How Shinola is helping to put the pride – and the manufacturing – back into Detroit

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Most outsiders know a little about Detroit but not that many people, until recently, have had it on their bucket list – that is of course unless you’re fascinated in viewing modern day architectural ruins. 

Industry looms large in Detroit. The original Motor City and home of Henry Ford, it was the bedrock of 20th century American manufacturing and was once, in the 1950s, the wealthiest city in the country. But a combination of factors – the creation of the suburbs, a rise in imported cars from Japan and the need for car manufacturers to become more competitive with the global market – brought Detroit to its knees. By 2013 it was the largest city in the United States to file for bankruptcy. 

But what’s noticeable as we explore the city in the late summer sunshine is a definite air of optimism – particularly in the bright, contemporary, open-plan Shinola HQ and Factories, which incorporates the workshops and design studios of the Detroit brand. Shinola was started in 2011 by Tom Kartsotis, founder of Bedrock Manufacturing (and yes, Bedrock is a reference to The Flintstones – they even play the theme tune when it’s time to take a break from the workshop floor). Having seemingly taking a few notes from Ford, Kartsotis has rapidly built a highly successful company using American-sourced materials crafted by a skilled domestic workforce. 

John Truex and Richard Lambertson are Shinola’s leather design directors, who have, over the last year, been brought in to build a new leather goods division within Shinola. You can tell they’ve worked together for years, as they both consider and roll their thoughts between themselves as they answer the questions posed to them. They have worked in both Europe and America, but part of the Shinola appeal was the opportunity to focus on working with American materials and manufacturers. Whilst Shinola watches are largely made and assembled in Detroit, Truex and Lambertson themselves work with factories all over the country – in Florida, California, Chicago, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts. ‘I used to say when we worked and lived in Italy that we worked in the finest tanneries in Italy,’ says Lambertson. ‘Now we say we’re working in 100- year-old tanneries in the United States. We’re bringing a refinement to the leathers that they are developing – and it’s all part of the “Made in America” story that we find really exciting.’  

Truex nods in agreement, ‘“Made in America” is of course really important, but so is good design. We set out from a piece of paper to then making a first sample in paper, to a second sample in leather – creating that sculptural effect. We want to bring in unique and original ideas, and it’s all done here. The design is equally important – it’s not just picking something and copying it but really creating something unique, from scratch… creating that recipe.’ 

‘I think the other thing that we strive for at Shinola is value,’ Lambertson adds. ‘It’s good design and good value to the customer, and we try to pass that on, whether it’s with the watches – that are great value for the amount of work and labour which go into them – or with the leather goods. We’re striving to give the customer great value, fine leather, and a lifetime warranty. That’s something that doesn’t happen everyday anymore.’ 

Whilst good design is important for Truex and Lambertson, it’s seeing the products being used in the real world that gives them the most joy. ‘When you walk into a Shinola store or along the streets of New York or Detroit and see somebody carrying one of the products, that’s the most exciting thing,’ Lambertson says. ‘You’ve worked on something for probably a year before it hits the stores – and to see what someone has selected and then for them to use it; it’s great.’ 

‘I want to make sure that the customer doesn’t regret buying one of our accessories,’ Truex continues. ‘You can’t be everything to everyone, but it’s great when you’re something to someone. It just really makes their day. It’s an investment. I want them to wear it, to carry it and to put it away and then rediscover it again; so it’s always part of their vocabulary – that’s the ultimate compliment. It might look worn, with pen marks all over it, but they’re smiling, happy and proud, 10 years later, like the first day they bought it. And that’s the ultimate success.’ 



Words Julia Jarvis