designed, created, and sold.

Nykamp says, “You have to put in the work to show up” to events in Leelanau. The distance between towns and their respective events requires a certain level of commitment from individuals. Additionally, the anonymity experienced in larger cities is primarily nonexistent in these small communities. Nykamp admits this can sometimes feel intimidating, especially when first connecting to the community. But in his experience, once you show up for one event, you are likely to begin seeing familiar faces at other events.

The week after our conversation, Nykamp spent a week at an artist residency at Cedar North, a farm in Cedar that “is dedicated to providing space and time to stay in comfort, explore the world around us and our connection and cooperation with life itself.” He was invited to attend the residency for a collaboration between Up North Pride, Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology, and MiGen. For a full day, he and six other artists had conversations with a group of local and Detroit-based elders in the LGBTQ+ community, then spent the rest of the week using their mediums to tell the elders’ stories.

While at the residency, Nykamp says the focus was on intergenerational support and connections. “The Long Memory Project” seeks to connect artists with queer identities across generations, enabling them to share the unique experiences they have encountered in the region and throughout their lives. The work Nykamp and the other artists create for the project will be on display at Commongrounds in Traverse City for the month of June, with a performance and visual arts reception in the Alluvion on June 15.

In addition to the project he is working on with Up North Pride and Crosshatch, Nykamp has three planned collaborative releases he looks forward to this summer. The largest project involves a collection featuring secondhand natural textiles botanically dyed by Isa of Circles and Cycles Alchemy in Northport. The duo will showcase the pieces during a golden hour fashion show at The Foxglove Farm on June 20, the summer solstice.

Other upcoming collaborations include a project with embroidery artist Dana Falconberry, set to be released on May 17, and a limited edition of baguette bags created for The Mill and Outpost.

Nykamp’s emphasis on and commitment to collaboration point to something essential to the human experience: “We yearn for community, we yearn for a shared experience.” For Nykamp, making clothing offers him another avenue to facilitate that connection.