Shinola and Detroit, Two Comeback Stories with Intertwined Fates

The debut of the Shinola Hotel is a meaningful moment for the resurrected luxury goods brand—and its hometown.

A spacious guest room at Shinola Hotel.

Shinola’s delicate lightning bolt once graced the wrists of discerning watch aficionados exclusively, as an understated nod to the city from which it draws its power and potential. The Detroit heritage brand’s latest statement—its first hospitality offering—is a bit harder to miss.

Opened in January after years of painstaking efforts to capture and advance the brand’s meticulously crafted aesthetic, the downtown Shinola Hotel embodies Detroit and the collective chutzpah that promises to facilitate its rebirth. “We knew we’d never be what we were—the fourth-largest city in the country,” CEO Tom Lewand says. “But I was always excited about what we could be.”

It’s sometimes hard to tell whether he and the other players behind the Shinola’s genesis are referring to the 129-room boutique property or the city of Detroit, so intertwined seem their fates. Creative director Daniel Caudill, whose function-first design ethos has propelled Shinola’s development ever since Tom Kartsotis purchased the once-prominent but then-defunct shoe polish company in 2010, seems content to blur those lines. “It was a great process to see what the future could be but also to incorporate everything that we have been in the past,” Caudill says.

Around the time Kartsotis resurrected Shinola, the city of Detroit was struggling to recover from its own near–death throes. The enfeebled auto industry, hemorrhaging profits and furloughing employees, faced a long post-bailout road back, and, in 2013, the city declared bankruptcy. Not without some irony, Shinola took up residence in the historic Argonaut building (originally the General Motors Research Laboratory) and began retraining auto workers to do the meticulous tasks of watchmaking.

They weren’t the only ones who sensed an imminent rebuild and joined in the task. In 2011, Bedrock—a development company formed by native son Dan Gilbert—began buying up lots and reshaping the city center. It wasn’t long before Shinola struck up a natural dialogue with Bedrock regarding the historic 1400 Woodward building. Interior designer Christine Gachot of Gachot Studios says the hotel, conceptualized very early on in the brand’s second life, was about building on Shinola’s established ethos in a way that felt natural. “The design philosophy was a hundred percent in congress with what Shinola brings to their retail products,” she says. “The subtlety of the details, the quality of the materials, and the kind of sublime way that they make connections—it’s all extremely elegant.”

Andrew Carmellini is behind the culinary program, including the southern Italian trattoria San Morello.

That sentiment reveals itself in myriad ways. Take, for instance, the guest rooms’ alpaca throw blankets and desk clocks reinterpreted from Shinola’s classic Runwell watch. Or the patterned tiles lining the walls of James Beard Award–winning chef Andrew Carmellini’s southern Italian dining room, San Morello. Subtle details abound at every turn, from the reception area’s custom textile wallpaper by fiber artist Margo Wolowiec, featuring icons of the civil rights movement; to Gachot’s bespoke furniture fabricated by Ohio’s Hilltop Woodworking; to the art collection, curated by local gallery Library Street Collective adorning the walls of the hotel’s centerpiece “living room.” It’s in that space where visitors really get, as Gachot says, “the feeling of being in someone’s home.” The collection is one of a kind, from Nick Cave’s sequined showstopper Tondo opposite folded-origami canvases from Robert William Moreland with a smattering of portraiture from Tyree Guyton (of Heidelberg Project fame) and minimalism from Beverly Fishman and Wendy White. In time, the living room, with its carefully considered eclecticism both reflecting and inviting Detroit in, may prove to be as much the city’s as Shinola’s.

Inside the art-filled Living Room.

“There’s such an amazing spirit in this city that you don’t feel everywhere else,” Caudill says. “That’s the same essence that we want people to feel when they go into our stores, and that’s what we wanted to build for the hotel—to represent the city in the best possible way.”

Those who don’t notice—well, they don’t know shit from Shinola.

(Photos by Nicole Franzen)

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