All Things Americana

SINGAPORE - Think of luxury watches and Switzerland comes to mind.

But the two-year-old American lifestyle brand Shinola (pronounced shy-nola) wants to change that. It is doing so at a price point that is unheard of in the timekeeping business, says its creative director, MrDaniel Caudill, who was in town earlier this month. The brand opened its first store in Asia at Robinsons Orchard.

Shinola is not compromising on quality either. Its watch components are produced by respected Swiss company Ronda, which supplies parts to other luxury watch companies.

However, the pieces are put together in Shinola's workshop in Detroit, Michigan. The employees along the assembly line are trained by experts from Switzerland.

Mr Caudill says during the interview with Urban that the label makes margins that are only four times its costs. Shinola watches range in price from S$845 to S$1,165. He adds that the typical margins for luxury watches are about eight times.

"Our brand is authentic and it's about the people who make the watch. We're not going to pay celebrities to put our watches on," he adds.

The Detroit-based brand, which gets its name from a now defunct shoe polish brand, was started by MrTom Kartsotis, who also founded the Fossil watch company.

Its signature model, the Runwell, has a vintage-style look with large numbers, stainless-steel frames and leather bands. The other watch models - Birdy, Brakeman and Gomelsky - are similar in design.

"The intention was always to make it simple. When we design something, it's not about making things that people want for the next six months, but things that they'll want for years," says Mr Caudill.

Until Shinola was launched, there were very few companies making luxury watches in the United States. Companies that did so, such as Elgin and Waltham, had long folded. Another label, Hamilton, is now part of the Swatch Group.

The privately owned Shinola does not disclose revenue figures, but in an interview with Fox News, its chief executive Steve Bock says the brand is expected to produce about 50,000 watches this year at an average of US$600 (S$758) each.

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While watches are at the forefront of Shinola's business, the brand also produces leather goods, journals and even bicycles (below).

Like its watches, all the other offerings are made on home soil at Horween Leather Company, one of America's oldest tanneries in Chicago; Edwards Brothers Malloy, a Michigan-based journal and book manufacturer; and Waterford Precision Cycles factory in Wisconsin.

Apparel will soon be added to its product offerings.

Prices range from S$115 for small leather goods to S$4,700 for bicycles. Mr Caudill says that working with craftsmen across the United States is about reviving the Made In America movement and so is rooting the brand in Detroit.

The city is home to the Ford Motor Company, where the first moving assembly line was invented, and also General Motors.

"In the US, the history of manufacturing has centred around Detroit. It was a natural fit," he says.

"Some cities go through pivotal moments where creativity is sparked, where amazing art and music is developed. Berlin went through that and so did New York City. That's what Detroit is going through now." Mr Caudill moved from sunny Los Angeles to Detroit, which is known for its harsh winters.

He says that while it may be difficult for someone in Singapore to appreciate the Americana of Shinola, good quality is something that every consumer looks for.

The Shinola website has videos and articles showcasing the brand's manufacturing process. It also turns the cameras on its employees. One of them started off as a security guard and later found his way to working on the assembly line.

"Consumers today want to know where the product is made, who is making their product and where all the parts are coming from. They want to know that they are going to get something that will last for years," says Mr Caudill.

Shinola has three stand-alone stores in Detroit, Kansas City and New York City. Its products are also stocked at American luxury retailers such as Barneys New York, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus. The store at Robinsons Orchard is the brand's second point-of-sale out of the US. Last month, the brand was launched in French concept store Colette in Paris. Plans are underway for three more stores, in Minneapolis, Chicago and San Francisco.

The 47-year-old, who has worked as an apparel designer at L.A Gear and a product designer at Adidas, spent a decade prior to joining Shinola in 2011 as a personal stylist. He has worked with actress Jessica Alba and rock bands such as Everclear and Audioslave.

He says all his previous work experience has come in handy at Shinola.

"With a band, you need to make each member look true to themselves, but also part of a cohesive group," he says. "Watches have to be perfect on their own, but they also need to tell a whole brand story."

staceyc@sph.com.sg


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