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Will Leather Goods' Detroit flagship.
Will Leather Goods' Detroit flagship.

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Made in Detroit

What it means to shop in America’s underdog city

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Detroit exists because of commerce. In 1701, French expeditionaries under Antoine Laumet, who styled himself a nobleman, the "Sieur de Cadillac," established the city to help their countrymen control the extraordinarily lucrative fur trade. In the 300 years since the French chose this strategically defensible place as the ultimate trading post, the city has known tremendous booms and busts. The auto industry began here, and so did Motown.

While many know Detroit's more recent reputation for crime and ruin, few outside the city understand it for the center of design it's been for at least a century. Detroit is a city where auto baron estates and grand art deco office buildings vie with work by Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen, and World Trade Center designer Minoru Yamasaki for architectural bragging rights. Florence Knoll, whose furniture designs made their way all over America in the 1950s, got her training at famed Detroit art school Cranbrook. This focus on design also bleeds into Detroit's retail scene, which has proven itself to be a rich, moving canvas of national and homegrown brands that combine the past, present, and future of shopping.

Given the city's origin story, there is perhaps no better place to start than Dittrich Furs. Founded in 1893, Dittrich Furs remains in the hands of the Dittrich family, and the 3rd Street shop has large display windows to show off its jackets and coats. The backdrops in these windows look like vintage ‘50s theater sets, but not in any sort of glamorous way — it's all a bit dated and down-at-the-heels. One of the coats on display, a magnificent full-length mink, rests uneasily on an old mannequin with cracked plastic hands.

Dittrich Furs has been in Detroit since 1893.

Inside, there are racks upon racks of furs. When I casually lift the price tag on one hat, a brown mink bowler on a simple stand, $1,250 seems like both a lot to pay and the correct price, given the effort, sourcing, and skill that goes into making anything with real fur. A massive fur bear, too real-looking to call a "teddy," eyes me suspiciously from his chair near the door. Jason Dittrich says his daughter lays claim to the creature, but only if it doesn't sell in the showroom.

Dittrich, 44, helps run the family business. His father, Hal, remains head of the company. Jason and his brother, Shawn, who also works for the family firm, grew up in the store. He explains that there are 20 major types of fur, and that mink is the best because it's soft and pliable and has the highest durability. He dismisses the idea that fur is inhumane. Minks are farm-raised, and given the best quality food, shelter, and veterinary care, he says. Not because the industry loves animals, but because large, healthy ones yield the prettiest and best-quality pelts. Dittirch argues that fur is sustainable, too.

"There's not a whole lot to be changed. The outerwear industry doesn't change as quickly as the rest of fashion."

"You won't find any petrochemicals in fur," he explains. "Fur is the most eco-friendly product available. Almost no petrochemicals are used. The most environmentally-damaging part is driving the product for transport."

Dittrich wants to make changes to the family business, including updates to its website and perhaps even a new shop downtown, an area he calls "booming." But his father has run the company very well for 50 years, he says, and much of what made the place so successful in the Detroit of the 1950s and ‘60s still works today.

"There's not a whole lot to be changed," he admits. "Expansion into other areas is an idea though. Geographically, there's room to branch out." Plus, selling coats remains a remarkably stable business to be in. "The outerwear industry doesn't change as quickly as the rest of fashion."

The company prides itself on customer relationships that go back decades. Though Dittrich refuses to discuss specific clients, he says no one should be surprised to see Aretha Franklin, who grew up in Detroit, in a Dittrich coat. In 2008, PETA offered to pay Franklin's delinquent property taxes if she swore off fur and donated her pieces to the needy. She declined. Dittrich not only sells furs to the famous and the very rich, with inquiries from as far away as Dubai, it also keeps clients' furs in cold storage at the shop. Fur pieces decay over time. Storing them at 38 degrees in a low humidity environment preserves them.

We examine furs together. One reason Dittrich's website is currently so basic is that the company believes that if someone is really going to buy a fur, they need to come to the store. This is partially because of sticker shock — coats sell for as much as $25,000 for a full-length mink made by a master furrier — but part of it is the very personal nature of fur itself. "It's a product you need to see and touch," Dittrich says.

You can indeed see and touch a wide array of furs in Dittrich's Detroit showroom. There's a deep red-dyed beaver jacket. The fur is dense and incredibly soft. Petting it is deeply pleasurable, though the $6,000 price tag may dampen your enthusiasm a bit. Dittrich wants to continue these old ways, but hopes to bring in younger customers with a stronger presence on social media. The store has also lent its products for use in music videos; Detroit rapper Kash Doll wears a full-length black and white mink in the video for her song "Accurate."

Dittrich thinks his family's store will last at least another century, and underlines the fact that the city plays a large role in sustaining the business. "It's great watching what's going on here," he says. "Detroit has so much potential."

"Made in Detroit" has become a calling card, not just in the city, but nationally.

If you walk up the block to New Center proper, you find a totally different Detroit retail experience, one that banks on Detroit as a brand in a way that Dittrich never could. Pure Detroit operates a shop in the 90-year-old Fisher Building. The 30-story landmark skyscraper sold this summer at a deep discount; it went for $12.2 million at auction, and will likely need $80 million in repairs and renovations if the new owners want to turn a profit. It is a symbol of both old Detroit —an Albert Kahn building paid for with auto boom cash — and the city's current metamorphosis into a modern center of real estate and retail.

Pure Detroit sells civic pride in the form of T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, tote bags, pillows, pottery, coasters, and beer carriers. It stocks six-packs of Faygo, a locally-made soda most famous as the stuff Insane Clown Posse drenches fans in at concerts. Much of the shop space is dedicated to purses made of seat belt material.

"Made in Detroit" has become a calling card, not just in the city, but nationally. When Fossil CEO Tom Kartsotis bought the name of long-defunct polish brand Shinola, many called foul on the new luxury watch brand's use of the city's hard-scrabble image to sell thousand-dollar timepieces. Crain's Detroit Business reported that the company commissioned research to see if using Detroit as a marketing ploy would allow it to command high prices. An anonymous employee who spoke to Crain's confirmed that the study showed Detroit had cachet among buyers. "People picked the Chinese pen over the USA pen because it was cheaper," the employee told Crain's. "But when offered the Detroit pen, they were willing to pay the higher price point."

Shinola has built its entire brand around the city.

The company's marketing director, Bridget Russo, told the Washington Post, "The Detroit piece just struck a chord. Here was the idea of Detroit as the underdog." She explained that the idea of a watch brand manufacturing wares in Detroit resonated with customers, summing up consumer motivation as, "I buy this company because they do good things in this world."

When you visit Shinola's Midtown flagship, you get a sense of this branding in action. While the company has the shallowest of Detroit roots, the store aspires to 100 percent Motor City realness. On a late fall day, the store remains abuzz, even though closing time approaches. Outside the store, there's a sidewalk painting of Frida Kahlo, who famously lived in the city for almost a year while her husband Diego Rivera painted the Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute for the Arts.

While the company has the shallowest of Detroit roots, the store aspires to 100 percent Motor City realness.

The store is beautiful, and I'm instantly greeted by a tall handsome man wearing a cashmere sweater and a Shinola watch in striking brass. Everywhere you look, you see Detroit as a selling point. There are coffee table books ($50) with the long-defunct Michigan Central Station on the cover. Baseball bats go for $180, and leather notebooks are $250 — all emblazoned with "Shinola Detroit." There's also a coffee bar with seating in the store; Shinola often hosts events in its space, many that have nothing to do with selling watches.

"There are all different things that happen in our stores, with all different people involved in each community," says Daniel Caudill, Shinola's creative director. "It's not about sales, it's about being part of the community. We've played movies and had movie nights in stores for the customers. It keeps things exciting and it's great for our employees."

The community idea is a big part of Shinola's sales pitch, given its target demographic. The brand caters to young people with money and a social conscience. Caudill says Shinola's retail model is all about creating stores that feel like gathering places and signal to customers that the brand is making a real contribution to their city. This was a reason the brand went with Detroit, both for its flagship store and its manufacturing center. Shinola makes its watches and bicycles in the city, and soon its store will get remodeled to showcase that — watches will be manufactured on-site, and customers will be able to see the work through Plexiglas walls. Caudill frames the company's investment in Detroit as mostly altruistic, though he also cites the city's existing manufacturing infrastructure as key.

"When we first started looking at Detroit, it was about where we could put the watch factory and find a place with a history of small component assembly and people who could work there," he explains. "As we set up the factory and started to hire people to support it, we found Detroit was such an easy place to build. People wanted to help us succeed. They genuinely wanted to help."

Shinola's claim of inclusion is still hard for many to swallow in Detroit, where the mean household income is $26,000 and a $1,500 watch — even, or perhaps especially, one described as "inspired by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s" — seems as necessary as a solid gold bathtub. Still, Caudill insists that Shinola stores are for everyone.

"As we set up the factory and started to hire people to support it, we found Detroit was such an easy place to build. People wanted to help us succeed."

"Everyone is welcome here," he says. "I hope that everyone has the same level of experience. I spend a lot of time in the store and you see people walk out with bags. It's such a diverse customer. People who appreciate quality and where and how things are made, and the story behind the company. It's not about a demographic, it's more about a psychographic."

A few blocks away, another brand hoping to bring Detroit cred to pricy luxury products just opened a massive flagship store. Will Leather Goods, an Oregon-based retailer of high-end handbags, wallets, accessories, and home items, purchased a struggling grocery for $500,000 and totally transformed the 9,000-square-foot store.

There's a massive cowhide teepee in the middle of the space, a coffee bar whose fittings came from a defunct Detroit firehouse, and even a gallery to showcase small exhibits, like the current collection of Life Magazine photographs on display. Outside, a classic Ford truck painted a bold turquoise holds a life-size cow statue painted with a welcome sign. The store is over-the-top and the goods for sale are very, very expensive. When I wrote up the store's grand opening for Racked sister site Curbed Detroit, commenters were divided, with some praising the epic scale of the place and the insane level of designer styling, and others decrying it as poisonous gentrification.

Will Adler, the Detroit native who founded Will Leather Goods, dismisses the critiques, particularly those that center on the fact that an upscale shop replaced a neighborhood grocery store.

Will Leather Goods was founded by a Detroit native.

"The store was the Old Tomboy Market, kind of a rundown market on the verge of bankruptcy. We paid them well for it and totally redid it," he says. "We polished the terrazzo floors and put in tender loving care for the building and made it the home of Will Leather Goods. The space looks beautiful and really adds a lot to the community." There it is again: community.

"I think there's a challenge to retailers that if you want people to come in from the suburbs, from Ann Arbor, other parts of Michigan, there has to be something that makes them feel comfortable and valued," he continues. "You have to be committed to curate something that make people want to come into your store. I think Shinola has does a great job with that — Carhartt, some of the restaurants. You need to be both entertaining and educational, and the store has to be a community spot."

"There are people moving to Detroit because the houses are more affordable and then they're looking for things to do."

Will Leather Goods achieves this with lounge areas filled with leather furniture that you can also buy in the store, and operating that aforementioned full-service coffee bar complete with free WiFi, which Adler says is both a draw and a service to students at nearby Wayne State University. This also attracts the rush of young creatives who have recently relocated to the city.

"There are people moving to Detroit because the houses are more affordable and then they're looking for things to do," says Adler. He himself has returned to the city, having grown up in Detroit and called it home until he was in his early 20s: "There's a big wave of entrepreneurship happening in Detroit."

And like Shinola, Will Leather Goods also touts social consciousness as part of its brand image, but in an even more explicit way. The company's Give Will program plans to donate 50,000 backpacks to Detroit public school children during the its Midtown shop's first two years. Posits Adler, "We're about helping the city grow, helping bring people into the city, supporting our public schools."

While some brands are intent on putting down permanent roots in the city, others have decided to go the low-risk retail route and start with pop-up shops. Popular Detroit businesses that have launched as pop-ups include Bohomodern, Cinema Detroit, Love Travels Imports, and Detroit Fiber Works. This fall, home goods and clothing brand Bohomodern was a finalist for the annual Hatch Detroit prize that awards startups looking to add brick-and-mortar facilities $50,000. Another Detroit retailer that started as a pop-up, 1701 Bespoke, is opening a Detroit flagship in Midtown.

Culture Lab Detroit is responsible for some of the city's newest pop-up shops.

This fall, Nora Detroit, a home goods store focusing on modern Scandinavian and Japanese design, packed its entire stock into storage and turned its space over to Culture Lab Detroit, who are maintaining a series of pop-ups there. The objects for sale include handmade white ceramic planters and a variety of items produced using illegally dumped tires, a staple in vacant lots all over the city.

Culture Lab hired New York City designer David Stark to create one of the stores-within-a-store at Nora. "He worked for Beyoncé and Kate Spade, and also does high-end bar mitzvahs," says Nora Detroit partner Michelle Unverzagt. Stark covered Nora's shop walls with stacked raw hay bales from area farms.

The objects for sale include a variety of items produced using illegally dumped tires, a staple in vacant lots all over the city.

Nora also commissioned local artists to create a complementary pop-up on the other side of the shop. The offerings there include handmade quilts ($800), vases made of the same discarded tires ($78), and a hand-carved wooden horn-block printing kit ($500) by Detroit artist and Detroit Wood Type Company owner Don Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick is in the shop the day I visit. We admire massive hanging plant slings also made of tire material (and retailing for $2,000).

"It was really great to be part of it," Kilpatrick says of the pop-up, joking that "I don't dare touch anything — not even my own stuff," for fear of a possible you-break-it-you-buy-it situation. Kilpatrick makes his stamping blocks out of wood recovered from old buildings in the city. He says that the set on sale at Nora was made from oak he took from the door of a demolished house.

Detroit is a city exploring a number of retail models. There are 100-year-old family shops. There are established brands opening flagship stores. There are ephemeral pop-ups for new businesses. Some shops just hope to sell you a coat or a purse made out of seat belts, while others want to sell community along with a lot of expensive watches. There are shops that are here forever, and shops with the (planned, intentional) lifespan of a mayfly. The city's relatively low rents make experimentation possible, and the image of the all-American underdog gives good-guy cred to companies that open stores here, and especially ones that manufacture here.

Whether all this is contributing to a newer, stronger Detroit or is simply opportunistic branding remains to be seen, but Shinola's Caudill wants to make the case that this recent investment in Detroit by him and his peers is genuine.

"Anything is possible in this country," he says. "It's possible to make well-designed products at scale and be competitive. It just takes heart and the desire and commitment to make it happen. You need to believe it can be done, and it can be. I really believe that we can do anything here."

Editor: Julia Rubin


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