Taking a name that’s likely recognizable among the last few generations, Detroit-based consumer goods company Shinola is hoping to make it easy to tell shit from Shinola. First imagined in Dallas a few short years ago, the relaunch of the more-than-100-year-old company recently made the move to a 60,000 square foot space in Detroit’s midtown neighborhood. Drawn in by a city with open arms and a rich history of manufacturing, Shinola felt that Motor City was the best place to stage its comeback for Fall 2012.
Interested in exploring Shinola’s curiously focused range of “consumer goods”—the brand originally known for shoe polish is now creating watches, leather goods, notebooks and cola—we accepted an invite to check out the brand in Detroit. Shinola ambitiously plans to make each of these products right here in the U.S. whenever possible.
In order to realize the best possible execution with domestic production, Shinola has placed collaboration at the core of its business and design strategy. Housed on the fifth floor of what was formerly home to General Motor’s engineering, research and design department—the first designated department of its kind in the auto industry, one responsible for inventing the automatic transmission engine, introducing tail fins, and even designing the first Corvette—Shinola has taken over the space with the intention of building on that legacy of creative innovation. Built in 1928 across the street from the original GM headquarters, the massive building is now the run by Detroit’s College of Creative Studies.
While the building occupies a certain sense of historic importance, CCS’ students and their forward-thinking design talent are also of interest to Shinola, which has enlisted their help in everything from designing their office to assisting in product development as part of their curriculum. “At a very fundamental level CCS and Shinola honor the same philosophies,” says Shinola creative director Daniel Caudill. “They honor the idea of the artisan and craftsman, and our relationship with the CCS students illustrates our core brand pillar of collaboration.”
The brand kicks off its collaborative product line with watches. The substantial inaugural line comprises models assembled entirely on-site in a surprisingly large “clean room” of sorts. The pressurized room—to keep dust out—will eventually be the workspace for dozens of assembly line workers, pumping out hundreds of watches each day. At the moment, with the company still very much in the development stages, the output stands at just a fraction of that goal. Nevertheless the workers currently assembling prototypes and early production editions are intricately skilled and closely supervised to ensure precision assembly. Certified by the US government to claim the distinction of being American-made, Shinola watches are being made with the help of the 65-year-old Swiss manufacturing company Ronda AG with Swiss-made movements, locally sourced components and some pieces imported from China.
Much like their watches, the small range of bicycles are produced elsewhere and assembled in Detroit. Once the Wisconsin-made frames are outfitted with additional top-of-the-line components (like Shimano’s Alfine group) sourced from Portland, OR and abroad, each bike is topped off with custom Horween leather saddles, matching leather grips and a shiny Shinola headbadge.
Operating as a “community of consumer products” as Caudill puts it, Shinola sidesteps the typical platform of scheduled seasonal launches and design deadlines. “Instead we’re opting to develop and release product when it’s ready, fine-tuning and tweaking the product until we feel it is perfect,” he says. This unconventional but logical approach stems from a dedication to producing good design with the customer in mind, running with the spirit of making products intended to last a lifetime.
The commitment to sourcing components domestically whenever possible inevitably comes with a higher price point on Shinola goods. Their handmade bicycles will sell for roughly $2,500 while the larger range of watches will go for between $400-$800. As Caudill points out, the definite launch date has not been confirmed, though e-commerce is tentatively slated for Fall 2012. Also in the works is a showroom to open sometime close to December in NYC’s Tribeca neighborhood, which will then transition into a stand-alone retail space in early 2013.
Images by Graham Hiemstra