Born Of Detroit Manufacturing, Shinola Grows Its Place In The World

CEO Washburn inks deals with American Airlines, Lincoln and others while emphasizing the brand’s birthplace.

Shinola started from scratch as an idea to build a brand around artisanal production of classically designed keepsakes and accessories, on the trendy vibe of being manufactured in Detroit.

Nowadays, under CEO Shannon Washburn, the company has flourished into a lifestyle brand with an ever-expanding product line as well as a spreading influence through new partnerships with other brands as diverse as American Airlines, Lincoln automobiles and Crate & Barrel.

Every product category that Shinola has nailed so far, and the new ones it’s entering, relate back to the made-in-America, manufactured-in-Motown sensibilities that founder Tom Kartsotis leveraged when he left Fossil after growing it into a $2-billion accessories behemoth, and started Shinola.

“Our products are built to last,” Washburn told Chief Executive. “We look at our products as things that can be handed down over generations – things that are lived in, worn out and well loved. We want [customers] to engage with our products and look at them as an investment that they’ll carry or wear or have in their homes for a long time. It gives depth and meaning to our actual products when you decide to experience the brand.”

Shinola sells its watches, growing line of leather goods, bicycles, jewelry and other products through its own stores nationwide as well as purveyors including Neiman Marcus, and the pandemic greatly boosted its e-commerce trade.

While establishing its manufacturing and luxury-ware bona fides largely by making watches in Detroit with names like the Duck, Detrola and the Lake Erie Monster Dive, the company diversified in a big way by refurbishing an old hostelry and opening the Shinola Hotel in downtown Detroit in 2018.

Lately, Shinola has been stretching its purview even further by doing deals with iconic other brands. They include American, which, after a covid-induced delay, has begun giving London passengers amenity kits designed by Shinola, including socks, eye shades, lotion, earbuds and a pen stuffed into a small, leather Shinola bag.

With Lincoln, Shinola designed a concept version of the company’s Aviator large SUV, with upholstery stitching that is reminiscent of the Shinola brand “stripe”; a white exterior color that matches a favorite hue of Shinola watch faces; applications of rose-gold trim that is reminiscent of the copper-plated piece Shinola attaches to the seat of its Runwell bicycle; and even leather with Shinola’s trademark whiskey scent. The two brands showed off the Lincoln Aviator Shinola concept vehicle earlier this month at the concours d’elegance at Pebble Beach in California.

This week, Shinola announced the launch of a new line of luxury furniture with Crate & Barrel in a store in Detroit. The furniture will be made in Portugal, and manufacturing will be managed by Crate & Barrel, but Shinola will co-design the products.

While putting its name on wares made in another country, by another company, takes Shinola as far afield as it has gone from stuff made in Detroit, one of Washburn’s primary tasks is to ensure the company’s continued ensconcement in domestic manufacturing.

“Detroit will always be part of our story because it’s the city we chose to come to when we decided we wanted to build things,” Washburn said. “We wanted to come to a city that knew how to build and make things. It will always be core to who we are. We don’t anticipate moving away from that.”

Washburn was a logical choice to oversee the extension of Shinola’s brand. After working for Kartsotis for 14 years at Fossil, the Dallas native joined Shinola in Detroit in 2012 and ascended to president and CEO in 2019. Yet while leading the company into new territory in merchandise, marketing and branding, Washburn clearly also has understood the importance of the narrative that put Shinola on the map in the first place.

“A brand is a reflection of the people behind it,” she said. “For us as an organization, people and teams have always been our priority. The company was founded on having 100 meaningful manufacturing jobs. Through the pandemic, we learned how to work together as a team, and sometimes with an ability to be agile and willing to change, you have to be able to embrace that to be the best version of yourself as an organization.”