On Shinola, Detroit's Misguided White Knight

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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I wanted to like Shinola. I wanted to so badly. A Detroit "design firm" manufacturing products in the United States that's not another car company? I was ready to ride or die. But, like anything in this world that sounds too good to be true, Shinola's press kit is full of asterisks:

*Shinola isn't really a Detroit company. Bedrock Brands owns Shinola. There is no website for Bedrock, but the privately held conglomerate was created by the co-founder of Fossil watches, and owns other brands like Filson. It is based in Texas.

*The watches aren’t manufactured in Detroit, but they are assembled here from parts made overseas from their partner, Swiss-based watch manufacturer Ronda AG.

*The bikes aren't manufactured in Detroit either. Again, they are assembled here with parts made elsewhere. Although the frames are welded in Wisconsin.

All of these asterisks wouldn't be necessary except that Shinola's entire presence is predicated on its ties to the City of Detroit. The justification for the cheapest men's watch being $550? For bicycles that cost a minimum of $1,950? American manufacturing costs more. Quality materials cost more. American products are inherently worth more. Like buying a pair of Toms helps some poor Third World kid, by buying a two thousand dollar bike you're doing your part to help rebuild a fallen American city. In this way, Shinola reminds us what the American dream actually is: a selling point, nothing more than a sales pitch.

To paint this Rockwellian picture Shinola has spared no expense. They brought in Sky Yaeger, the designer of Bianchi's Pista model, among others, to design their bikes. They spent $14.5 million on their NYC TriBeCa flagship. (I wonder how much they invested in the real estate they occupy in Detroit? The details of the company's agreement to lease 30,000 square feet in the old GM Argonaut building have not been released.) They have filled out their retail stores with products from HICKOREE'S, Steven Alan, Archival Clothing and Common Projects. They even hired Bruce Weber for an ad campaign. Instead of starting in his parent’s garage, Shinola is a trust fund kid that decided one day he wanted to start a company and had his dad buy him all the cool stuff. And much to my chagrin, all this money seems to paying off. Shinola's roster of stockists is impressive. Their initial offering of watches sold out before they were even assembled.

Shinola is using my city as its shill, pushing a manufactured, outdated and unrealistic ideal of America.

The most irksome thing about Shinola and its opportunistic promotional campaign? While they've mastered opportunistic marketing, they get the most important aspects of being a "design firm" all wrong. See, the products just aren't that great.

The brand sells denim produced by a Detroit company. Again, on its surface, not such a bad move. Yet, in an interview on their blog, the owner of the Detroit Denim Co. (and Shinola by proxy) perpetuates selling points about selvedge denim that are simply not true. The selvedge aspect of denim does not make it wear better. It's not inherently better than non-selvedge denim. They say not to wash your jeans. Going so far as to suggest putting your jeans in a freezer and washing them in the ocean or even in vinegar, all of which is complete bullshit and if you don’t believe me check out this video where denim lords Andrew Chen and Kiya Babzani completely ether these myths in less than three minutes.

The watches? As the New York Times' Jon Caramanica aptly put it, the watches "…[suggest] timepieces of six decades ago, or public school wall clocks." They are made with quartz movements, which in and of itself isn't a bad thing, especially when attempting to build a watch manufacturing company from the ground up. But Shinola's emphasis is supposedly on quality, on craftsmanship, on unique goods handmade by hardworking American hands. Most mechanical movements are unique and proprietary. They are marvels of craftsmanship that seem to embody the mechanical prowess Shinola attempts to glom onto by positioning itself inside the former General Motors Design Laboratory. Currently, I doubt American manufacturing is capable of crafting mechanical movements. In that way, Shinola's watches belie the notion that American manufacturing is simply better than the rest of the world's. Granted, a mechanical movement would significantly raise the price of Shinola’s watches, but when you're introducing $2,000 bikes and simultaneously offering $5,000 Rolexes and vintage American flags that range in price from fifteen to fifty thousand dollars, price can't really be that much of an issue, can it? The thought of a company selling such luxuriously priced goods in a city that, according to the 2010 Census, has a per capita income of $14,000 is downright laughable.

Even their social media campaign are insulting:

"For every #SayNiceThings post on social media, we will write those intentions on paper embedded with seeds. The seed paper will later be planted throughout Detroit, specifically for use in the beautification of a dog park near our Detroit store."

This is Shinola's "Say Something Nice" campaign. A take on a '70s movement designed to combat the negative press Detroit was generating. This Pollyanna outlook on Detroit simply glosses over details about the city that don't conveniently fit Shinola’s narrative.

Listen, I can stomach hipsters planting flowers written with nice things about Detroit for a dog park one day. I can take $500 quartz watches and a section on their webshop entitled "Curated" that offers American flags that cost more than a brand new car. I can even take ten dollar cold-pressed juices when the city lacks grocery stores. Even those aren't too much of an affront. What I can't take is the white knighting of Shinola's promotional campaigns. The company insists that "Detroit isn’t as bad as it seems"—that there are happy and proud people here too. To demonstrate just how optimistic and amazing Detroiters are, Shinola enlisted Bruce Weber and Carolyn Murphy—both out of towners, both white—to shoot the company’s latest ad campaign. The accompanying video, subtitled "A snapshot of life in the Motor City," features photogenic models pedaling two thousand dollar bikes through the city. Photos of adorable black kids with a beautiful, benevolent white woman seem to be the centerpiece of Weber's campaign for the company. They even have a video of one of the little girls rapping. Bruce Weber is quoted saying, "People were really friendly. They looked you in the eye when they said hello on the street, and they greeted you with a smile." Detroit may be bankrupt, but that doesn't mean its citizens aren't normal, functioning human beings, Bruce.

This idea that people would be surprised by how human and artistic and talented Detroit's citizens are if they just came and visited is ludicrous and emblematic of a new type of gentrification, one that seems even more insidious than what has occurred in, say, Brooklyn. Shinola and other entrepreneurs market themselves as white knights, swooping in to save the noble savages. They help assuage the guilt associated with gentrification and consumerism by pointing out how strong and proud and culturally important the natives truly are—that simply by choosing to be in Detroit, Shinola is somehow better than other companies selling similar products. Shinola is using my city as its shill, pushing a manufactured, outdated and unrealistic ideal of America. And, in that way, the company’s slogan—"Where American is Made"—is more accurate than its owners could have ever hoped.

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