On the fifth floor of a former General Motors building is where the story begins. Shinola, the popular shoe polish from the first half of the 20th century, is seeking to reinvent itself in a big way. It’s embracing its past while looking to the future by transforming itself into a consumer product based company. And they’re doing it in Detroit, Michigan, a city that was once the heart of American manufacturing. With an ambitious goal of making all their products in the U.S., they are committed to building a brand with an emphasis on craftsmanship and well designed products. This fall, Shinola will unveil its offerings ranging from watches and bikes to leather and paper goods. But before they do, The Scout had an opportunity to see first hand the operation they were building.
How appropriate and symbolic that Detroit, for all its shortcomings in the last three decades, was a city chosen by Shinola as a base for their operations. The former GM building is now owned and operated by College for Creative Studies. Shinola has taken up residence inside the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, currently occupying half of the floor. The 30,000 sq ft space is split between an office and watch factory. While the office is fully operational the watch division is just underway. This is a genuine partnership between company, city, and community. Shinola has already employed locals to assemble the watches while plans for expanding into manufacturing bikes and leather goods are in the works.
What seemed conventional fifty years ago may be unconventional today. By manufacturing all of its products in the U.S. along with the scale and diversity of the operation, Shinola is in a league of its own. There’s no other company that is operating this way. Products are released when they are ready, which means they are not restricted to retail seasons. Made in the U.S. may be a marketing play that falls flat for many companies, but for Shinola it’s a fundamental identity and everything they base their business on. There will be instances when it’s not possible to acquire parts domestically, it will only be then that the company will look elsewhere to source its materials.
Distribution will be through specialty stores and online as well as Shinola’s own shops. They are currently working on two stand alone stores in Detroit and Manhattan in TriBeCa. Rockwell Group have been tapped to design the interior and have done a great job with creating a warm and inviting environment. A workshop will greet customers in the first room while the back opens up to showcase more of their offering. A coffee bar will also be included in the back. The shop is slated to open early next year with a soft launch in the fall.
Partnership and collaboration is another essential piece to the business. Not everything can be executed in-house, so they look to companies that are exceptionally capable. Companies like Horween Leather in Chicago provided the leather to produce the wallets, bags, and other accessories. Ira Ryan Cycles in Portland, helped with the bicycles. Edwards Brothers Malloy, a paper company in Ann Arbor assisted in the production of notebooks. Even Intrastate Distributors, the Detroit based bottling company has been called upon to perfect the formula for Shinola Cola. It’s all about finding partners that excel in what they do and bring them into the fold.
One may wonder why Shinola decided to launch with so many products at once. Creative director, Daniel Caudill explains, “We knew we were always starting with watches and the other categories came pretty organically from there. We feel it’s a good balance of product to start with and the assortment will allow us to tell a better story at retail and online. They all compliment each other.”
With all this attention on craftsmanship and production in the U.S. the prices will inevitably come at a premium. Watches will range from $400-$800 while bikes will hover around $2500. The benefit of course is a product that will endure.
Shinola’s transformation is ambitious and admirable. They are doing this under the most difficult economic circumstances but their determination and optimism is unparalleled. With so much passion there’s no telling what this company is capable of. This is, after all, just the beginning of the story.