As the world grapples with the pandemic, many retailers face uncertain futures — but hometown brands Shinola, Detroit Vs. Everybody and Hope for Flowers by Tracy Reese are embracing change in an ever-shifting industry
By Leena Rao
Featured photo via Detroit Vs Everybody Facebook
When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down retail businesses across Michigan in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in March, Shannon Washburn, CEO of Shinola, didn’t know what the future would look like. “Everything changed in a matter of days,” she recalls.
Washburn was far from alone: As the world grapples with the effects of a global pandemic, many retailers are facing uncertain futures. The fashion industry, in particular, has been hit hard. Even pre-pandemic, retailers were fighting for survival as more customers flocked online. But now, with a struggling economy, the constant threat of shutdowns and major losses on the horizon — the fashion and luxury industry is on track to lose between $450 and $600 billion in sales this year, according to global consulting firm Boston Consulting Group — viability for retail fashion brands has been put into question.
This, of course, includes local companies. “There’s so much uncertainty for any local brand right now,” says Meegan Holland, a spokesperson for the Michigan Retailers Association.
But in true Detroit fashion, hometown brands like Shinola, Detroit vs. Everybody and Hope for Flowers from Tracy Reese are leaning into the challenge and embracing change in an ever-shifting industry: They’re producing masks, doubling down on e-commerce and expanding into new products to adapt to customer demand. Here’s how three businesses are proving that even a pandemic can’t hold them back from building a brand
Created in 2011 by Fossil Group founder Tom Kartsotis, Shinola built its brand on selling Detroit-assembled watches and quickly gained a cult following (fans include former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama). The company, which is based in Detroit’s New Center and operates more than 20 retail stores worldwide — including its flagship store in Midtown — has expanded its business into leather goods, journals and home accessories.
Once the shutdown was mandated, says Washburn, the company had to quickly double down on how they communicated with home-bound customers. This included sending marketing emails to customers highlighting products — like leather-bound journals and planners — that could make a home office feel more like a workspace. The bet paid off: “Basically anything that has to do with home is selling really well,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, bikes have been a particularly hot item over the past six months. “We saw a huge uptick in our bikes business,” says Washburn, adding that bike sales are up 60% from 2019. In fact, Shinola’s online business has doubled to what it was during the same period, pre-COVID-19.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some bumps along the way. Washburn says that factory closures statewide resulted in delays for leather products like watch straps, which are made in Michigan. Additionally, many of the brand’s watch components come from Asia, so that caused some “gaps” in production
The company’s retail stores have also adapted to the new world of social distancing and hyper awareness of germ transmission. Like other brick-and-mortar retailers, Shinola has put up screens to protect employees at point of sale. Retail staff are fully cleaning every watch or item that a customer touches, sometimes even putting the items away for some time to sterilize.
Despite the challenges the brand has faced over the past few months, Washburn remains optimistic. “This has been and is going to be a learning experience for our organization,” she says. “I know we will be better and stronger when we come through.”
In January, Detroit vs. Everybody announced it would shutter four of its six metro-area locations to refocus on building a larger online presence and producing custom prints. But even the prescient shift to digital didn’t make the brand immune to the effects of COVID-19. “[It] has hit our business just as hard as any retailer’s,” says JaKira Mingo, the company’s communications chief.
Founded in 2012 by Tommey Walker, Detroit vs. Everybody — which prints its slogan on everything from hoodies to baby onesies — has come to symbolize the Motor City’s scrappy mentality. So when retailers statewide were forced to shut down their shops the company channeled Walker’s motto: “Don’t complain, contribute.”
To that end, Walker and his team decided to put the business on the back burner and partnered with the city of Detroit to organize a two-day music festival that raised awareness of the pandemic as well as the importance of the 2020 census. (Streamed online in May, the Digital Unity Festival featured artists with area ties including Big Sean and Mayer Hawthorne.) The company also started selling Everybody vs. COVID-19 apparel, with a portion of proceeds going to the Detroit Small Business Stabilization Fund launched by TechTown Detroit.
Currently, the brand is operating at its 10,000-square-foot warehouse with a “skeleton crew” in Southfield, says Mingo, and will eventually open its location at Detroit’s Eastern Market. The company also started selling masks with its slogans in March and has seen
the product line “take a life of its own” with thousands of orders, says Mingo.
“We’re the underdogs,” she adds. “We’re constantly trying to change and move.”
In 2019, New York-based designer Tracy Reese — whose collections have appeared on runways and in major retailers worldwide — returned to her native Detroit to create a sustainable clothing line called Hope for Flowers. Her ambition was to develop a more ethical brand (pieces are made from natural fibers and produced on a smaller scale for specific retailers, like Anthropologie and Detroit is the New Black), while also mentoring the fashion community in Detroit.
Then COVID-19 hit. Reese started feeling the pandemic’s effects as early as last fall, when manufacturing in China started shutting down. Store-bound shipments of her Summer 2020 line ended up getting delayed by a few months, which forced her to “put the brakes on,” she says. “The retail industry had been hit hard for years, [and] this was a nail in the coffin.”
Despite the setbacks, Reese’s Detroit-designed collection of women’s clothing, as well as a smaller “capsule collection” for Anthropologie, garnered a “great response,” she says — many styles even sold out. “I didn’t know if anyone would be shopping because it’s a heavy moment,” she adds. “But as people are being more contemplative about purchases, I think our message of creating clothing responsibly and making pieces that are meant to last has been well received.”
The pandemic also accelerated the company’s plans for an e-commerce site, which launched on June 1. Looking forward, Reese is expanding wholesale sales of her line to online stores (exactly which ones are TBD) and is starting to produce items exclusively for the brand’s site. “I had no idea what was going to happen,” she recalls of the early days of the pandemic. “But we are riding out this wave and cautiously moving forward.”