Shinola Built It and They Came

March 23, 2014 Updated: February 10, 2016

In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” They may not be the exact words that inspired Shinola CEO Steven Bock, but it’s the same spirit behind the little company that is seeking to make big waves in the United States by manufacturing all its products in this country.

Shinola was originally a shoe polish company founded in 1907. Bock said they acquired the name in 2011 and in the same year launched the all new company. And although they still make shoe polish, it is the other product ranges that have set the brand onto the fast track to success.

The New York store in Tribeca is set out very much like a gallery, where watches, bicycles, and leather goods are displayed. The bicycles are suspended high up against the walls for maximum effect, and they are truly beautiful to behold. Then there are the quartz-powered watches with hand-crafted leather straps. They will be a mainstay among the company’s other product lines.

All the products have a 1950s and ’60s style, which Bock calls “the DNA of the brand.” The curated product line includes books that have been republished, men’s and women’s varsity jackets with leather sleeves and an enigmatic leather piggy bank which is currently sold out.

Aesthetic considerations aside, it is the way the products are made that gives the brand a far greater value.

In a nutshell, the intrinsic value of each Shinola product is also derived from its value to the community because it is manufactured in the United States.

This is also part of the reason the company chose Detroit as its base.

“Detroit remains a very iconic and very important city. It is a brand unto itself, it has an incredible heritage,” Bock said enumerating the various industries that have flourished in Detroit—automotive and music to name a couple.

“We feel it’s a fantastic city for us to set up our base given that we want to source anything we can from the United States,” said Bock, who splits his time between Detroit and New York.

The Shinola factory is housed in the College for Creative Studies (CCS), Detroit, the same place that initially housed the General Motors automotive design and development teams during the technological boom of the 1950s.

The company has a good relationship with the students and the faculty, to the degree that they sponsor classes, both from a product development as well as a marketing point of view. They offer internships that have already proven fruitful, with Shinola having hired two graduates.

It is clear from the marketing of Shinola that the company is also seeking to build a company culture that is a source of pride for the Detroit community, from which it has support.

“We are a very small company but I think it’s the message that is important. It’s less about the numbers, it’s more abut the message and the ambition,” said Bock.

By the sounds of it, Shinola is almost too good to be true. It is certainly in an enviable position, considering that many U.S. companies have opted to outsource their manufacturing in order to keep costs down. The secret seems to be keeping the production small, sourcing locally as much as possible, and investing in human capital.

The company only started retailing and wholesaling in June last year and it couldn’t keep up with demand. The Wright Brothers Limited Edition Runwell bike that retails at $2,950 is just about sold out and so are many of their watches, notably the women’s styles with handcrafted leather straps.

It’s certainly full steam ahead for Shinola with plans to open stores in Washington, Chicago, and Minneapolis this year. They have also set their sights on Europe with their products in the Parisian hip clothing and accessory concept store Colette, and plans to open Shinola stores in 2015.

Despite the serious intent behind the company’s rapid growth and manufacturing ethic, CEO Steve Bock insists that being a young company, there is room for creative fun: “There’s no ego in what we’re trying to do. We have our feet on the ground. But there is, in all of our marketing, an irreverent sense of humor; from that standpoint we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously, but we are here to be successful.”

To illustrate, Bock recounts how they had struggled to find a name for one of the watch styles. He threw the proverbial gauntlet to his team who were in Basel at the Baselworld trade fair last year. He declared that the first person to walk into the Shinola booth will have their name adopted for the style of the watch. As it happened, the person who walked in was Victoria Gomelsky, the editor-in-chief of the New York City-based jewelry trade publication JCK who specializes in jewelry and watch writing.

Bock kept his word and thus the Detroit-built watch with Argonite 1069 quartz movement, hand-assembled from 46 Swiss-made components has come to be known as “The Gomelsky.”

And just what did Victoria Gomelsky think of the watch? In her blog of May last year she wrote about the incident in Basel and concluded that “the authentic quality permeates the entire brand” with the packaging being “stylish and yet totally accessible—like the best parts of America itself.”