By  on April 3, 2014

Humility suits Shinola.

“You’re probably not familiar with our company, but you probably are familiar with the saying ‘You don’t know s--t from Shinola,’” said Heath Carr, chief executive officer of Shinola’s parent Bedrock Manufacturing Co., by way of introduction.

Since its inception in 2011, Shinola has quickly made a name for itself in the accessories market. The Detroit-based brand offers a range of watches, leather goods and bicycles, all with a heavy emphasis on quality and Made in USA.

“We believe that today’s consumer demands a deeper level of engagement with the brands and the products that he purchases,” said Carr. “We also believe he cares about where that product is manufactured and the story behind that.” So states the company’s mission statement: “To build a modern and quintessentially American consumer products brand through the reintroduction of domestic manufacturing at a scale that can shape culture, create community and deliver goods of the highest quality that last lifelong.”

The brand was developed by a group of industry veterans, many of whom had previously worked at Fossil, with the goal of manufacturing watches in America. “We thought it would be an interesting undertaking,” said Carr. “It was a new and unique opportunity to learn about something.”

When it came to the actual manufacturing, Detroit seemed like the logical answer. “The consensus was, ‘Let’s go to a place that knows how to build things,’” said Carr. “And at the top of the list for everyone that was in the conversation was Detroit. Detroit has a long history of manufacturing cars and engines. We thought, ‘What better place to manufacture the engines of watches than Detroit?’”

The Shinola team met with the city’s economic growth organization, who led them to the original General Motors building, now home to the industrial design school at the College for Creative Studies. During the tour, the elevator unexpectedly stopped on the completely vacated fifth floor. Shinola had found its home, and a year later, the business was fully up and running.

For its first product, the brand introduced its now signature Runwell watch. To coincide with the launch of e-commerce, a limited edition of 2,500 pieces was produced. The collection sold out in under eight days. “The reaction was very interesting for us because we had committed to ship those products three months later,” said Carr. “People were willing to give us their credit card and wait three months for the product. We believe that the story we were telling was resonating with the consumer.”

With such a dominant story to tell, a strong marketing strategy was crucial for the young brand. “We started our marketing program probably eight months before we actually manufactured one product,” said Carr. “Our Web site for many, many months was not an e-commerce site; it was simply a messaging site. We don’t want to take away our manufacturing process and the people that make the product out of the story. We believe our consumer does care and wants to know where their product was. Rolling from 2013 to 2014, our goal was to continue to feature the beauty of manufacturing with the spirit of Detroit that drove us there in the first place.”

For its 2014 campaign, the brand tapped Bruce Weber to photograph local individuals from Detroit, many of them Shinola factory employees, alongside model Carolyn Murphy. The print ads, as well as a pair of Weber-helmed short films, are, as described by Carr, “a celebration of the Detroit city through the lens of an American icon.” The high-profile campaign is part of Shinola’s growth strategy, which includes a “very aggressive rollout plan” in terms of retail.

Currently the brand is in 242 doors, including select premium department stores (Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue), fashion boutiques (Steven Alan, Haberdash, Unionmade), jewelers (Tappers, Brinkers) and bike dealers (Western Bikeworks, Studio Velo). Shinola also has two stand-alone stores, in Detroit and New York City. While e-commerce accounts for about 30 percent of all sales, Carr stresses the importance of a brick-and-mortar presence. “Retail is very important because it’s an opportunity to fully engage with the consumer, and for the consumer to be surrounded and use their senses to experience the brand,” he said.

Carr refers to these spaces not as stores, but “community centers and event spaces.” The company frequently held dinner parties in its original Detroit outpost, as well as Friday night movie screenings. To fully engage the community, the brand has also opened its doors to local vendors. In Detroit, the company has installed a small juice bar operated by Drought, a local brand started by five sisters. For the location in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood, Shinola has teamed with Matt Kliegman and Carlos Quirarte of popular NoHo cafe The Smile to open a makeshift coffee stand within the store. “We like to have our customers come in, hang out and enjoy the store,” Carr said. “We think it’s important that we not just open another retail store next to all the other retail stores that are out there, that we open something that is part of the community.”

Shinola plans to open a store in downtown Minneapolis in mid-June, with potential future locations being Washington, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Overseas, the company currently has a focus on Europe, with a real estate team scouting spaces in London, Berlin and Amsterdam — though the company’s rapid success has certainly changed its course of expansion. “We’re in a very unique position, and opportunities seems to be much bigger than we ever anticipated,” said Carr. “Our initial plan was to roll out Europe first, and then Asia. Right now we’re just working on do we have the resources to get to all of those places, to expand the product, to expand the manufacturing and to get to all those retail stores.”

Productionwise, Shinola employs 230 workers, and has just added a second assembly line. In 2013, 50,000 watches were produced. This year, the company expects to make more than 150,000 units; the factory has the capacity to make up to 500,000.

With substantial growth in sight, the company’s propensity for community — and humor — is still very much intact. Case in point: following Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy, Shinola introduced a new ad for its Birdy watch. The copy read: “To those who’ve written off Detroit, we give you the Birdy.”

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