At Pingree Detroit, veterans are making luxury shoes and accessories from the auto industry’s excess leather.
By Carmen Nesbitt
Photography by Sacred Overstreet-Amos
Pingree Detroit, a luxury leather shoes and accessories startup, occupies a formerly abandoned bank on the corner of Woodward and Milwaukee. In the basement, past vaulted doors and a pile of prosthetic leg molds, Air Force veteran Nate Crawford II works in a corner. Shamrock foot molds dangle from a clothesline, and three leather uppers (the shoe material that covers the top of a foot) lay on a table in front of him. In their current form, they look like 15th century slippers.
Crawford, a 36-year-old shoemaker and co-owner of Pingree Detroit, chuckles as he admits why he joined the Air Force: There are more women in the Air Force than in any other branch of the military. But when he was discharged due to minor infractions in 2007, he needed new motivation. The Southfield resident found it years later while scrolling through Instagram: Pingree Detroit was hiring. The mission? To serve veterans and disrupt the auto industry’s leather waste cycle.
Established as a veteran-focused co-op in 2015 by Jarret Schlaff, Pingree Detroit was built on community instead of commodity. Schlaff, 32, of Detroit wanted to create a business that provided meaningful, living-wage work for veterans without impacting the environment. “I was meeting veterans who were unemployed and overcoming a lot of adversity. I felt called to be part of the solution,” says Schlaff, who hasn’t served but believes in thanking veterans with action instead of words. Hand-crafted goods made from reclaimed, high-end leather turned out to be the perfect concept for his cause.
Recycling Leather from Car Seats
Schlaff’s business card reads “smells like a new car, because it nearly was,” a fitting motto: The leather used in Pingree Detroit’s products, like The Mayor sneaker or Beaubien cross-body bag, was once intended for luxury vehicles. Each day, the auto industry dumps tons of leather waste into landfills or incinerators. They consider it “the cost of doing business,” Schlaff wrote on the GM Renaissance Center’s blog last year. Schlaff says he works with representatives from the Big Three and their suppliers to source scrap leather that would otherwise harm the environment. The leather is soft like velvet — like the feeling of sliding into the back seat of a Cadillac.
Using surplus leather reduces the waste stream, he says. “We’re the only species on the planet that creates this thing called waste,” he says. “We are on a finite planet, with finite resources. And, so, we need to be intentional about being good stewards of those resources.” Ensuring Pingree Detroit’s production process was environmentally conscious took a lot of planning and design. To “close the loop” on waste, Pingree Detroit’s excess materials are composted, recycled or upcycled by their partners. Currently, the company is 90% waste free, but Schlaff hopes to be completely waste free within the next three years. He says in addition to being economical, Pingree Detroit is tracking its carbon footprint and plans to offset it by planting trees and growing hemp next year.
A healthy Earth and a strong, “resilient” community are two sides of the same coin for Schlaff, who attributes his passion for the environment to his parents. “From a young age, I learned the value of speaking up for what’s good for the majority of people, especially clean air and clean water. It’s a human right in my eyes. Some companies don’t think so. They think their profit is more important than the well-being of people.”
And people are the foundation of his business. After one year, employees can become co-owners, which means they share 77 cents of every profitable dollar. Schlaff also offers bonuses to inspire innovation and help employees exceed their goals.
Providing Meaningful Work to U.S. Veterans
“Oh, man, I was geeked!” Crawford says, referring to the first time he met Schlaff. “…As soon as he told me what they were doing, there’s so many possibilities: trade ownership, working in the community, you’re dealing with veterans, you’re dealing with fashion — Detroit is big on fashion — you’re dealing with the auto industry.”
Crawford was trained in shoemaking by College for Creative Studies adjunct professor Cinthia Montague, 29, of Flint, a boot maker trained by traditional master shoemakers. Montague developed Pingree Detroit’s footwear department and is now a shoemaking consultant. She says learning how to make shoes is a lifelong process, a sentiment Crawford agrees with. Though he’s been making the Mayor sneaker for over a year, he says he still has a lot to learn — especially as the company prepares to launch the Governor boot. Stitches are more complex with boots because the sides of the sole don’t cover mistakes as well, he explains. “Being able to curve stitch lines is something I’m working towards.”
Crawford can make a pair of sneakers in two days and averages 12-15 pairs a month. Because every part of the shoe is made by hand, there is a lot of quality control and quality assurance during the process, he says. “The work keeps me going.” He beams as shares that he used to draw Ninja Turtles when he was young, and now, working with his hands and seeing the fruits of his labor fulfill him like nothing else. For Crawford, sneaker making is an art form.
Sustained People Sustain Detroit
Pingree Detroit, in its mission for sustainability, also created something else: Detroit’s first locally produced sneakers. Each pair, made from the rejected leather of Detroit’s auto industry and hand sewn by Detroit veterans, is a literal piece of the community. Pingree Detroit “continually searches for better ways to create their products,” says Montague, adding that any business should consider the wellness of its community. But Pingree Detroit was never just a business: It’s a platform through which veterans can find meaningful work and create a less polluted environment. As for the leather shoes and handbags, well, they’re a bonus.
6438 Woodward Ave., Suite A, Detroit