The Genteel
December 11, 2017
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Shinola's Detroit watch factory. Source: shinola.com.

While officials in Detroit were busy filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, Shinola, a luxury watchmaker in the city, was in the midst of gearing up for its flagship expansion in New York.  "The initial goal was to find something that fit[ted] in with the neighborhood," explained Daniel Caudill, Shinola's creative director, to The Genteel.

Detroit has a lot of challenges, but that makes it an interesting place to be. It's almost like it drives the business folks harder. That's the energy.

Formerly the name of a shoe polish, Shinola was launched in 2011 by Tom Kartsotis, founder of Fossil, with the intention of reviving America's manufacturing traditions. Save for high-end custom designers, watch making in the United States is almost a forgotten art. But as guests mingled at the New York store's private preview in Tribeca, Caudill was all smiles; "we really just wanted to create an environment where you could feel comfortable."

A cross between a loft space and a warehouse, the store's interiors serve as a poetic homage to classic American design. Under soft lights and high ceilings, Shinola's New York home is an open invitation to discovering the Motor City's storied past. The vintage photographs and in-house café, however, don't take away from the brand's main act: showcasing luxury watches, apparel, leather goods, and bikes made in Detroit.

"When we started looking at Detroit in 2011 the threat of a bankruptcy was out there at that time," Heath Carr, Shinola's CEO told CNBC. "For us, it was always something that could happen, but it hasn't changed our focus at all," Carr explained. "We wanted to be part of a community. [We] fell in love with Detroit. Detroit fell in love with our idea."

While touring its flagship store, it is easy to see how collaborative partnerships with suppliers and artists factor into Shinola's design ethos. Apparel made by local startups like Detroit Denim and Detroit Cargo surround watch displays, along with leather bound journals, jewellery, ceramics, and even old-school jump ropes. "All of these companies are making beautiful products on a small scale, and we are just really proud to be a part of it," says Caudill.

Each watch is crafted with Swiss-made components provided by Ronda AG. The sleek steel-frame bicycles mounted on the store's brick walls are the result of working with Sky Yaeger, the veteran designer behind iconic bike frames such as the Milano townie and Pista track. Her work with Shinola includes two models of classic city bikes called the Bixby and Runwell.

Related: Bicycles are fashion's latest statement piece.

Shinola leather watches.
Photograph by Semmi W.

Aside from featuring curated products and partnering with esteemed designers, Shinola also ties its work in Detroit to independent manufacturers across the country. Made with vegetable-tanned leather, straps for timepieces (as well the entire collection of leather goods) come from Horween in Chicago, the oldest continuously operated tannery in the country. Similarly, Shinola's bicycle frames are made by Waterford Precision Cycles, a family company based in Wisconsin. Each frame is handmade and then shipped for assembly in Detroit.

Related: Traditional American shoe manufacturer, Aurora Shoe Company.

According to forbes.com, Shinola expects to manufacture 45,000 watches this year, and will bump up production to 500,000 annually by 2015. However, its current output rate may still not be enough to keep up with consumer demand. 

In March, the company's first batch of 2,500 watches (priced at $550) sold out in a week. Thanks to national buzz generated by features in GQ and other fashion sites, the company's limited offering of Runwell watches in June ran out even faster: 600 pieces sold within three hours. With an average price of $600 each, Shinola watches can now be found at Barney's, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Saks and Nordstrom

Even with Shinola's solid growth, the company's management is not under any illusions. "I think it's difficult for people to live in a bankrupt city. If people are not living there, you don't have a workforce," Carr told forbes.com. "You can't wait for city government to give you better direction. As a business, you've got to move. Detroit has a lot of challenges, but that makes it an interesting place to be. It's almost like it drives the business folks harder. That's the energy."

Shinola Bicycles.
>Photograph by Semmi W.

Shinola's headquarters was once the home of GM's design studio. Located inside the historic Argonaut building, its art deco aesthetic is part of the city's identity. While it may be safe from municipal meddling, many of Detroit's other historic buildings and public art collections run the risk of being sold. Kevyn Orr, the city's Emergency Manager (and now de facto mayor) has already expressed interest in pawning off rare collections from Detroit's Institute of the Arts to help pay down the city's $18 billion debt load.

And yet even in such a climate, Caudill says he admires how local creative industries and designers are choosing to stay optimistic. "Whenever there is an opportunity or space for an artist to work freely, that is where true creativity is stirred. And I think that is what's happening in Detroit right now. There is so much creativity… there are so many young people doing great things… and this isn't just Detroit. It happened in the Lower East Side in the 1970s." Caudill's sentiments underlie an irrefutable fact: Detroit may be broke, but it's not broken.

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