We’ve all read about the decline of the once great Motor City. We may have also seen the shockingly beautiful images of the decaying and derelict civic buildings: Michigan Central Station, the libraries, the theatres, schools, factories and hotels that have been left to fall to ruin, useful only for the occasional arty photoshoot or pop video. We may also have read Sunday supplement snippets of the city’s artisan based revival, so I jumped on a plane to see for myself.
The first thing that strikes you as you head inbound from the airport is how empty it is. Broad roads and avenues, some tree lined, gorgeously faded Gothic villas, large expanses of open land where factories and warehouses once stood…but no traffic. Motor City has certainly lost its lifeblood but there are signs that it is finding a new one.
Nestled in a downtown side street sits the home of Shinola, possibly the coolest brand of the moment and it doesn’t disappoint.
The story is a great one: the old shoe polish brand has been brought back from the dead to create handmade leather goods, retro bicycles and watches. More importantly, it is creating badly needed jobs for local people. This is a big, happy, good news story.
The truth, of course, is a little more complex. Shinola is owned by the founder of Fossil watches and comes with decent
money behind it, but don’t let that spoil the story. Above all else, Shinola is a shining example of a brand that understands the spirit of the moment, the zeitgeist, and how our aspirations have shifted since the crash.
Everything’s been meticulously thought through: The watches come in big, solid, cubic wooden boxes. Every product comes with its manufacture number on a credit card sized metal plate (no one throws this away) and the watch faces hark back to old school clocks, so they come with ready-made meaning to anyone who went to school. The leather goods are satisfyingly thick, the bikes satisfyingly robust with leather saddles and rose gold alloy calipers. A bit of a boy’s paradise, I have to admit.
Back in New York I sent Tony O’Connor, head of menswear for M&S, to the Tribeca flagship. Over lunch the next day he told me he’d bought a beautiful leather-clad cycle lock. ‘Will you actually use it?’ I asked. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ he snapped. Shinola products are instantly cherishable.
Shinola is one of the first of a new breed of brands that are a direct reaction to the badly designed plastic crap we’ve been importing over the last half century. Today we want products with meaning, brands that are on a mission to change things, not just sell, and Shinola gets it. The coolest thing you can emboss into a piece of thick, tan leather right now is ‘Made in Detroit’.
I believe that the ‘Made In’ issue (not just where but why) will creep up and bite some of our longest standing and most successful brands. Watch this space.