«I'D LOVE TO DESIGN A TOASTER ONE DAY»
INTERVIEW / PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEFAN JERMANN
DANIEL CAUDILL MIGHT NOT BE YOUR TYPICAL CREATIVE DIRECTOR BUT THEN DETROIT-BASED SHINOLA ISN’T YOUR TYPICAL COMPANY. A FAN OF T-SHIRTS AND SNEAKERS, THE LAID-BACK CAUDILL, WHO UPROOTED FROM A CAREER IN LOS ANGELES TO MOVE TO THE MOTOR CITY, DRIVES A PICK-UP TRUCK AND ENJOYS BARBECUE RIBS. THE MONTANA NATIVE HAS HELPED ENGINEER THE FLEDGLING BRAND’S METEORIC RISE SINCE IT UNVEILED ITS FIRST MODELS IN 2013 BY TAPPING INTO CLASSIC AMERICANA IN HIS DESIGNS. FROM HARDCORE WATCH AFICIONADOS TO FORMER US PRESIDENTS, HIS CLEAN, FUNCTIONAL LOOKS FOR SHINOLA TIMEPIECES AND THE BRAND’S GROWING RANGE OF PRODUCTS HAVE WON A LARGE FOLLOWING OF FANS. MIRUS SAT DOWN WITH THE CHARISMATIC AND SOFT-SPOKEN CAUDILL IN HIS MIDTOWN OFFICE.
When you came up with the design for Shinola watches did you have a certain type of customer in mind?
Daniel Caudill: One of the most amazing things about this brand is that our customers are so varied. I recently met someone who saved up for quite a while and was super excited when he got his first watch. The other day I met someone at the grocery store who had just gotten his sixth watch! This is not about a specific demographic. They are people interested in quality. There are people taking off their Rolex or Patek Philippe to wear a Shinola for the first time. These people want to know where the watch is made, they want to know the story behind the brand and like to spend money on something that they feel good about.
In terms of the design, what was the starting point for you?
We always wanted to create something that felt truly American. To me, American products mean quality and a casual aesthetic, it means something that you can wear to work and wear on the weekend. It’s classically inspired but it’s not trying to be a vintage watch – it’s a modern watch. We also didn’t want to create a product that had a lot of fuss. We wanted to create something that would stand the test of time. We wanted people to look at how it’s made, how the leather is sewn and also what is important, I believe, is that our product is simple and clean. But when a product has every screw and stitch visible then if one little detail is off you will see it, it will shine like a red light. It all has to be perfect.
Many American businesses have opted to offshore manufacturing to Asia and elsewhere. What advantages do you have being based in Detroit?
All of our people can work closely together and literally make as many revisions as they want so we can really create a perfect product. The level of quality that comes out of here is amazing. Do not forget, this city was the hub of manufacturing in the world for a very long time. We have designers, patterns makers, sewers and so on right next door. When you are doing all of this overseas and designing it on paper you get endless revisions and it’s not cost effective anymore. Having a leather goods workshop here means we can do 100 revisions on a tiny little piece just to make it perfect. I think our leather goods workshop is a great illustration, especially when it comes to sampling and prototyping.
You know, the original plan was never that the company must be based in Detroit. But the ease on how to do business in Detroit, how we were received, how nice everyone was — we all wanted to come back here and every new hire was all Detroit based. The company was literally built up around the factory and now everyone is based here. Detroit helped define that brand.
Given the history of Swiss watch brands did you ever have doubts that your clientele might not pay a premium for a wristwatch that was “Made in America”?
I think there is value in our product. When you look at the amount of components, the craftsmanship and everything that goes with it, there is true value in it. Some people might not see that right away but our watches can be compared to watches in a much higher price category. If you look at the level of componentry and production and how it is made. The same goes for the bikes. The frame, fork and the chain-guard are entirely handmade in Waterford, Wisconsin. Everything is assembled in our store. We are very transparent about all the componentry. When it comes to watches, once w
e are able to start scaling then we can think of creating more components here in the US. We’ve started doing this with some of our watch dials. Printing watch dials in the US is a very unique thing, you can’t find that anywhere. It is such a detailed and precise craft. The training process takes months until someone is ready to print a watch dial. Right now there are parts from Switzerland, from Asia and other places but eventually our goal is to manufacture all componentry in the United States. The only way to do this is by increasing volume.
When you design a new piece how do you orient yourself — do you look at certain trends from the fashion industry or elsewhere for inspiration?
We definitely don’t follow fashion in regards to trend or color. The colors have been evolving with the brand and they are a good way for us to equally market a watch, a bike or our leather goods. It’s about making them look natural. We are working on an orange color shade that will last for the next 20 or maybe 50 years. The goal is to create colors that can change slightly but in essence it is almost the same green as where we started. I really want you to wear this watch years from now. If it is some kind of crazy color, more than likely six months from now you are not going to want to wear it anymore.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I’m inspired by art and architecture. I like minimalist artists. We don’t look at a specific time period in US history in terms of design. We don’t like to tie ourselves to the past. It’s more about creating something timeless.
What’s an iconic US-made product you would have liked to design?
A toaster…I hope that one day I have the chance to design and manufacture a toaster in the United States.
Let’s talk about the neighborhood. What influences does Midtown Detroit have on Shinola?
Anytime you live somewhere and spend time there you are influenced by your surroundings. In general, it’s about the people here: there’s such pride in this city and I think that’s what we are all about. We are proud to be part of this city and what’s happening right now here in Midtown from restaurants to the arts and music. I can tell you that it is really crazy what this place has become in the past few years. On a Saturday afternoon it is hard to find parking and there is a buzz around the neighborhood where our store is. You can go for a coffee, for a pizza, you can go shopping for tailor-made clothes, flowers — it has become a destination. Selden Standard restaurant has become one of the top restaurants in the country. We opened a dog park on Canfield and you can drive by there and it is packed with people and their pets hanging out. I hope it will grow. There is still room for other commerce in this city in every one of its neighborhoods.
What’s your favorite place in Midtown?
It changes. For a long time it was the sculpture garden at the CCS old campus. It really is only the lawn in front of the campus but the sculptures that are out there are astounding. I don’t think people realize the level of art that sits there. There is a Rodin garden in Paris that I love and it reminds me of that.