Over the past year, fashion media watchers have been treated to the relaunch of one of America's most famous heritage brands, Shinola. Well, yes, it must be said that this brand is most famous for being the conclusion to an ever-popular but vulgar colloquialism meant to insult someone's intelligence. Let's all say it together:
"You don't know shit from Shinola!"
Well, now we have that out of the way.
Shinola was, of course, a shoe polish brand until 1960 when it folded, and has existed mostly as part of an insult for the past 50 years or so until the name was purchased to become a manufacturer of relatively unrelated products and something of an urban renewal project for the city of Detroit. Now the Shinola brand graces bicycles, watches, leathergoods and paper goods which are all manufactured entirely in the company's Detroit factory. Yes, there are also leather care products as well, but now they seem to be something of a novelty. You can find it all at the brand-new, just-opened Shinola store (the brand's second) on Franklin Street in TriBeCa —a pristine emporium designed to showcase a brand that has seemingly emerged from nowhere. It's a new twist on the heritage brand movement of the past few years: Applying a heritage brand to products that have nothing to do with the brand's actual heritage.
It's hard to criticize Shinola, especially in light of its ambitious plan to bring jobs and new prosperity to America's most embattled (and just declared bankrupt) cities, but you wouldn't be out of line wondering what the brand has to do with watches and bicycles, or, indeed what watches and bicycles have to do with each other? The answer to that is unclear beyond the notion that both items are well suited to being made in old-fashioned styles. There are two vintage-styled bike models, the 3-speed Bixby ($1,950) and the 11-speed Runwell ($2,950) with modern high-tech fittings and luxurious leather trimming, destined to become status symbols for the #menswear clan and their followers. The handsome watches come in four models for men and women in a plethora of appealing permutations all based on vintage styles as if to suggest that Shinola has been making watches in America for the last century right alongside Bulova, Waltham and Hamilton. The leathergoods, currently consisting of simple unlined designs are not unlike similar styles from Tanner Goods or Billykirk, but in the rich vibrant colors one finds in in soft Horween leathers (another fanboy red-flag brand). The store boosts its cred by merchandising a few actual heritage brands like Gitman Bros. and sibling label Filson alongside its products, and the effect is that of discovering a long lost brand hidden away on a quiet but tony corner of TriBeCa.
The store itself (pictured above and at right) is impressive in that same slightly too-perfect-to-be-truly-authentic way. The entrance is actually a small dimly lit newsstand and coffee bar, but walk through and enter a dramatic double-height, faux-skylit room designed by the Rockwell Group with an elevated catwalk around its perimeter leading to back stock. Taken all together, it's a potent illusion, but one that has been eagerly embraced by press and retailers, so it seems like less of a gamble that customers will accept the brand that they have previously been only vaguely familiar with as a rude saying. It's worth noting that the same target customer has had little trouble accepting a Swedish fashion brand called Acne, so perhaps weird associations are not much of a hurdle for a brand. The Shinola ramp-up has been relatively fast, as the new version of the company only started in 2011, and has plans to grow much bigger, mostly through its watch business. Barneys just created a Shinola display on it's CO-OP floor on Madison Avenue, and the brand will make its way to Bloomingdale's, Neiman Marcus and Steven Alan this Fall, so the brand is poised to take upscale customers by storm any minute now. With a compelling social message and attractive products, we can only root for its success, but at the same time, we have to wonder if an American "heritage" brand necessarily has to stand for old fashioned, vintage style. Maybe the next brand set for revival will be able to succeed with more innovative, modern design that reminds us we live in the 21st Century.
Shinola 177 Franklin Street between Hudson & Greenwich Streets, TriBeCa