Insights — 27 June 2022
by Celeste Moure
“We need more American success stories like Shinola in Detroit,” declared Bill Clinton in 2014, just a year after the city filed for bankruptcy. With a catchy “Built in Detroit” tagline and a name that exudes vintage, Shinola quickly became a symbol of the Motor City’s resurrection and manufacturing potential in America. So much so that, shortly after the hip brand set up its manufacturing operations inside GM’s former research lab, celebrities and politicians including Neil Young, Jeb Bush and the former president showed up to see the craftsmanship firsthand.
Launched in 2011, Shinola has grown into a company that generates $124 million in annual revenue. Items like $900 watches, $295 leather wallets, $395 clocks with a vintage industrial design look and $65 power strips are embossed with the lightning bolt logo, an image that’s become recognized by Shinola customers as a symbol of product quality and excellence. Watches proudly bear the city’s name right on their face.
As for that brand name, it feels classic and legendary because it is.
In 2010, company founder Tom Kartsotis spent a reported $1 million to buy the name from the long-defunct American shoe polish.
Remember that World War II-era insult, “You don’t know shit from Shinola”? You may not, but that hardly matters. What does is that Shinola products, which are designed and packaged with an American mid-century aesthetic, appeal to a generation of design enthusiasts drawn to a bygone era—the kind of people who don’t mind dropping up to a grand on a watch, all the while playing their part in an American comeback story.
Kartsotis could have created the Shinola brand in any U.S. city, but would anyone have noticed? Would anyone have cared? As Tim Calkins, a clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, put it: “That’s why Detroit is so compelling. Detroit is not an aspirational city.”
THE MOTOR CITY LIFT
A city that was once America’s manufacturing mecca, Detroit offers not only an intriguing backdrop but also the opportunity to foster a manufacturing boom, with ample room for entrepreneurs to plug in, no matter what they’re selling.
Behind Kartsotis’ plan to sell Shinola’s “affordable luxury” products was a compelling marketing proposition: the resurrection of America’s watch industry and a strategy for employing skilled workers left without jobs as auto assembly factories shut down, one after the other.
In recreating the Shinola brand, the company set out to build it around Detroit, from the locals to the factory and its workers.
From 1936 to 1956, the Argonaut Building was home to the General Motors Research Laboratory, the first in-house research and design studio in the American auto industry. Designed by famed local architect Albert Kahn, the brickclad Art Deco building is where, over the course of three decades, every GM car was designed and styled. Located in Detroit’s New Center neighborhood on Milwaukee Avenue and renamed the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, the Argonaut Building today houses the College for Creative Studies, a charter school and Shinola’s 30,000-square-foot factory and its employees, many of whom once worked for the Big Three automakers. When the Argonaut reopened in 2009, college officials touted the new building as a catalyst for economic development in New Center and along the Woodward Avenue corridor. Indeed, the renovation created hundreds of permanent jobs and brought in thousands of people to the neighborhood every day—employees first, then curious residents and, most recently, tourists.
Many of these were or still are Shinola employees, people who don’t just make the watches but also grace the brand’s marketing materials. When Detroit announced its bankruptcy in 2013, Shinola became the de facto voice of the city when it took out a full-page ad in the New York Times.
“To those who’ve written off Detroit, we give you the Birdy,” the defiant ad read. “The Birdy is one of the first watches made by hand in Detroit, built by people who live and work in Detroit. It is a timepiece of exceptional quality that could only be made in the city that made America, and that’s why we make it here.” The Birdy advertised cost $500.
Today, you can visit Shinola’s flagship store in Detroit’s Midtown, a lively neighborhood known for its daring restaurants, record stores and cobbled streets. Inside the industrial-looking space with concrete floors, exposed beams and blond wood cabinetry, you can sit at one of a handful of tables and drink sustainably harvested coffee or Shinola-branded cola from a retro glass bottle while watching a specialist hand-assemble the latest bike model—the Detroit Arrow, perhaps.
For a more immersive experience, you can check into the Shinola Hotel.
Ah, yes: the hotel—Shinola’s largest investment in the city since the factory opened its doors almost a decade ago, it’s an immersion in the brand’s craft and values. And it doesn’t really matter if you’re a guest or a local hunting for wifi and caffeine.
When the company partnered with Bedrock Detroit, the real estate arm of Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans empire, to create a branded Shinola hotel in the heart of downtown, they knew it needed to be a place for more than just tourists.
Set in the Woodward shopping district, the property spreads across two restored buildings—the old T.B. Rayl & Co. sporting goods and hardware store, and a former Singer sewing machine store. It also incorporates three brand-new buildings that take design cues from the city’s historic architecture. “The area is also becoming something of a mini hotel district, with some other unique hotel properties located just steps away,” says Andrew Leber, VP of hospitality at Bedrock, referring to the Siren Hotel, the Aloft Hotel at The David Whitney, and the upcoming Lenny Kravitz-designed Temple Detroit hotel project, which will feature 100 guest rooms by the Los Angeles-based hospitality group SBE, along with 70 apartments.
“We see the Woodward corridor being fully developed with a variety of uses in the next five years,” Leber says. There are now around 5,000 hotel rooms in and around Detroit’s central business district, with more than 2,000 rooms in the pipeline.
DETROIT’S BASE CAMPUS
But before there were hotel rooms, office buildings and locally obsessed restaurants, the neighborhood got up off the mat thanks to the area today known as Campus Martius. In the mid-1800s it was a military training ground; at the beginning of the Civil War, the first Michigan Regiment received their colors on the grounds before shipping off to battle. The transformation to what is now Campus Martius Park, a thriving, 2.5-acre green space created from a desolate downtown parcel, began in September 1999 when Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer and the Detroit 300 Conservancy, a nonprofit that now manages and operates the park, set out to bring the area back to life. Completed in 2004, Campus Martius Park received national recognition in 2010 as the first-ever winner of the Urban Land Institute Amanda Burden Urban Open Space Award.
The selection of Campus Martius Park illustrates the power of well-designed open space to make a tangible difference in the quality of life in urban areas, said award creator Amanda Burden, director of the New York city planning department and a 2009 laureate of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development.
According to Burden, the park has far exceeded all expectations in terms of the lift it has provided to Detroit’s social and economic wellbeing. “It reflects a creative, innovative approach to transforming an eyesore into a jewel,” she said. “Quite simply, it’s a place where people want to spend time. As a result, it’s a magnet for investment. That’s the definition of a successful urban open space.”
Today the park is home to an ice rink, restaurants and food trucks, and it hosts live music performances and family-friendly events. The park projects optimism, civic pride and hope. “Campus Martius Park is making a difference in how people in Detroit feel about their city,” said Burden. “All great planning comes down to the granular approach of how a building meets the street, how a street feels, how you feel walking in the city, and how it feels to be in public spaces and use public spaces that are inviting. Great cities are not about buildings. They are about people.”
THAT DETROIT HOSPITALITY
The Shinola Hotel, located five minutes by foot from Campus Martius, is also about people. The experience begins upon arrival in what has been touted as Detroit’s new living room—a place for locals and visitors alike to come together to eat, drink and converse. “The Living Room is the heart of the hotel,” says Bedrock’s Leber. “And one of the ways we help make sure visitors and local Detroiters engage with the space is through our cultural programming initiatives. Detroit’s poets, musicians and artists have all held events in the space.”
Recently, the hotel hosted a performance by Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit as well as a moderated discussion with Devita Davison of FoodLab (the community of locally owned businesses committed to making good food a sustainable reality for all Detroiters), local chef George Azar of Flowers of Vietnam restaurant, and Hungry author Jeff Gordinier.
The hotel’s interior features artworks by established and up-and-coming Detroit artists and decor pieces by homegrown designers and brands. Perhaps the most striking piece in the room—and taking up an entire wall—is Nick Cave’s Tondo, a circular work, 10 feet in diameter, assembled with found sequined and embroidered fabrics.
On another wall is The Reveal (Black) by native Detroiter Tiff Massey, whose work is influenced by 1980s hip-hop culture, African art and Japanese fashion. There’s a 1986 painting, That’s How It Felt to Walk on the Moon, by former NASA astronaut Alan Bean (the fourth man to set foot on the moon). Bean, who passed away in 2018, resigned from NASA in 1981 to devote his life to painting. In its Great American Series, Shinola dedicated a chronograph to him called the Moon Bean Watch.
“Almost every room in the hotel is unique and architecturally distinct,” says Leber. “Everything in the rooms has been given the Shinola signature touch, from the handmade furniture and leather details to the bathrobes, which are indigo-dyed and an homage to Detroit’s famous boxer, Joe Louis.” Select rooms in the hotel are furnished with beautiful Shinola-branded turntables, speakers and a small collection of vinyl—from Iggy Pop to Miles Davis and David Bowie—to match your mood.
THE ALLEY WAY AHEAD
The experience outside the hotel is equally devoted to building and preserving the Detroit community. “Supporting small, local businesses has always been a major focus of ours,” says Jennifer Skiba, VP of leasing at Bedrock.
They knew from the start that they wanted to incorporate local talent and encourage entrepreneurship within the Shinola Hotel project. An alley behind the property became the ideal lab to mix handpicked shopping options and to offer a mix of global brands and, more importantly, homegrown businesses that celebrate Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Skiba says the alley is now anchored by five woman-owned local businesses. There’s Drought, a certified USDA organic juice brand launched by two local sisters that’s now leading its industry in the Midwest. At Good Neighbor, the owner curates a collection of stylish (and ethically manufactured) wardrobe essentials for men and women. With every sale, the shop donates $1 to a nonprofit that furnishes homes for families transitioning from homelessness. And The Lip Bar, which offers vegan and cruelty-free beauty products, was started by a Detroit native who worked on Wall Street and moved back home to reinvent her career.
Naming the spot was just as important as what would be in it—and Bedrock and Shinola settled on Parker’s Alley. “The alley name is an homage to Thomas Parker, one of the first black landowners in the city of Detroit,” says Skiba. As part of the hotel’s cultural programming, Herb Boyd, author of Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self Determination, was invited to Shinola Hotel in June 2019 for a special lecture discussing the history of Thomas Parker and early Black life in Detroit. “Activating public spaces has always been a priority for Bedrock, and the alley projects are just one example,” Skiba says.
Skiba explains that placing destination retail and dining options in formerly underused alleyways is something that has been slowly gaining traction in Detroit. Parker’s Alley is the second alley Bedrock has redeveloped, with the first a block east of the hotel and named The Belt for the historic garment district that once occupied it.
“We knew Parker’s Alley would be successful because the restaurant and public art that fills The Belt have become a favorite dining and entertainment option,” Skiba says. “We are starting to see this phenomenon catch on elsewhere in the city as well.”
Another thing that’s catching on across the city, and perhaps around the globe, is the feeling that Detroit is back on the map again