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How U.S. Watchmaker Shinola Plans to Break Into Women's Handbags in 2015

First, the Detroit-based company is teaching American workers how to craft with leather again.

Shinola has already made a name for itself with watches -- each classic style proudly made in Detroit, Michigan, with the utmost emphasis placed on quality. Now, it's making a big investment in leather. The brand already sells a small selection of leather goods but really solidified its commitment to the craft in May when it opened a full leather factory and design studio in Detroit with the aim of launching a true handbag business in 2015.

The opening of the factory marks not only expansion into a new category, but also a move to appeal to women and a more fashion-forward consumer, generally -- something the company has begun doing with Bruce Weber-lensed ad campaigns, a collaboration with Oscar de la Renta and the hiring of model Carolyn Murphy as design director.

Behind the flash is a solid team of talent: In addition to poaching Paloma Vega-Perez from Louis Vuitton to lead its roster of leather makers, Shinola has tapped Jen Guarino, co-founder and CEO of cult leather goods brand J.W. Hulme -- whose cool, nonchalant, Minnesota-made leather handbags sat on Barneys shelves long before Mansur Gavriel's did -- to be its vice president of leather goods.

Guarino not only gets the aesthetic, but has more experience and knowledge than most about manufacturing leather goods in the U.S. -- something that is practically never done these days. The lack of leather-making skills is not an insignificant challenge for Guarino, who wants not only to bring all of Shinola's leather manufacturing to Detroit, but also to make some of the most exquisitely crafted handbags in the world. We spoke with Guarino about how she and her team are making it all work.

What is your background? Had you always been interested in leather goods?

I started as a fashion illustrator in the early '90s and I started to illustrate for designers in the leather business and so I learned leather design on the job and then that progressed over my career and I began to get into development, design, marketing and then ultimately I ended up being on the finance side and sales side so I’ve been in almost every part of the leather goods business outside of sitting there sewing something.

Before coming to Shinola, I was the co-owner and CEO of J.W. Hulme. We had our own factory in Minnesota, so I did that for 10 years and then I made my way to Shinola about year ago.

How did the Shinola job come about? Were you already very familiar with the company?

I was aware of the company and had the fortune to get to know some of the people here when Shinola was just an idea and hadn’t turned into anything yet, and as it evolved, it became apparent that Shinola wanted to get as serious about their leather goods as they are their watches, so I had been invited down to see Detroit a couple years back and I really liked what I saw and what was going on, so when they became committed to growing their leather business, Tom called me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of developing this division, so I packed my bags and came to Detroit because it was really an opportunity for me to do what I was doing but on a much larger scale, which has always been something that I always wanted to be able to do was to bring leather manufacturing to scale here in the United States.

Has that been a challenge?

The leather goods industry left quite a long time ago and currently over 88 percent of our leather goods demand in the U.S. is met by imports so that resulted in a hugely shrinking industry, so when I was at J.W. Hulme, we had to do a lot of on-the-job training. We formed something called the Makers Coalition of Minnesota, which began to teach industrial sewing again because that trade had literally stopped being taught, so skill and talent is the number one issue. We have a generation gap. We have a whole generation that wasn’t taught leather goods, so we have very senior masters in this country but they’ve either retired or are about to retire, so it’s really our responsibility to train -- it’s really like being guardians of a trade.

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The other challenge is keeping the costs in a way so that the customer understands the value. In the cut and sew industry, leather goods is a little bit unique in that our base material, leather, we can get here in the U.S. The U.S. still tans really beautiful leather; it’s different if you’re in, say, cotton fabrics. Mills have gone away; they’re not here anymore, but there still are some tanneries here, so that’s an advantage because you don’t have to put them all on a container and ship them across the ocean to get them here. The challenge has been to offer the consumer a really high quality product at a price that makes sense. To be 'made in the USA' isn’t enough; it has to be beautifully made in the USA and that’s another reason maybe Shinola was attracted to me because they’re so committed to quality.

How big is the leather facility now and how much are you producing?

In total our leather design studio and factory, we have over 50 people now and we’re successfully making watch straps. We’re not making all of our watch straps, we’re still training our new artisans but we’re making watch straps and in September we’ll start making small leather goods as well.

So you're training everyone too?

We bring people in and literally teach them from the very beginning with the exception of sewing -- sewing you have to have some experience, sewing is really a skill that you really have to be good at; it’s not something you can just teach from scratch. Everybody else we’ve trained from the very beginning of strap making.

How soon do you expect to be making handbags there?

We are now designing and developing all of our leather goods in Detroit -- that’s the first big step, so if you go into our factory any given day, you’ll see a whole group of handbags that have been designed and sampled right here, so in terms of when we’ll start developing or actually manufacturing here, we have to become confident in our strap making and our leather goods making first. We will launch handbags next year and all those bags will still be made in the United States, but not in Detroit yet. We hope by the end of next year that we’ll start making bags here in Detroit as well.

Perhaps more importantly, what will the bags look like? How will the Shinola aesthetic translate to purses?

The aesthetic is very similar to watches in that it is fashion-relevant but not driven by trends, so you’re talking about really simple bags whose details speak for themselves. The materials, the leather is really beautiful; it’s American leather, simple hardware but identifiable hardware. We really won’t be doing anything tricky, we don’t do tricky design, we do a neoclassical design, so its modern classic. The handbags will be very similar in that they’ll be very easy and very functional. We’re a fairly causal brand, so although they’ll be beautiful, they’ll be easy and simple.

What will the price range be?

$250 up to $850. I think there’s a real hole in the marketplace for this beautiful vegetable-tanned leather that ages over time, and has a beautiful handle, that has really natural characteristics. There’s really a huge hole in the marketplace for that for women.