The city of Detroit is a sort of Disney World for people who mourn the death of North American manufacturing. They make pilgrimages here to see the aftermath of globalization, cruising the streets of Indian Village and the Cass Corridor to ogle abandoned homes and windowless warehouses and ponder what the Motor City's fate means for the rest of the continent.
If this town is a theme park, its gift shop is the Shinola boutique on West Canfield Street, housed in a converted jeep factory. Founded in 2011, Shinola (the name comes from an old shoe polish label) produces made-in- Detroit watches, bicycles and leather goods with a classic, hardy and, often, vintage look. The company simultaneously represents the city's overwhelming nostalgia for its glory days and the hope for a future built on both an entrepreneurial spirit and a work force keen to get its hands dirty again.
Shinola's first manufacturing focus was timepieces and, at its factory today, an ever-expanding staff of watchmakers in hair nets and lab coats tackle the intricate tasks of sorting components, assembling faces and testing them in clean rooms down the hall from the design offices.
"The people that work in the factory are what this company is about," says creative director Daniel Caudill as he walks through Shinola's midtown headquarters (a former General Motors research and design studio that Shinola now shares with the College of Creative Studies) where leather is being meticulously cut, bonded and stitched into watch straps. "When people really see that, that's when they become advocates and fans of the brand. We won't go into business with anyone who hasn't visited the factory."
Shinola has three stores (in Detroit, New York and Minneapolis) and, according to creative director Daniel Caudill, is eyeing expansion into Europe with locations in London, Amsterdam and Berlin. Shinola's newest partner is Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew, which will exclusively carry the timepieces at its Bloor Street and Yorkdale stores in Toronto, in Calgary and in Vancouver beginning this month. The selection includes 36 styles for men and women, priced between $525 and $1,000, including its signature Runwell model.
"Made-in-America used to be about price and jobs – and obviously it's still about jobs – but now it's about quality," Caudill says. "I think that will resonate with consumers outside of the United States."
Wherever it goes, Shinola capitalizes on (and in many ways is repopularizing) the concept of Americana. The photographer Bruce Weber, known for his idyllic images of American life, shoots the brand's campaigns and collaborated on the launch of a line of pet products. The Florida-born supermodel and actress Carolyn Murphy was recently tapped to help develop a timeless collection of women's accessories.
"Shinola is about optimism," Caudill says. "It's about 'we can to this in the United States.' We can make it profitable and sustainable for years [to come] and make great products that we can all stand behind and feel good about."