24 Hours in the Motor City: My Peek Into Shinola’s Plan for Global Domination

Back in March, when I visited Shinola at the Baselworld fair, one of the executives I was catching up with mentioned in an offhand way that there was some sort of Vogue-related happening taking place in Detroit on June 19. Anna (Wintour—natch!) was supposed to make an appearance. I didn’t recall much more than those two details, but they were enough to pique my interest.

I soon realized that June 19 was the week after Mark and Eric’s wedding in upstate New York, which meant that I’d be working from the office in Manhattan and would then need to fly home to L.A. Detroit, high on my list of cities to see, was on the way…

In April, the plot thickened. I spoke to my good friend Amber, a Detroit native and current Londoner, and learned that she would be visiting her parents the very same week as the Vogue/Shinola whatever-it-was. That was the clincher: I booked my tickets immediately—into Detroit on the morning of the 19th and out on the afternoon of the 20th. The plan was to tour the Shinola factory—birthplace of The Gomelsky!—and crash the Condé Nast shindig, with Amber as my plus one.

And that’s pretty much all I knew when I showed up in the Motor City last Thursday. Okay, I did learn that the event was an exhibition of Bruce Weber photography opening at the Detroit Institute of Arts on June 20 and that Anna et al. would fete the photographer at a private tour of the exhibit the night before. I didn’t know how Amber and I would work our way into their midst, but one way or another, I was determined to make my 24 hours in town as memorable as possible.

My first order of business was a pit stop at Slows Bar-B-Q for its famed pulled pork sandwich, which didn’t disappoint. Next, I checked in at the majestic Westin Book Cadillac in the heart of downtown (and scanned the halls in search of that famous bob—to no avail).

 

Mmmmmmm…

When Amber showed up, we piled into her car and drove to the Shinola factory, which takes up a single massive floor of Detroit’s School for Creative Studies.

Amber at the entrance to the Shinola’s building

I was expecting something cool—the brand has an urban-chic aesthetic that’s drawn plenty of admirers—but the factory space was better than I imagined. Exposed brick walls, workbenches filled with locals young and old, even a showcase of vintage Shinola shoe polish (prepared, I was told, for Bill Clinton’s recent visit). The place has the hip vibe of a start-up—which is pretty remarkable if you’ve ever been to a Swiss watch factory, where the ambience hews closer to antiseptic medical lab. 

Along with a few Condé Nast editors, we toured the new leather and design studio, opened last October, where Shinola designs and prototypes all its leather products, from duffel bags to briefcases. The spirit of Henry Ford seemed to hover over the adjacent room, where a new assembly line sees Shinola employees making watch straps using strips of Horween leather from the famed Chicago tannery.

The watch strap–making line in Shinola’s new leather factory in Detroit

In its first year (2013), Shinola sold 50,000 watches, according to publicist Heidi Hayden. This year, that number is set to triple. No wonder the brand is preparing for the influx by beefing up its capacity to make as much as possible in-house.

The watch assembly lines were even more impressive—not hydraulically operated like the Omega factory I once toured in Biel, Switzerland, but efficient and clean and quality controlled by Americans.

One of the thousands of dials that’s fitted on the watches assembled at the Shinola factory

And that’s the point. America hasn’t seen a watch-assembling operation of this size and sophistication since the waning decades of the 20th century. Say what you will about Shinola’s aggressively cheery made-in-America PR spin (which doesn’t linger on the fact that its watch movements are all Swiss-made), it’s still an impressive story of bringing jobs to a great American city desperately in need of them.

A worker at Shinola quality control

Amber and I left the factory and regrouped at a downtown bar, then moved on to dinner on the east side of town. Unexpectedly, Heidi called to say we’d been invited to Bruce Weber’s after party at the iconic American Coney Island diner, home to the city’s legendary chili dogs.

When we got there, the place was swarming with famous personalities, including Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, whose ketchup-red hair was unmistakable; the model Carolyn Murphy (gorgeous, super-skinny and dressed in a silky sheath of a dress that looked bizarre against the Detroit working-class surroundings); the man of the hour, Bruce Weber, wearing his signature bandanna; and a handful of the locals he’d photographed for the DIA exhibit, several of whom performed for the crowd while we scarfed down Coney Island dogs and doughnuts. (But alas, no Anna.)

Model Carolyn Murphy at the American Coney Island counter

Amber and I were beside ourselves. The Talking Heads kept running on a loop through my mind: How did I get here? The best part was yet to come. The entire party carried on to the Raven Lounge north of the city center. The place bills itself as Michigan’s oldest blues bar, and it sure felt that way when we were grooving amidst a slew of Voguettes, not to mention Bruce Weber and his entourage. When we finally left around midnight, the streets were deserted—not so much scary as sad.

But the Detroit renaissance that people have been hailing for years seems to be gaining momentum. And Shinola has played no small part in that. Here’s a sampling of the business and community activities the brand was involved in this past week:

  • The Friday morning opening of the Midtown Dog Park, designed and developed by Shinola, whose city clock presides over the entrance
  • The simultaneous unveiling of Shinola Pet, a line of dog accessories created in collaboration with Bruce Weber and in stores this fall
  • A Friday night block party marking the one-year anniversary of the Shinola Detroit flagship on West Canfield, the same block as the dog park, complete with food, promotions, and a viewing of Weber’s “Dogs in Fashion Photography” exhibition
  • The June 14 opening of Shinola sister store Willys Detroit, the former American jeep brand whose previous Detroit warehouse on West Canfield is now a model of all-American retail curation
  • The recent unveiling of a limited-edition series of Shinola timepieces designed by Oscar de la Renta, the first collaboration in the Shinola Salute series honoring designers and contemporary icons

The Friday morning ribbon-cutting of the Midtown Dog Park, designed and developed by Shinola

One excited dog park patron

With a new Minneapolis store that just opened in the past month, Shinola appears poised for all kinds of domestic expansion. While it may be easy to dismiss all the Shinola press as marketing hoopla that trades on Detroit’s outsize reputation as a mecca of cool, the truth is that jobs are jobs—and the wave of gentrification sweeping over the booming shopping district centering on West  Canfield, and the Shinola flagship there, will bring only more of them.

My final stop before heading back to the airport was DIA, where I admired Bruce Weber’s striking black and white photographs of Detroiters I had met the night before at the diner.

The entrance to the Bruce Weber exhibition at DIA

Feeling mighty pleased with myself, I wandered into the museum’s spectacular Rivera Court, a series of murals from the 1930s depicting Detroit industry, by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. The auto and aerospace workers that defined the city back then helped build Detroit into a global icon of manufacturing. I can’t help but hope that the watch and leather factory workers of present-day Detroit will one day rival them.

The Diego Rivera Detroit industry murals in DIA’s Rivera Court