Designing America: Daniel Caudill, Creative Director of Shinola
American design at its very foundation revolves around one element more than any other: it’s something that influences everything from the appliances in our kitchens to the clothes on our backs—especially in the Midwest. What’s more, it speaks to our sensibilities and forms us as people.
“Purpose,” says Daniel Caudill. The tall, strong-jawed creative director of Shinola shares his views while sitting at his wooden desk in the brand’s corporate headquarters—formerly the General Motors building—in midtown Detroit. “It’s the basis for all of our designs. We stay true to how things are used, and we seek out the best raw materials. That’s where it starts.”
Caudill, 50, has always had a strong sense of purpose. Born in Trinidad and Tobago, his parents were Christian missionaries who later moved the family to rural Montana where he would develop a strong Midwestern sensibility. He went on to study at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and then to design for brands like LA Gear, Fossil Watches and Adidas before taking the helm at Shinola, where he continues to create purpose-driven products from high-end materials.
Take, for instance, leather—the centerpiece of the brand’s fashion collection. Many big brands sand down their leather to hide imperfections, but Caudill insists on using only full-grain hides that show more detail and take on a rich patina.
“If there are any flaws in the raw leather, they stick out like a sore thumb,” he says. Caudill also refuses to distract from his designs with fringe or gaudy hardware. It’s a design philosophy that runs through the brand’s entire line.
“We have simple, streamlined products,” says Caudill. “The leather is the star. But all our products work well because we pay attention to the handwork and the details.” Aside from small leather goods, the rest of Shinola’s collection is a wide spectrum: watches, bicycles, notebooks, pocket knives—even cola. They all evoke a simple, nostalgic, beautifully uncomplicated feeling that’s unmistakably American.
The brand’s image has caught the eye of President Barack Obama, who has visited the store while in Detroit. The president even gave a Shinola watch with the presidential seal engraved on the back to former British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this year. That’s a far cry from the modest brand that started in the late 19th century in upstate New York. Back then, it was known for its dark shoe polish, which gave way to the famous saying “you don’t know shit from Shinola.”
The brand went out of business in 1960 and remained another bygone relic of American manufacturing until 2011 when Tom Kartsotis, owner for parent company Bedrock Manufacturing (which also owns the iconic American label Filson), sought to revive the brand and its nostalgic potential.
Despite the throwback vibe that many of the brand’s products have, Caudill and the Shinola team always design through a 21st-century lens. “Our designs aren’t about making something look vintage or old,” he says. “Whether it’s our notebooks or our bikes, we’re always trying to take something classic and make it feel new again— make it modern.”
Maintaining that level of consistency throughout their entire, admittedly disparate, product line is no easy undertaking, says Caudill.
“It’s surprising for a company that’s relatively new to have products in so many different categories,” says Justin Fenner, a staff writer for GQ.com. “It sends a clear message that Shinola wants to be a part of people’s lives as much as possible. And it’s hard not to appreciate a brand of that size championing American manufacturing at a time when foreign fashion and lifestyle brands are dominating the conversation.”
One floor below Caudill’s office, teams of workers conceive, design, manufacture, assemble, market, ship and sell Shinola products—all of them citizens of Detroit. Hiring relatively expensive American labor over cheap, skilled workers in Asia is a gamble that many brands don’t dare to take, but Caudill says investing in Midwest workers was one of the things that attracted him to this job and that it’s paid off.
“Most people don’t realize what exists in Detroit,” says Caudill. “The level of talent here is so good. You really don’t have to go to New York to find great design.”
Keeping the brand’s designs and manufacturing stateside benefits the company’s workflow as well as its public image. For many labels, design happens in one place while the manufacturing happens in another—often times in different parts of the globe.
“When you’re working overseas, you can’t send a sample back and forth multiple times,” says Caudill. Because Shinola doesn’t have to ship samples with every change, it can turn around a product quickly. “Here, we can tweak and change something to make it better over and over. It makes the product better from a construction and fit standpoint.”
They can do this because the brand performs every step of the design process in-house. “The designers sit right next to the leather factory. And they work closely with our in-house production engineers,” says Caudill. “Most places don’t have this luxury.”
Making an image out of reinvesting in American jobs and infrastructure has drawn its criticisms from those who question the brand’s true motives, but it’s largely been overshadowed by praise from fans, many in the Detroit area. “Seeing how many people came to embrace the brand during the Detroit store opening was exciting and humbling,” Caudill says. “It felt like being embraced by the whole city.”
Indeed, Shinola has come to represent the Motor City and the return of American manufacturing power. That’s also reflected in the brand’s business partners throughout the country. It gets paper supplies from Edwards Brothers Malloy in Ann Arbor, Michigan; leather from Horween Leather Company in Chicago; and bike frames from Waterford Precision Bicycles in Waterford, Wisconsin. Only parts of Shinola’s watch movements are imported from Switzerland. It’s a strategy that’s boosted the brand’s image and its revenue—topping $100 million in 2015.
Shinola intends to keep its heritage strong with its upcoming well-crafted products, including a new high-end women’s jewelry line featuring precious stones and an audio division that will showcase high-quality turntables, speakers, and headphones, all of which workers will assemble in the Detroit store while visitors watch.
The crown jewel in Shinola’s arsenal will be its namesake hotel in Detroit, which will come to embody the brand’s aesthetic. “As a designer, it’s exciting to be able to complete the whole Shinola environment,” says Caudill. “We aim to make it a place that’s beautiful, but still inclusive, warm and inviting.” Shinola Hotel is set to open in fall 2018.
Although the Shinola brand has grown and produces more now than it ever has—200,000 watches every year—Caudill doesn’t always have his eyes set on something bigger and better. He still sets his sights on items that embody the brand’s DNA.
“I want to develop a toaster,” he says. “We’ve been talking about it for years.” It seems paltry compared to the large-scale projects that Shinola currently has in the works, yet it captures not only the nostalgia that the brand’s been known for, but also Caudill’s personal design mantra: “Building products that are easy to use, made for function, and have a clean aesthetic.”
Photos by Attilio D’Agostino.