Passion, Mission and the Motor City: Meet Shinola, Detroit’s Next Era of Fine Design

Shinola Web Front Page
From Shinola's website, watches built in Detroit are center stage.

You Need This Luxury Brand in Your Life

The city of Detroit. A vintage shoe polish brand. Luxury. Do these things add up?

In building Shinola, Tom Kartsotis made sure that it does.

From the Ashes of Bankrupt Detroit A New Luxury Brand Takes Root

A few years ago, when it looked like the city of Detroit might disappear from our map, Tom saw an opportunity. Not just the opportunity to build a new company among the raw resources of real estate and a skilled workforce waiting for jobs, but also, to make a personal dream come true: to build a luxury lifestyle company from the ground up.

And Detroit called. More than an auto manufacturing town, it is also an art and design community with a deep heritage that could—and should, and needed to— once again lead American design. And it needed reinvention, reinvigoration.

Employees Line The Walls At Shinola

Photos of employees line the walls of Shinola’s offices. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Reinventing Detroit By Reinventing Luxury

So, before dazzling you with the things that Shinola makes—Jewelry? Yup. Handbags? Oh yeah. Watches? World class. Bicycles? Don’t be surprised— step back for a moment to the very chic design era of Mid Century Modern, which describes more than just houses built in the 1940’s and 50’s. It also describes a generation of designers led by husband and wife team Charles and Ray Eames who centered their design talents in Detroit and the nearby Cranbrook center for art, education and science. Through the middle of the 20th century, the Eames’ led a design revolution that still thrives. They focused on form and function, rethinking everything from fine art and landscapes to furniture, architecture and more. Their clean, elegant sensibility is not only classically American, but also, classically Detroit.

Shinola picks up this heritage, merging it with manufacturing expertise and brings it into the modern era.

Watches In The Shinola Showroom

Watches in the Shinola showroom. Photo: Scotty Reiss

What’s in a Name You ask? The Modern Legacy of Shinola

If the old phrase “don’t know shit from Shinola” comes to mind, then you are thinking of the right Shinola. A shoe polish brand that was the go-to brand until the 1960’s when it went out of business, the phrase became popular during World War II. Apparently the phrase was also a favorite of Tom’s, who through his success proved that he indeed did know shit from Shinola. So, he bought the rights to the name.

Shinola wasn’t Tom’s first foray into watches; he started the Fossil brand and after successfully taking the company public and then selling his stake, he wanted to do two things next: collaborate with Ronda, the Swiss maker of fine watch parts and machinery, and create jobs. Detroit presented the perfect place for this new venture with a workforce schooled in manufacturing, an opportunity to be a part of the city’s revival, and a design and engineering legacy.

In 2011 Shinola set up shop at the College of Creative Studies in the Alfred A. Taubman Building in downtown Detroit’s Cass Corridor—a fitting residence not just for the creative environment, but also because of the luxury legacy of Alfred Taubman, former chairman of Sotheby’s and founder of luxury retail mall operator Taubman Centers.

Shinola Piggy Bank

This leather piggy bank is genius: it’s designed for the legs to collapse as it gets full, and a lock and key allow it to be emptied. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Eclectic Collections Rooted in Shared Philosophies

To be the best requires pairing expertise and vision with passion. Shinola’s jewelry, watches, leather goods, bikes, pet goods, furniture, a planned hotel and new audio equipment line all share that dedication to world class pedigree.

The company started with this as a core value: To build the best. The partnership with Ronda set the stage, allowing Shinola to build a watch line of time pieces with prices starting at $500, with diamond bezel editions  selling for more than $2,000. Ronda not only provided precise watch-making systems and components, but also sent its experts to train Shinola’s employees, ensuring quality parts as well as manufacturing.

Shinola'S Leather Workroom

An employee in Shinola’s leather workroom. Leather is custom made for Shinola in Chicago and goods are cut and assembled in the Detroit workshop. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Tiffany Comes to Shinola

When Tom wanted to branch off into leather goods, he asked Vogue editor Anna Wintour for advice. She told him to call designers Richard Lambertson and John Truex of Lambertson Truex. The duo had previously led leather goods design for Tiffany & Company as well as their own line, which was carried at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. And to ensure that the leather goods line would maintain the Shinola integrity, the company purchased machinery from Italy, though the leather hides used in designs are sourced from a company in Chicago. 

And when it was time to introduce jewelry, designer Pamela Love was brought in to ensure the Shinola aesthetic is reflected in each piece, in inspiration, design and integrity.

Shinola Offices And The Watch Workroom

Shinola offices and the watch workroom beyond. Photo: Scotty Reiss

The Real Luxury: Manufacturing, Jobs And Smiling Team Members 

I was invited to visit the Shinola offices and workshop and from the start it was clear that this is bigger than just watches and handbags: This is about people. The offices and the manufacturing floors at Shinola are filled with the company’s easy, pride-filled vibe. Craftspeople tend to details—assembling watches, watch bands, leather pouches—with a studied expertise. Designers show new designs—designs I can’t yet mention— with a sense of excitement. The art team stages and photographs each piece of merchandise in the company’s photo studio. The entire place feels more modern ‘Silicon Valley’ than ‘Detroit manufacturing,’ from the clean, modern look of the offices and workrooms to the casual camaraderie of the company’s 600 employees. 

A Shinola Team Member Making Watch Straps

A Shinola team member making watch straps at the Detroit workshop. Photo: Scotty Reiss

What’s next for Shinola? More growth. More jobs. More stores, more product lines, the hotel. As the company blossoms, opening more stores and growing its reputation, Shinola is becoming not only a pillar of the New Detroit, but the ideal of modern American luxury. Because don’t we all need a little more luxury in our lives?

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss