Shinola: The luxury brand helping Detroit scrub up

It’s a classic American tale. The brawny high school quarterback is widely admired, if not universally loved. A bit dim and arrogant, he coasts along until sure enough, years later, you hear that he’s gone off the rails and is a shadow of his former self.

If the US were a high school, Detroit would be its washed-up former ‘big man on campus’. Its steady decline took a sharp turn for the worse after the government bailout of Chrysler and General Motors in 2008. The ailing city became a full-on basket case, forced to file for bankruptcy in 2013.

shinolaBut Detroit deserves a second chance. Enter Shinola, set up in 2011 by a founder of watchmaker Fossil to help revive the city’s manufacturing mojo. Specialising in fine handmade watches, bicycles and leather goods, Shinola is part of a recent wave of startups to give Detroit a go.

It’s been criticised for selling luxury goods in a city where nearly 40% live below the poverty line, and for overdoing the ‘Made in Detroit’ message—although all of its watches and bikes are assembled in Detroit, bike parts come from Wisconsin, watch movements from Switzerland and even a few details from China. But you can’t deny that it’s brought jobs to a city with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and is helping attract more employers to the area.

Its biggest impact may be to change perceptions of Detroit from down-at-heel grease monkey to stylish maker. Since Shinola opened its first store in Midtown Detroit, it has expanded its retail presence as far as New York, Los Angeles and London. It’s just one of the brands trying to turn ‘Made in America’ into a byword for luxury.

For the first time in a long time, Detroit’s future offers less blight and more hopeful signs of life. Humbled but unbowed, this former icon might be whipping itself into the best shape ever.


Photo credit (header): jodelli