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Shinola and the Myth of Detroit – Beneath the Surface

Beneath the Surface is a monthly column by Robert Lim that examines the cultural side of heritage fashions.


What do you need to know about the commercial launch of the new Shinola brand in 2013?  It’s all there in its marketing: Shinola Detroit – “Where American Is Made.”

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Fig. 1 – Where American Is Made

In its brief existence, the Shinola brand has attracted its share of fans and detractors alike. The brand itself is somewhat confusing–it’s built around the revival of American manufacturing, which, as a “how” is sort of difficult to map to a “what.”  This results in a random collection of four core products: watches, bicycles, leather goods and journals (all either manufactured or assembled in the US).  Ariel Adams, in a piece for Forbes, described them as a “lifestyle brand made for Americans by Americans,” which is both stunningly accurate and the kind of thing you’d hear in an episode of Portlandia.

Shinola’s marquee products are bicycles (the frames / forks are welded in Wisconsin, then assembled in Detroit) and watches (which are assembled in Detroit from Swiss-made movements produced by the company’s co-owner, RONDA). The watches bear the proud proclamation of being “Built In Detroit,” in a neatly obfuscating semantic touch.  Both utilize a classic design language to convey something both vaguely new and old, which makes them seem classic and forgettable at the same time. There has been some discussion related to the price points of these products (up to $3,000 for a bicycle, watches from $500), which are expensive but not necessarily extravagant. Neither would be out of place in a Design Within Reach or MoMA Design Store.

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Fig. 2 – Shinola watches, built in Detroit (via uncrate.com)

Another point of discussion has been Shinola’s corporate origins – it was created by the Texas-based private equity firm Bedrock Manufacturing (founded by Tom Kartsotis, the creator of Fossil), who had acquired the familiar, if not storied, brand name.

To be fair, they have been completely transparent about this–it’s even the first line of the corporate biography in the marketing brochure shown above. But where does a company created from out of thin air, whose identity has so much to do with locality, belong? This brings us to the most polarizing aspect of the company–its choice to center its manufacturing operations in Detroit. I use the word “choice” deliberately, since the city of Detroit has become so fundamental to Shinola’s branding that it appears completely inextricable.

What is so meaningful about Detroit?  Most of the readers of this site are probably aware of its recent economic challenges and intuitively understand its past as equal parts glorious and distant. What’s important to remember is that Detroit is a city built on innovation, the mechanical innovations that led to the automobile and the manufacturing innovations allowed for an unprecedented level of production. It was the early to mid-twentieth century’s equivalent to Silicon Valley and set the stage for America’s economic dominance after World War II–American exceptionalism fulfilled.

By the 1970s, the American automotive companies became complacent and it was the Japanese companies’ turn to innovate, producing more fuel-efficient, better built cars. The long decline of the American auto industry took decades and resulted in a calamitous need to reorganize after the financial crisis of 2008. The story of Detroit’s inability to innovate is remarkably told in a This American Life podcast on NUMMI – the plant that GM repurposed in collaboration with Toyota that should have saved it.

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Fig. 3 – The NUMMI auto plant, Fremont, CA. It was a chance for Detroit to learn from their competitors and now makes Teslas.  (via motortrend.com)

Fast forward to earlier this spring, my European sport sedan was on the wrong side of 180,000 miles and struggling to keep up with the demands of my new commute to work. In its replacement, I was looking for something compact and spirited with a reasonably affordable price tag but without embarrassingly low gas mileage. I went through a laundry list of the usual suspects but none of the offerings sung out to me. I didn’t even think of a US car company until a Mazda sales guy, of all people, mentioned the Ford Focus ST.

I remember the moment in my test drive when I thought – I’ve found it – accelerating past a car on the Merritt Parkway as if it was moving in slow motion, seemingly just by thinking about it.  It was exactly what I was looking for, but I hadn’t known where to find it.

I still have the window sticker from the car – along with the various options and inflated pricing info, it also tells me that its engine was made overseas and the car was assembled in Michigan. While I’m glad that I own a car that was assembled in the US, I wouldn’t own it at all if it wasn’t a good car. Which is what I think about when it comes to Shinola – as much as I support the growth of American industry and the revitalization of Detroit, if you’re going to ask me to do that through buying a product, that product ought to be worth buying in the first place.

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Fig. 4 – The Focus ST – Built by Ford, in Michigan

If Shinola will be commercially successful, it’s because of its watches. They have a pleasant heft to them, thanks to the upgraded cases and crystal (sapphire). The leather bands are made by Horween, who also provide the material for Shinola’s leather goods. They compare favorably to fashion watches that don’t have the same premium cosmetic components. Now that watches are jewelry for men, they don’t necessarily have to justify their prices – but Shinola’s are appealing. If their branding was less prominent, I might consider one for the missus.

I hope that Shinola will deliver on a new, compelling product while being able to build a sustainable watch-making capability in the US – if they want to align their future with Detroit’s, it’s what the city needs right now. After all, nobody needs to hear how great their city once was.