The comeback miracle.
It’s a storytelling formula that’s fueled everything from legendary athletic careers to the greatest films of all time—and for good reason; who doesn’t like a great comeback story?
Of all places that are in need of a great comeback story, Detroit—Motor City is somewhere high up on that list. But in the wake of the city’s disastrous collapse, where to begin? And with whom?
For American lifestyle brand Shinola, being a spectator to Detroit’s comeback story wasn’t an option; they wanted to be the ones to help write it, from the inside-out.
Founded in 1907, Shinola (pronounced SHY-nola) shoe polish became the brand of choice for World War I and World War II soldiers due to its innovative package design featuring a patented “key” for easily separating the lid from the can. The New York-based brand became even further immortalized when soldiers began using the colloquial English phrase “you don’t know shit from Shinola” to bring attention to one’s lack of knowledge in any given situation.
Although it started out as a friendly dinner party joke by a colleague in 2011, it was this very phrase that inspired entrepreneur Tom Kartsotis to dig deeper into the history of the then-defunct Shinola shoe polish brand.
Upon discovering that the company shuttered for good and sold their last can of shoe polish in 1960, Kartsotis bought the Shinola name outright with the goal of making a comeback using a product a bit more ambitious than shoe polish: handmade watches.
And what better backdrop to tell a comeback story than at the battered epicenter of the US manufacturing collapse—an American city in the midst of a comeback story of its own with no way to go but up?
And so, in the wake of endless rubble and lost hope in a city that was once the center of innovative manufacturing, the new Shinola was established with the goal of promoting the resurgence of American industry using the hard-hit city of Detroit as its home base.
Detroit and the Fabric of Industry
Since the earliest days of the Machine Age, Detroit always carried the ideal elements for fostering rapid industrial growth: it was easily accessible by land and sea in the Great Lakes region; it was located near the nation’s leading production centers; and nearby coal, iron, and copper mines ensured that energy and materials were always close at hand.
These conditions made it the ideal location for American industrialist Henry Ford to set up shop in 1915. Despite what’s been popularized in mainstream culture, the founder of Ford Motor Company neither invented the automobile nor the assembly line. Rather, what the skilled industrialist did was combine these two (relatively new) technologies and developed an automobile design using the assembly line manufacturing model.
As a result, the finished automobile was cheaper to produce and more accessible to the middle class while simultaneously offering fair wages and working conditions to his factory workers. In effect, Ford revolutionized the concept of mass production and his model for assembly line manufacturing and fair working conditions is still used to this day.
But in the early 21st Century, this was still a revolutionary concept and made Detroit a hotbed of manufacturing—and subsequently, manufacturing jobs.
Over the next few decades, at least 125 automotive manufacturers followed suit and did their best to catch up with Ford. While demand for manufacturing jobs surged, so too did the Detroit population. By 1930, the city had ballooned from 265,000 to 1.5 million with little regard to urban planning in favor of rapid industrial growth. By 1950, one in every six American workers was employed by the automotive industry, and at the center of it all was Detroit Motor City.
Ultimately, the underlying infrastructure of the city was held up by automotive manufacturers—particularly Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—and if these companies were to break apart at the seams, so would the city.
In 2008, in the wake of the nation’s financial collapse, that’s exactly what happened.
In 2012, less than a year after purchasing the Shinola name, Kartsotis went to work and built out a production floor in an old Detroit building—the Argonaut, built in 1928 by General Motors—and hired nearly 100 jobless Detroiters—all with no watchmaking experience—to assemble the company’s first order of 2,500 watches.
Under the guidance of Swiss watchmaking veterans who were flown over by Kartsotis to help train the group, the brand successfully launched their first watch model—the Runwell—which sold out in just two weeks.
As far as comeback stories go, this one was off to a killer start, but it was still only the beginning.
Over the next four years, it became clear that Shinola had much more potential than simply becoming another watch brand. Today, the company creates high-quality goods that are all manufactured or assembled in their adopted home city. As a result—and perhaps most importantly—each new product comes with the need to hire more Detroiters to meet demand. Today, that number sits around 500.
“Shinola is a brand that started with the idea of building lots of opportunities for Detroit and creating jobs,” explains Bridget Russo, the brand’s Chief Marketing Officer, from her office in downtown Detroit. “While we started with watches and moved onto leather goods, journals, and bicycles, we’re continuing to expand into other lifestyle products along the way.”
It’s clear that Russo—a PR and fashion industry veteran with a passion for social projects—is perfect for this job and has been a key part of bringing the comeback story to life. “I think (our success) is a combination of both timeless design and the story that goes with it that people want to believe in,” she says.
But while the story behind a Shinola watch or pocket journal might make for good dinner party or office chatter, what does the story mean for those who live deep in it—those who are on the front lines in the factory every day for the brand?
For many of these employees, the brand’s Detroit comeback narrative helps fuel comeback stories of their own.
As a lifelong Detroiter and mother of four, Valisa McTaw made ends meet by driving 45 minutes to work each day to sort foam used in the seats of GM automobiles. After learning about the Shinola factory opening up in her native city, she applied for a position at the company and was hired to become a Leather Artisan. Since then, she’s been creating watch straps at the company’s in-house Leather Factory—a skill that the company provided free training for.
“I work very hard to create these, what I like to call masterpieces, known as our watches,” says McTaw. “I look to improve techniques so the durability and look of it will withstand the years of time, so when you look at it years from now it still looks like a classic piece. I like the fact that I put my blood, sweat, and tears into the watch you’re potentially purchasing.”
As a result of her position at Shinola, McTaw is able to bring in a steady income while also making it home in time to cook her kids dinner and help with their homework.
Or take Clint Jackson, another lifelong Detroiter who was destined to follow in his family’s footsteps in the automobile factories before finding an opportunity at Shinola to work alongside McTaw on the watch line.
“I see Shinola going down in Detroit history,” he says. “Kind of being up there with the automobile industry, I see that happening for Detroit.”
With hundreds of stories like McTaw’s and Jackson’s, it’s clear that Shinola’s comeback story is being written just as much from the inside as it is from out—but like most things, it has not been without its fair share of challenges and setbacks.
Earlier this year, the FTC found that some of the parts used in Shinola products were outsourced from foreign suppliers and asked that the company drop their “Where American is Made” slogan. As a result, Kartsotis responded by saying that the brand wasn’t trying to deceive anyone with the branding:
“We believe that our mission is, and our marketing implies, that we are a job creation vehicle and not a ‘Made in America’ play,” he said. “We have always believed that ‘Built in Detroit’ most accurately describes the watches (and jobs) that are being created in Detroit.”
“Shinola has made considerable efforts to make their products in the United States and we applaud its ongoing commitment to creating jobs in its hometown of Detroit,” says Scott Paul, President of the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), a partnership established in 2007 by some of America’s leading manufacturers and the United Steelworkers union. “(They use a majority of) American-made parts, which not only creates jobs for Shinola but also supports other American companies and workers. We hope more retailers will follow Shinola’s example and commit to producing more American-made merchandise.”
A Comeback Miracle, Built in Detroit
While Detroit is still far from the Motor City it once was, there’s no denying that the artists, designers, entrepreneurs, and companies like Shinola Detroit are bringing back that flicker of light once again.
“There are new businesses opening every day and construction happening all over,” says Russo. “It’s clear that the progress we’re seeing is helping to put more people to work and create a better quality of life for Detroiters.”
While the Shinola brand was likely destined to tell an all-American manufacturing brand story due to its existing brand heritage, few might have ever guessed that the single best location to tell that story was at the heart of American manufacturing collapse.
“We know there’s not just history in Detroit, there is a future,” says the company. “It’s why we are here. Making an investment in skill, at scale. Creating a community that will thrive through excellence of craft and pride of work. Where we will reclaim the making of things that are made well. And define American luxury through American quality.”
And above all, what’s not to like about a company that prides itself less on the lifestyle goods it makes and more on the jobs it creates?
“I’m 25 years old. I was working on dashboards for Chrysler on an assembly line and had been doing it for about 10 months, but still hadn’t been hired on full-time and that’s what I wanted, so I began looking for something else and found Shinola,” says Titus Hayes, a Watch Repair Technician at the company.
“This is the opposite of the work environment I used to be in. Here it’s more concentration, and there it was more hands-on hard work versus using your brain. I like the quiet environment here. Once I repaired my first watch that’s when I first started really liking it. I mean I always loved it, but once I learned how to actually repair a watch that’s when I knew I had found my calling.”