I don’t think I’ve ever weighed in one way or the other on Shinola, the somewhat controversial Detroit-based marketer of expensive watches, bicycles and notebooks. As I recall, I may have once noted how incredibly douchey I found the spectacle of four economic development professionals, at some point during a public forum on the future of Detroit, all pulling back their sleeves in turn, and pointing toward their $675 Shinola watches – watches which they clearly saw as signifiers of the new, more dynamic, brand-savvy Detroit they’d helped to create… But, douchiness aside, I don’t think I’ve ever really come out swinging against Shinola. As much as my gut might tell me that I should join the chorus of people calling them out as opportunistic carpetbaggers looking to cash in on a “Made in Detroit” brand that they didn’t help to create (by selling items that are merely assembled in Detroit, and not actually made here), I’ve never been able to convince myself that, all things being equal, their existence in Detroit isn’t a net positive, given the fact that the company employs a few hundred people a city that could very much use the jobs.
As for the number of jobs that Shinola is responsible for, it’s hard to tell. According to a late 2014 article in the Washington Post, the company employs 320 in Detroit, but lower numbers cited elsewhere would seem to indicate that those might not all full-time employees. Regardless, the company is either hiring citizens of Detroit, or bringing new workers into Detroit, in numbers far greater than other startups that have set-up shop downtown over the past decade, and I feel as though that should count for something… even if their list of offenses is long.
With all of that said, however, I’d like to share a very thoughtful analysis of Shinola by artist Rebekah Modrak, who, as you might recall, we talked with not too long ago about the marketing of perceived authenticity to the wealthy, who are apparently starved for meaning in their lives. The following clip from Modrak’s article, titled Bougie Crap: Art, Design and Gentrification, comes from Infinite Mile Detroit. If you find it at all of interest, I’d encourage you read the entire piece on the Infinite Mile Detroit site, where Modrak has gone to a lot of trouble to extensively reference her comments and provide links to other sources.
Start with a neighborhood or city that lacks economic incentives or that is populated by minority groups, which are underserved by municipal services including education, transportation, street lighting, police response time and maintenance. Enter a mainly white, middle-class population. Investors clamor to underwrite new businesses, sponsor grants or to secure real estate. This triggers a spike in real estate prices and a flood of new commercial ventures that sell expensive bougie crap that only the new residents can afford. Services are improved and capital investment flows, directed primarily to the now “safe” and shoppable neighborhoods.
In this scenario, one of the first signs of gentrification is the bougie crap. If you use the term, we may have different definitions, and mine is entirely subjective and, regrettably, intimately linked with art and design.
Bougie crap is expensive consumables that evidence wealth, power and discriminating taste under the pretense of an evolved palette, a demand for higher quality and the development of a social conscience that values local goods. Bougie crap contributes to the economic strength of the bourgeoisie and distinguishes this group because the failure to consume such elaborate products would be, in the words of Thorstein Veblen (speaking of conspicuous consumption), a “mark of inferiority.” The brands encourage us to see these products as an extension of our worth; though the exorbitant expense is profit driven, paying the high price deepens our sense of self. Bougie crap uses the design aesthetic of “calculated authenticity” and elements of hand-craft or personalization to suggest that the product is motivated by these values and not by crass economic gain.3 Bougie crap often claims connection with rural or urban traditions of manual labor and work, evoking the mirage of the artisan in his studio, the farmer hard at work, the pioneer tending his wilderness campfire or the grittiness of life in Detroit. For that reason, Bougie crap isn’t the Rolex watch or the Gucci bag, luxury items that act as luxury items. This is key for me in defining bougie crap. Bougie crap sells itself as a product inspired by manual labor, either related to the work of a craftsman, artist or designer or to the physical exertion of, say, a farmer, woodsman or rancher. Yet, bougie crap’s high sticker price ensures that only those with significant discretionary income may participate.
Bougie crap uses the pretense of “quality” to create a two-tiered system: the people who can afford to buy these products and the people who can’t. In that sense, bougie crap is a “means of laundering privilege,” of determining who has access and who does not. When immigrants move to a new country and neighborhood, they bring with them the products of their culture, which, eventually, everyone partakes in, and the city is a more enriched place. When middle-class people move to a lower-class neighborhood, they bring bougie crap that is accessible only to themselves.
One of the scary parts of this equation is the increasing mutual dependence between bougie crap and aritsts/designers. What you’re really buying is the mirage of a “special,” “authentic” experience created by savvy, contemporary design.
A prime example of bougie crap is Shinola’s products, especially their watches ($500 – $1500) and bikes ($1950 – $2950) that undergo “precise, custom-level assembly by experts in our Detroit Flagship retail store…. Because we believe there’s only one way to properly build” a watch or bicycle and that’s “one at a time, by hand, with rigorous attention to detail and using only the highest quality components available.” Shinola’s French style bicycle (with American-made frame and fork) is designed for “urban riding, commuting and running errands … in any weather” and costs $757 more than the $2,193 Detroit 2013 median household monthly income. But, they reassure you, if you care for your bike, you can “pass it on to your children and grandchildren”; bougie crap promises a legacy of permanence via consumer culture in contrast to the decay of Detroit.
Wandering through a new independent bookstore in New York City a few months ago, I looked down to see stacks of stylish black journals emblazoned with the words “SHINOLA … DETROIT.” The surprise of this union froze me for a second. In the sixteen years that I’ve been visiting family in New York, this was the first time I’d seen the word “Detroit,” and, now, here it was, as part of Shinola’s branding. Texas-based Bedrock Manufacturing notoriously attached their Shinola venture to Detroit after test studies showed that consumers would pay three times as much for a product associated with the tenacity of a bankrupt city. What do you call the adoption of one culture by a second group whose only culture is profit? “Cultural appropriation” sounds too innocent and even potentially transformative (like a cool mash-up) and doesn’t convey the imperialism at play. A better description is consumer culture scholar Jeff Pooley’s “the colonization of the apparently earnest”…
And Modrak goes on from there to talk about the impact of Shinola on the cultural landscape of Detroit. It’s fascinating stuff, and I’d encourage you to read it from start to finish.
For what it’s worth, Modrak isn’t exaggerating when she says that Shinola chose to locate their assembly operation in Detroit as a result of market research showing that people would pay a premium for the sense of authenticity that comes with a product made by the hardworking people of Detroit. The following clip comes by way of Wikipedia: “In 2001, the name, Shinola, was acquired by Bedrock Manufacturing, a venture capital firm based in Dallas, Texas. The management at Bedrock Manufacturing chose the name ‘Shinola’ when the World War II era colloquialism, ‘You don’t know shit from Shinola,’ surfaced in a conversation. Unexpectedly, the joke generated a serious discussion about restoring the Shinola brand. Market surveys established that consumers—when faced with a choice of paying $500 for a product from China, $1,000 for one made in the United States, and $1,500 for one made in Detroit—would be willing to pay a premium for the latter.” And, it would seem, Tom Kartsotis, the founder of the company (who had also founded the watch company Fossil in 1984), was right. Shinola produced 55,000 watches in 2013, 170,000 in 2014, and plans is to sell 250,000 this year, though an ever-expanding network of company-owned boutiques and high-end stores like Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus. The handmade in Detroit brand, it would appear, does have monetary value… at least when articulated by a high-dollar marketing operation willing to take out multi-page ads in Vogue featuring the lovely, hardworking, now-saved artisans of Detroit assembling watches.
One more thing… while it’s true that Shinola is presently importing almost 100% of their watch parts from oversees, that doesn’t mean this will always be the case. Just a few months ago, Shinola’s parent company announced that they would be opening a watch dial factory in Detroit, allowing them to stop importing watch dials from Asia. Again, this may not, in the minds of many, sufficiently offset the cultural appropriation of Shinola, and the wave of increasing gentrification we’re seeing in the wake of their setting up shop in Detroit, but I think it’s worth at least acknowledging that their continued success could mean bringing more manufacturing back to Detroit.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that it’s a damn complicated issue… and I still don’t know where I stand. I can see arguments both for and against them. Would Detroit be better off without them, though? I’m not so sure.
Regardless of where you might fall on the “Shit or Shiola” continuum, though, I think this is a good conversation for us to be having. And I look forward to hearing what you have to say.