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December 9, 2016

Profiles
Leather

A Look Inside Our Leather Factory

Chris Maxwell and Damond Love inspect each and every hide for blemishes before the leather hits the cutting room floor.
Profiles
Leather

December 9, 2016

It hums, it beeps, it buzzes, it clangs — but only the artisans in blue lab coats can make Shinola’s leather factory sing. The team, 66 in total, is made up of people of all ages, from all walks of life and nearly every industry from automotive to healthcare to hospitality. Their one common thread — a desire to create.

“There’s a big difference between people who like what they do and people who just show up for the paycheck,” Store Keeper and Maintenance Coordinator Chris Maxwell says. “This isn’t like any other factory I’ve ever worked in. There’s a deeper level of care and because of that, a deeper sense of pride in everything we do,” he says.

Artisan Robert Berry (pictured above)

Chris retired in 2014 but has been following Shinola since its inception, excited by the idea of bringing new manufacturing opportunities to Detroit, just a mile away from where he lives. “When an opportunity came in through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, I leaped at it,” Chris says. “Retirement’s not for me, anyway.”

Jen Guarino, vice president of manufacturing, set the tone for the kind of culture she wanted to cultivate the minute she moved her desk from the corporate space to the factory floor her first week on the job. “I like to be with the people, in the heartbeat of it all,” Jen says.

Jen Guarino (pictured above) on our factory floor.

The workday begins at 7:00 a.m. and within minutes the floor is bustling with activity. Janet Jackson, David Bowie and The Temptations take turns serenading the crew as they cut, skive, glue, stitch, paint, emboss, assemble, burn, buff and inspect each new product with a fine-tooth comb.

“You need both a critical and a creative eye in leather manufacturing,” she says. “The term artisan really does apply when you're in this environment because no matter how much science or technology you implement, leather is still an organic material.”

Renee Lancaster (pictured above) thread burns loops for the accordion cross body.

Katie Hoffman has a desk but you’ll rarely see the production manager in her seat. She’s often in the thick of it alongside the artisans working to make the lines as efficient as possible.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck-kind of factory. Our successes and our shortcomings are shared among the entire team.” Katie says.

Katie Hoffman (pictured above) with the Accordian Crossbody team.

With a steady hand and laser focus, Carla Davis paints the fraying edge of a journal cover, checking her work carefully before setting it on a conveyer belt to dry. “I’ve had all kinds of positions within the factory, but edge painting is what I enjoy the most. I can walk into a Shinola store and pick up any journal and tell you if it’s one I painted. No one else would ever notice the subtleties but we can tell.” Carla says. “We put a piece of ourselves in everything we make. It really is a labor of love.”

Every week, hundreds of hides of various colors and finishes hit the cutting room floor and go on to become watch bands, wallets, belts, bags and more. As skill levels increase, new products are introduced. Every day there’s something new to learn and every day there’s something new to teach.

"Our biggest investment is not equipment, it's not the building — it’s training," Jen says. “You either teach it or you lose it, so we’re teaching it. In the case of leather goods, we can’t make a new product unless we bring new people into the trade and share the tools with them,” she says.

Marcus Alexander and Diana Tkachuk (pictured above)

Head Seamstress Jovita Vrista has been sewing for over 50 years and was brought on to teach others to sew — but she’ll be the first to tell you she’s still learning. “Don’t believe anyone that tells you they’ve mastered leather. You can master a machine, but you cannot master leather,” Jovita says. “Every piece is different, and every finish requires a new procedure. You can’t work on auto pilot,” she says. “But that’s why I’m here. I love the challenge.”

“She’s so fast, I’ve seen her machine start smoking,” Artisan Shamona Williams says of Jovita. The two sit side by side to build the Accordion Crossbody Bag, which requires no less than 100 steps to assemble. “She’s taught me everything I know, usually without saying a word.”

Shamona Williams (pictured above) assembles an Accordian Crossbody Bag.

Leather requires mindful craftsmanship. “Once you put that needle in the leather, you own it. There’s no forgiveness with the material, as there is with synthetic fabrics,” Katie says. “The precision of our sewers is a pretty incredible thing to behold.”

Joe Mathis III (pictured above) point stitches a watch strap.

Shinola has always believed manufacturing should look, sound and feel different. Our 12,000-foot, sun-soaked corner in the Argonaut Building is proof that it can. It’s the only factory of its kind, and we can say that because it’s a new factory every day. It doesn’t look anything like it did a year ago, and it won’t look anything like this a year from now. It was designed to be redesigned — to accommodate new ideas and entertain better ways of doing things every single day.

Manufacturing high-quality leather goods in a new way was easy once we manufactured a new kind of leather factory.

Shinola Leather Products are made with American leather and imported hardware. Tarez Franklin (pictured above)

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