The Shinola Polish
Fifty years after Shinola closed as America's quintessential shoe polish, it has resurfaced in an effort to become an entirely new icon: as the hero of a return to artisanal, "Made-in-America," luxury goods. Is reviving craftsmanship that easy?
By LAURA FRASER
My introduction to Shinola started at my hotel, the Westin Book Cadillac, a tall, circa 1924, Neo-Renaissance building downtown, in the center of a lot of recent turnaround development. I was in Detroit to report another story, but Shinola was hard to miss. In the lobby of the hotel, which was recently restored for $200 million, stood a sleek, khaki-colored Shinola urban bicycle, along with a display case filled with Shinola leather goods. My window looked out on a giant billboard of Muhammad Ali, one of Shinola’s “Great Americans” celebrated in ads for a watch series. Downstairs, the bartender was wearing a large-faced Shinola watch, which he said one of the company’s executives had slipped off his own wrist and given to him. “They were giving me a hard time about my awful watch, and asked if I knew they made watches in Detroit, and when I said theirs was a little out of my price range, he handed it to me and said, ‘Here, promise to never wear that other thing in here again.’” Recently, when President Barack Obama visited Detroit, they tried to give him a watch, too—but he was already wearing a Shinola.
That’s a lot of visibility for a company that, in its current incarnation, is only five years old. Shinola takes its name from a popular, pre-war brand of shoe polish—and a cheeky old phrase, “You can’t tell shit from Shinola.” The new, luxury goods version of the company was founded in 2011 by Tom Kartsotis, a former ticket scalper and high school dropout from Dallas who created Fossil with his brother in 1984 as an American alternative to Swatch; Fossil now does $3.2 billion in sales a year. Kartsotis sold many of his shares in Fossil to start Shinola’s parent company, Bedrock Manufacturing Company (named after “Bedrock,” the fictional home of the Flintstones). The company also owns the 119-year-old Seattle clothing and outdoor goods company Filson, a rugged, upscale version of Orvis; and Willy’s, a Detroit clothing and knick-knack store named after the classic, WWII Jeep. Kartsotis’s businesses play with vintage American associations, emphasizing well-crafted products—what he calls “skill at scale.”
From the outset, Kartsotis positioned Shinola as a heritage brand––“The long tradition of Detroit watchmaking has just begun,” proclaims one full-page newspaper ad in thick, black font. The company focuses as much on its story as on the quality of its products, with Detroit playing a starring role: When a city that stands for steel and industry is down on its luck, a new American company rides to the rescue with an old brand name and a new line of classic American products. By nearly every measure, the story has been a big hit. After opening its factory in 2011 and its first store in 2013, Shinola sold $60 million in goods in 2014. Its branding shouts pride in America, and in Detroit; its ads typically feature African-Americans (the city is 83% black), such as one with a smiling young woman who asks, “Why Detroit?” and answers:
“Detroit is Magical…It’s contemporary. It’s vintage. It’s artful. It’s rock & roll. It’s sometimes pretty, sometimes gritty…It’s my city, and I love it.”
The marketing message doesn’t stop there. Every Shinola leather good—bags, passport cases, iPhone covers, baseball gloves—comes with a certificate of authenticity, stamped on a piece of steel. To a consumer, it’s as if they’ve bought a little piece of Detroit along with their watch or tote bag, and helped raise the city from its ashes. Turn to the company’s website, and you hear it yet again. “We believe in the beauty of industry, the glory of manufacturing, and a city where we know there’s not just history, there is a future. Where we are working to create a community that thrives through excellence of craft and pride of work. Reclaiming the making of things that are made well. Shinola…where American is made.”
Such a mish-mash of forces would make any reporter curious about how it all adds up. So I went back to Detroit to touch and feel Shinola’s goods, see them made, and assess their quality. I also wanted to find out whether a company like Shinola can offer any sort of model for reviving craftsmanship in manufacturing throughout the U.S.
While Shinola’s branding and marketing may seem a bit operatic, there are two ways of looking at the story. From one perspective, sure, Shinola has smart branding. The made-in-Detroit message is mostly aimed not at the people here, more than a third of whom live below the poverty level, but at a wealthier set that shops at Shinola’s stores in Tribeca, London, Palo Alto, and San Francisco. Many of these shoppers are young, DIY hipsters who are looking for items that are simple and subtle enough to complement a hoodie or a cashmere T-shirt, and among those consumers, “authentic” is hot. Harry Moser, founder of the nonprofit Reshoring Initiative, says Shinola’s story has squarely hit the consumers who are most likely to pay more for American-made products—“affluent, older Midwesterners, and Millennials who want to do good, whether it’s saving gorillas or turning around a down-on-its-luck city.”
To feed that market, Shinola has created an eclectic assortment of classic Americana: wooden pencils and lined notebooks, wrist watches, leather bags, baseball bats and mitts, elegant and old-fashioned city bicycles, pet leashes, even domino and screwdriver sets. This odd collection has brought Shinola explosive success, with new stores opening at home and around the world, as well as an attitude that at times seems overly giddy. “If this keeps up,” one marketing campaign said, “we’ll have to turn condos into factories”—this in a town where 78,000 houses are still decrepit and abandoned. As critic Jon Caramanica put it in the New York Times, “Shinola is a self-described luxury brand animated by do-gooder impulses, taking the conceit of ‘Made in Detroit’ and squeezing every last retail penny from it.’”
From another perspective, regardless of the company’s approach to branding, the new Shinola jobs are real jobs, no matter who’s buying this stuff. In a city whose population dropped from 1.8 million to 700,000, and that lost a quarter million jobs from 2000 to 2010, the 397 new Shinola jobs are not insignificant. “Every job is important in Detroit as we rebuild,” says Tammy Carnike, CEO of Detroit’s Chamber of Commerce. Just as important is the company’s ripple effect, which happens on two fronts. First, with such wide variety in its product line, Shinola is helping to diversify an economy that suffered mightily from the collapse of its very old, one-trick pony: the car industry. Second, Carnike says, is the way Shinola has begun serving as an ambassador for the city. “Not only do we have Presidents and celebrities with Shinola on their wrists, but the company is working on our behalf to get other businesses here,” she says. “Shinola is adding to the nationwide buzz about Detroit.”
Such a mish-mash of forces would make any reporter curious about how it all adds up. So I went back to Detroit to touch and feel Shinola’s goods, see them made, and assess their quality. I also wanted to find out whether a company like Shinola can offer any sort of model for reviving craftsmanship in manufacturing throughout the U.S.
Before stepping inside Shinola’s operation, it’s important to know a few facts. The very month that Shinola opened its new store, in July, 2013, the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy—$20 billion in debt, the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. That would seem like an odd time and place to open a luxury goods store.
But Detroit’s heritage is unusual. It was once the wealthiest city in the country, and the 5th biggest. Around 1950, it had the highest rate of home ownership in the U.S. and a robust middle class. At that time, one in six working Americans were employed, directly or indirectly, by the Detroit-based auto industry. From the dawn of the auto age until about 1960, African-Americans from the South, lured by the car industry’s high-paying manufacturing jobs, migrated to Detroit. Starting in the 50s, however, racial tensions in the city caused a white flight to the suburbs, and many factories followed, decentralizing the city and creatingrising unemployment. These trends were coupled with widespread government corruption and discrimination against blacks in housing and public services, which led to the famous Detroit riots of 1967. After that, much of the black middle class left the inner city, too. Over the following decades, as more cars were being made overseas, many of the auto manufacturing jobs that were left in Detroit went with them. By the turn of the century, a third of Detroit was so abandoned, so derelict, it looked like a war-torn city. At the height of the 2008 recession, unemployment hit 29 percent. With a shrinking population and tax base, Detroit couldn’t hold onto its center. This made a shambles of the city’s public schools, its transportation networks, and its leadership. In some neighborhoods, the price of a house was less than the price of a new car.
Since 2010, the auto industry has started recovering, and the city has begun a slow turnaround, despite its bankruptcy. Quicken Loans founder Daniel Gilbert, a billionaire who owns the nation’s largest online mortgage business, picked up 75 office buildings downtown for a song. He’s now developing them, along with a huge sports and entertainment complex. Young artists priced out of Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Oakland pioneered a few neighborhoods, setting up funky shops and galleries in isolated oases of the city, including the section of midtown where Shinola’s store now stands.
With artists came cafès, boutiques, community gardens, and an artisan aesthetic. Local foundations began pouring money into making Detroit run again, with the city offering sweet real estate deals to companies willing to give it a try. It might seem crazy to start a business in Detroit at a moment like this, but it was actually perfect timing. It turns out that a real sense of place—especially tinged by a gritty, can-do city like Detroit—adds to the authenticity that Made-in-America customers crave. Several other companies had already used this tactic to their very noticeable advantage, from New Balance’s Depot St. factory in Boston, to Men’s Warehouse buying Joseph Abboud and its factory in Fall River, Mass. Brooks Brothers smartened up its fraying image when it bought the historic Southwick Factory in Haverhill, Mass.
Kartsotis adroitly slipped into a variety market niches—all while managing to give them a whiff of working class pride. In the neighborhood around Shinola today, it looks as if a few blocks of Brooklyn were dropped into the middle of Detroit, creating an area that locals call “Shinola City.”
Like any good businessman, in Detroit Kartsotis bought in just when the bottom was heading up, and he capitalized on both the city’s history of industry and its growing potential for artisanship. (Before making his investment, Kartsotis commissioned a study to see whether people would spend more for a pen made in China, the USA, or Detroit—and Made in Detroit won.) Kartsotis adroitly slipped into each of his market niches—all while managing to give them a whiff of working class pride. In the neighborhood around Shinola today, it looks as if a few blocks of Brooklyn were dropped into the middle of Detroit, creating an area that locals call “Shinola City.”
The Shinola factory is housed in the Argonaut, an 11-story building that, appropriately enough, was once General Motors’ design center. The Argonaut now houses the College for Creative Studies (CCS), a design school, as well as an arts-themed charter high school. The 30,000-square-ft. Shinola factory is on one floor, which the company redesigned to look like an old school—complete with wooden “Girls” and “Boys” bathroom doors. The long handles on the glass doors are covered in leather, and the lobby is hung with the company’s ads, next to glass showcases of its products. The factory comprises three main parts: the watch assembly operation, the leather shop, and the corporate area. (Shinola used to give factory tours to the public, but stopped when the facility became overwhelmed with tour buses.)
When I entered the watch factory, I had to don the gown, booties, and shower cap you might wear to observe a surgery. The area is kept hyper-clean because any speck of dust, or oil from fingers, can mess up a watch mechanism. The atmosphere was bright, hospital white, and silent. Workers plugged into headphones sat in ergonomic chairs, concentrating intently on the delicate jobs in front of them.
Over the decades, the term “watchmaking” has become almost a term of art—used to describe everything from the making of a watch, in entirety and from scratch, to rudimentary assemblies, and even to basic repairs. Shinola’s marketing leans toward the beginning of the spectrum, suggesting true authorship. In one of their ads, the company proclaims, “4,000 miles from Switzerland, a new gold standard in watchmaking is being built by hand in Detroit.” In actuality, the company falls closer to the middle of the scale. It doesn’t make the components in their watches, but it does assemble them, even putting together the tiny pieces of the movement, which is a watch’s engine. This level of assembly has become rare, even in Switzerland, where quartz watch movements are made by only a handful of companies.
Still, given the company’s insistent Made-in-Detroit branding, the fuzziness in Shinola’s definitions has been controversial. The Detroit Free Press even wondered whether Shinola might deserve a Federal Trade Commission spanking, noting that the FTC requires that anything labeled “Made in USA” be “all or virtually all” made in the U.S. The Free Press quoted an FTC spokesman saying that “Built in Detroit,” Shinola’s careful phrase, could still be tantamount to making a “Made in the USA” claim. There is no FTC action against Shinola (which also makes Filson’s watches), but there are plenty of other retailers that might deserve one. A prime example is Walmart. (For details, please see the new story in this issue, “Walmart’s Made-in-USA shell game.”)
On the Shinola website, it takes a bit of clicking to discover that the watch components aren’t American made, but it’s there if you look: “Our watches…are 100% assembled in our Detroit factory,” the website states, “with both domestic and internationally sourced components.” You can also check a list of Shinola’s product sources, which spells out that the movement components are made by the Swiss watch company Ronda, in both Switzerland and Thailand. And the cases, hands, crystals, bracelets, and buckles are made in China.
Ronda also happens to own part of Shinola, an arrangement that enabled the Detroit company to have its watchmakers trained by the Swiss. Shinola went so far as to send their Senior Watchmaker—a Romanian named Stefan Mihoc, who happened to be living in Detroit—to Switzerland to upgrade his skills. So it’s not as though Shinola has dodged an opportunity to be even more locally made. As Mihoc told me, “No one in the U.S. makes watch components. If they did, we’d use them.”
No other U.S. company assembles watch movements at this scale, either. When Shinola built its factory, it started with one assembly line for the watch movement. Each movement is made of 40-100 delicate parts, which require up to 25 steps just to make the mechanism. After creating a second assembly line, Shinola built roughly 220,000 watches last year. All are high-grade stainless steel, with primarily Swiss components, and jewels for smooth functioning. They also come with a lifetime guarantee.
Sitting at a pristine white table, a loupe on his eye, Mihoc spends his days creating prototypes of new watches for Shinola. At 49, Mihoc has spent most of his life working as a machinist because he couldn’t find any job opportunities in watchmaking. Now his wrist bears the company’s top-of-the-line chronograph watch, which retails for $1500. Still, he says he prefers his simpler “Runwell,” the company’s very first product and its least expensive watch (starting at about $500), with its big face and clear numbers. “I’m kind of old school,” he says. “I just want to be able to tell time.”
Consider the company’s process for making watchbands, which comprise seven, micro-thin layers of leather, all of which are shaved even thinner on the ends. Shinola’s leather crafters do the thinning process themselves, and put the bands together with basic sewing machines. Then they finish the work with hand-stitched reinforcements.
To build even more of each watch in Detroit, the company is creating another facility to make watch faces—right in its flagship store, so shoppers can view the Shinola faces being painted, like tiny silkscreen operations. The showcased workers ought to fit in nicely with the store’s aura of maker cool, where one wall already features a large black-and-white photograph of Mihoc with his magnifying loupe and salt-and-pepper goatee. Mihoc has not only become a Master Watchmaker here. He’s become hip.
As glorious as all this sounds, there is another side to Shinola’s watch story. Much of what you’re seeing in these watches is the triumph of design—and the high prices that sleek aesthetics, combined with brand appeal, can command in today’s fashion conscious world. (To read more about what does and doesn’t create value in a quartz watch, see our story, ‘The Value of Time.”)
Regardless of whether the value of a Shinola watch is real or perceived, the market is gobbling them up. The company’s watch sales grew from 55,000 watches in 2013 to 170,000 in 2014 (the latest figures available). And judging from the company’s expanding operations, Shinola expects those figures to keep growing vigorously. In the meantime, more and more pieces of the finished watch are being manufactured by Shinola. The watchbands, for example, are made right across the hall in the company’s leather goods factory.
Compared with the watch factory, Shinola’s leather operation has a completely different vibe. There is music playing, more people moving around, and a lighter feeling in the room. This is partly because, when compared with watch making, leather crafting is “more of an art,” said Jennifer Guarino, Shinola’s vice president of leather, during my tour. Guarino has long experience in U.S. leathermaking, having worked most recently at J. W. Hulme, which makes handcrafted leather goods in Minnesota. Leather has a life of its own, Guarino explained, with an unpredictable variety of imperfections. Each one of those flaws must be managed (or hidden), which means an endless number of individual decisions—almost none of which can be automated. “These products are hand-made,” said Lisa Chandler, who handles Shinola’s quality control. “So they’re not perfect, but our job is to make sure it’s a defect the customer would expect, that we’re producing the best.”
This claim—that something is “handmade,” so central to Shinola’s branding message of craft and authenticity—is as elusive as the definition of a watchmaker. As soon as anyone picks up a tool, no matter how simple, he or she steps onto a slippery slope of meaning. Some tools and machines require the careful use of one’s hands; some require none at all. And there is an infinite variety in between. (Thomas Moser, the man behind the high-end furniture company of the same name, goes so far as to say that the only craft that can be truly handmade is pottery, because a ceramic vessel can be made with nothing more than clay and a potter’s hands.) Today, we tend to give artisans the benefit of the doubt as long as the machines they use are old-fashioned. The reason goes beyond nostalgia. Most old machinery, being relatively simple, demands unusual physicial skill and dexterity, which can only be achieved through highly tuned connections between the eyes, the ears, and the fingertips.
While some of the work in Shinola’s leather factory may not meet that standard, a good bit does. Consider the company’s process for making watchbands, which involves seven, micro-thin layers of leather, all of which are shaved even thinner on the ends. Shinola’s leather crafters do the thinning process themselves, and put the bands together with basic sewing machines. Then they finish them with hand-stitched reinforcements. (For a closer look at how leatherwork is done at Shinola as compared with a few of its competitors in the U.S., please see our photo essay, “The search for the perfect, American made, leather bag.”)
As in the watch factory, most of the leather employees are former autoworkers “We’re teaching these people a new craft, and new skill sets,” Guarino says. She also said the company has an informal partnership with the arts school downstairs, to help students develop their B.A.s in Fashion Accessories with a focus on manufacturing. Their goal, she said, is to build up the leather goods industry, both in Detroit and in the U.S. beyond Shinola.
The morning I visited Shinola’s flagship store, I spotted a giant Shinola clock in a public dog park (both clock and park were gifts from the company to Detroit). The clock is at the far end of a block that was purchased by Kartsotis, in partnership with musician Jack White of the White Stripes (a Detroit native who opened a record store there). As soon as I stepped into the Shinola store, I was greeted by a café, and an open, spare space with lots of light wood and glass. There were sofas and stacks of artsy coffee table books for the lounging partner of a shopper, and plenty of attractive, young employees buzzing around. The walls were hung with posters of the company’s various watches, which are displayed like museum specimens in glass cases.
In the back of the store is a long, open shop, where Shinola’s bicycles are assembled. The bikes are spiffy and retro—upright cruisers and stylish step-throughs. For people who dare to lock their bikes in the city (don’t), Shinola makes chains covered in soft leather, to avoid nicking the bike’s carefully painted finish.
Bicycle buyers, perhaps unlike many watch and leather bag shoppers, tend to be a relatively informed group. This is because the features that differentiate an expensive bicycle from a cheap one—the weight, the frame details, the various components—are both obvious and well understood. More important, perhaps, in any given bike shop there is no shortage of bicycle makers competing for your dollar. It may be no coincidence, therefore, that when Shinola decided to make bikes, it recruited Sky Yaeger, a legend in the bicycle world who started racing and working in a bike shop in 1973 (when few women did). Yaeger has made bikes for Bianchi, as well as Spot Brand and Swobo, and she owns 29 bikes herself. The bikes she designed for Shinola are solid without being overly heavy, with rich colors and stylish seats and grips—all in all, a very classic look. Instead of bikes that say “racing,” or “touring,” built for hardbodies in clip-ons and Lycra kits, these say “ride me around town in whatever you usually wear.”
Despite the continued prevalence of storied European brands like Peugot (of France), Bianchi (of Italy), or Raleigh (of England), virtually every bicycle frame—99 percent to be exact—is made today in Taiwan. (Each brand does spec its bikes a little differently, but still…) Shinola, by contrast, has its bicycle frames and forks made by Waterford Precision Cycles, a descendent of the iconic Schwinn Bicycles brand, which now operates out of Wisconsin. Waterford has become highly regarded among bike enthusiasts for the unique role it now plays. It is one of the only bike manufacturers in the U.S. that builds semi-custom, hand-built frames the old way: out of lightweight, double-butted steel. (Most of today’s bike frames are made of aluminum, carbon, or some other high-tech substance; these materials are light but generally stiffer than steel, thus creating a bumpier ride.) Shinola’s wheels and spokes are also made in the U.S.—some in Mississippi, some in Colorado. As for the brakes, derailers, and smaller components, “Most of those are made in the Far East,” Ian, a Shinola salesperson, told me. “We try to get what we can in the U.S., but there are some pieces they just don’t make here.”
Not surprisingly, these bicycles aren’t cheap for an around-town ride—they start at $1,000 and top out at $2,950. So I asked Chad Fraser Taylor, my 30-year-old nephew, who manages two bike shops in Boulder, Colorado, to help me assess their value. In Chad’s opinion, the quality of Shinola bicycles is “excellent,” and they bridge a relatively ignored gap between two markets: the ultra-high-end bespoke bike, and the mass-produced cheapo.
Chad said that another local company, Detroit Bikes, is doing “more or less the same thing for about half the price,” but that Shinola is “one level up in craftsmanship.” One reason is that, thanks to the craftsmen at Waterford, Shinola bikes are built with little extra touches—carved lugs instead of simple welds, finely machined fork crowns, and a cut-out at the hub in the shape of a Shinola ‘S.’ They’re also a bit lighter than the other retro city bikes that have become popular lately (such as Public Bikes), offering a slightly smoother ride. Of all their product groups, the bicycles seem to be where Shinola most closely matches price and marketing with uncommon craftsmanship. Curiously, the market for bicycles in general is flat right now, but it’s growing for urban and luxury bikes. For people who don’t ride much, it’s a stylish way to get around; for people who spend thousands on racing and mountain bikes, it’s their cool city ride.
Shinola’s success, it turns out, is due to a range of factors—some of which can be duplicated elsewhere, and some of which can’t. The nostaligic memories that Detroit provokes of America’s old, working class pride obviously won’t resonate in every city (although they might play well in some of our other fallen icons of American industry, such as Pittsburgh, Buffalo, or Milwaukee). Many U.S. companies, however, can enjoy the benefits that come from “reshoring” their manufacturing to U.S. soil. As a growing number of businesses are discovering, those benefits turn out to be numerous—ranging from greater control over production and inventory, reduced shipping costs (and the carbon emissions related to it), and quicker turn-around times for both manufacturing and product delivery. (For more detail on this point, see our story, “How do you reshore skills that have disappeared?”) The other factors in Shinola’s success are replicable as well—if a company’s founders have a smart vision, and plenty of cash.
While walking out of Shinola’s factory one day, I noticed that the area not devoted to manufacturing—the section for white-collar jobs in e-commerce, marketing, and accounting—was filled mainly with white people; on the factory floor, the employees were almost all African-American.
When Shinola started operations in Detroit, it checked every one of these boxes. The venture was lavishly capitalized, which allowed for the outsized Shinola marketing blitz and the investment in a gorgeous, state-of-the-art factory—neither of which most smaller craft producers can afford. And, as Harry Moser of the Reshoring Initiative points out, Shinola’s market niche blended the two categories where people will spend the most for American made products: luxury goods, and anything marketed as “hand-crafted.”
Yet a good many Detroiters remain uneasy with the company. Toward the end of my visit, I began to understand why.
While walking out of Shinola’s factory, I noticed that the area not devoted to manufacturing—the section for white-collar jobs in e-commerce, marketing, and accounting—was filled mainly with white people; on the factory floor, the employees were almost all African-American. “We notice that, too,” said Bridget Russo, Shinola’s Chief Marketing Officer, “and it’s not for lack of trying.” Obviously, hiring does take an effort in a town where only 12 percent of working-aged people have college degrees. “We’re actively working on our recruitment outreach,” Russo says.
How hard they’re working on it, however, is open to question. For his part, Shinola president Jacques Panis, an intense man in his late 30s whose background is in interactive media and marketing, doesn’t seem to take concerns about race terribly seriously. “We don’t look at color,” he told me. “Everyone is the same to us. It’s one big family. Everyone has a great job, everyone’s happy doing with what they’re doing, and I’m not concerned about it at all.”
That’s not how Matthew Burnett sees it. Burnett is the founder of Maker’s Row, a Brooklyn-based organization that supports U.S.-based manufacturing. He also happens to be a Detroit native, a watchmaker, and the former owner of a leather goods company. On the surface, Burnett likes Shinola a lot—“I love watches and I love Detroit,” he says, “so the idea of a watch company in Detroit is fantastic off the bat.” Regarding Panis’ attitude toward race, however, Burnett says, “It’s not an issue for him, but it’s an issue for Detroit.” This is especially true since Shinola uses Detroit—and its large quotient of African-American faces—so heavily in its advertising. “If you want to capitalize off the branding of the community–the soul of the city–you should be aware of the needs of the community,” he says. And there is no shortage of ways to meet those needs. Burnett points out that at the Center for Creative Studies, housed in the very same building where Shinola is located, “there are tons of top-notch kids of color who are craving those kinds of opportunities.”
Shinola seems to be reviving more than Detroit manufacturing. It’s re-creating a market niche that used to be the hallmark of American consumer products—truly durable goods; or, in the spirit of modern marketing panache, what might be called artisan industrial.
To be fair, the Shinola operation does feel like a happy family—for the most part. During my tour of the leather factory, Chandler, the quality control supervisor, told me that she “absolutely loves” her job. Every other employee I met looked very happy as well. No wonder. Most of the factory hires have been out-of-work or underemployed autoworkers, who now spend their days in an attractive plant, with wages that start above minimum and hit full-time benefits (and a watch) after just 90 days.
Yet for all the jobs that Shinola is creating, and for as much as Detroiters appreciate the company, some locals regard Shinola as outsiders—carpetbaggers—who are getting a lot from marketing the town without really addressing the needs of the community. At one point, I met Bree Gant, an attractive, young, African-American Detroit native who had recently quit working as a salesperson at Shinola’s midtown store. She was wearing a big Shinola watch with a topaz face and was enthusiastic about the company, and its brand. “Part of the reason I wanted to work there was because they wanted to support Detroit. I wanted to know they would root their company here and not just use it as a brand.”
She waved her wrist at me. “The thing that separates these from Fossil watches and others is that it’s handmade in the U.S., and that’s why I was passionate about Shinola, because we want to bring manufacturing back, especially to Detroit. We don’t make anything we wear.” She looked me up and down. “How many of the things you’re wearing can you say were made in this country?” At that moment, I had to admit, none.
“That’s why I was a great salesperson,” she said, smiling. Gant told me she liked the management’s approachability at Shinola, and its culture of communicating with everyone on a first-name basis. And she loves the quality of Shinola leather products. But she left because she became increasingly uncomfortable being the face of Shinola, and, for whatever reason, was not able to move up into the corporate side, despite repeated requests. “Customers were excited to speak to a young, queer, black woman artist, and I would tell them my personal stories, and that would give a lot of validity to what Shinola was doing,” she said. “But I wasn’t getting enough per hour to sell myself.”
Gant, like Burnett, believes Shinola is missing some opportunities. “They have a connection to Detroit and really want to give back, and they do a lot of donations and charity work,” she says. “But I don’t see a targeted effort. I see what they can do with marketing, creative design, and merchandising. I’d like to see the same effort they put into creative design and craftsmanship put into the community.”
Gant shrugs. “Their heart is in the right place,” she says. “But when I see people coming into the store spending $1,500 on a watch because they think they’re supporting Detroit, and I’m a young, struggling artist doing workshops for under-represented kids who’ve had a terrible education, I think, if you have $1,500 to support Detroit, this isn’t the way.”
When I later mentioned some of her comments to Panis, he seemed to have little patience for them. “We’ve come to Detroit and said we’re here to create jobs, and that’s what we’ve done,” he told me in a huff. “If you have a problem with us, our doors are open, come see us. I live in the city of Detroit, our people live, work, eat and play in that city, and we love it, it’s home. We’re doing what we said we were going to do.”
On that level, Shinola has indeed delivered on its promises. On another level—regarding the multi-faceted revival the company’s branding promotes—Panis’ outlook on diversity issues highlights a glaring missing piece. Then again, Shinola is a young company that’s growing fast. It will undoubtedly learn all kinds of lessons in the coming years. In the meantime, it already seems to be reviving more than Detroit manufacturing. It’s re-creating a market niche that used to be the hallmark of American consumer products—truly durable goods; or, in the spirit of modern marketing panache, what might be called artisan industrial. If some prices are too high for this niche, the market will undoubtedly bring them down on its own, as consumers learn more about what really makes for, say, a fine watch or leather bag
When I asked Bridget Russo who buys their products, she said it’s not so much a demographic as a psychographic. “Our customers are interested in quality, and in the story of where their products are made, and they want that story to be positive,” she says. “We are the antithesis of fast fashion. We make classic, functional products that will last.” Shinola, in other words, is for people who want their watch to tell a good story along with the time. If that story is still a little rough around the edges, Shinola seems to have what it takes to polish it up.