Friday, January 1, 2010

A vintage brand is reborn! Can you believe this sheep?

George Waters column for 26, 2014:

If you are of a certain age, you know the phrase, "He doesn't know sheep from Shinola." I am using "sheep" here as a substitute for the actual word, so as not to offend, well, anybody who is still offendable these days.

The colloquial phrase above was once very popular. It spawned a movie scene in which a son is tested by his father, before heading out into the wide world, on whether he truly  knows sheep from Shinola. It also spawned songs by Dolly Parton and the rock band Ween.

You have to admit—the seductive power of the phrase's alliteration is hard to resist.

The Shinola company made shoe polish for decades, but the trademark was bought recently and reborn as a wristwatch brand. Yes, it's true. Watches. This puts a new twist on that other famous phrase, "He doesn't know whether to sheep or wind his Shinola."

This brave new world makes my head hurt.

The company wanted to manufacture watches in the U.S., watches which would carry American-made cachet, so they chose a classic all-American brand with retro weight to it. Trouble is, it's a brand associated with, well, sheep.

A bold choice, yes. Plus, they made their base in the historic Argonaut building in Detroit, former home of the General Motors Research Lab. Motor City, king of the postwar, like Shinola itself. More retro cachet. But still.

The brand is kind of a joke, isn't it? Can anyone over 40 hear the word Shinola and not think, instantly, reflexively, of sheep? The watches, like most watches, have crystal faces, but they don't exactly shine. Nor does the image of putting sheep on your wrist.

Why a shoe polish company for a watch brand? I mean, there are other stylish, defunct names available. Why not Victrola? Or Zenith? Woolworth? Studebaker?

A Studebaker watch. Powder blue. I can see it. Or Pullman, and the slogan, "Time to go."

Shinola, as it turns out, still makes Shinola. The kind you rub on your shoes. Black and brown, like the old days. They created a new logo with a retro/modern look too. The tins are gorgeous. So gorgeous they are out of stock.

Shinola also makes high-end, retro-looking bicycles ($2950) and handmade leather goods too. They will sell you a leather iPad cover for $295. This is not your father's Shinola. Nowadays, none of this sheep comes cheap.