By Chris Reed
Anyone can appreciate the look and feel of a well-made product. Take the Corvette Stingray, for instance. It’s a car that people notice. Even folks who can’t tell a coupe from a sedan take one glance at a Stingray and say, “Hey, that’s a work of art!” The same goes for a high-end wristwatch or a bespoke suit. People know when they’re in the presence of quality.
That’s what energizes the folks who make and buy finely crafted items. It’s not that lesser products don’t get the job done—after all, a cheap digital watch still tells the time. It’s that wearing or using or driving a well-designed product offers many subtle pleasures you’d otherwise miss out on.
Early in its development, the new Stingray spent hour after hour in the wind tunnel, its designers and engineers making sure that every styling cue maximized the effectiveness of every aerodynamic adjustment, knowing that the tiniest tweak to the front fender could enhance airflow at the rear bumper.
In this spirit of precision craftsmanship, let’s take a look at some American retailers that pay particular attention to the oh-so-beautiful details.
Rob Magness spent years rising through the ranks of the New York fashion industry before becoming the men’s design director at Ralph Lauren. Before long, he caught the entrepreneurial bug and decided to strike out on his own. He started Grown & Sewn, a men’s clothing company that bases its designs on American culture and history. Their signature material is a khaki/denim hybrid that blends the style and appeal of khaki with the comfort and durability of denim. Touch it once and you’ll see the appeal.
What springs to mind when you think about Detroit? I bet you didn’t say wristwatches. Most watches today come out of Asia or Switzerland, so it surprised nearly everyone when Shinola opened a watch factory in Motor City in 2011. They hired a local workforce and brought in Swiss masters to train them in the meticulous art of watchmaking. But they weren’t done yet. Shinola has also started making and selling custom-built bicycles and artisanal leather products like bags and journals. The common thread running through all their products is the careful craftsmanship they put into everything they make.
The Birdwell Beach Britches company was started in Santa Ana by a woman named Carrie Mann. In 1961, Mann was in an accident and found herself sitting around with lots of free time, so she began making sports clothing for local shops. Mann developed a durable style of double-fabric nylon “britches” that were ideal for surfing. And it’s a good thing she did, because surfing took off in Santa Ana in a big way. Before long, the whole Mann family had banded together to churn out enough britches to meet demand. Flash forward to today, and a fourth generation has jumped on board and is driving the wave to further success.
The Arrow Moccasin Company is a family business that’s been crafting footwear for extreme weather for more than 60 years. Ron Ouellette and his son Paul buy dense, quality Swiss hides and have them tanned in England, then shipped to their headquarters in Hudson, Massachusetts, where each shoe is stitched together by hand. The Ouellette family has operated the business since 1951, and they’re so sure of their craftsmanship that they offer a no-questions-asked, money-back guarantee for all their moccasins. In other words, if you want to keep your feet warm in style, these guys have you covered.
Shawn Reed wears his philosophy on his sleeve—at least metaphorically. He believes that the classic design mantra “form follows function” is only half right. In his view, form and function should interact with each other in interesting ways, each informing the other. That’s why he named his Orlando-based studio Form-Function-Form. The company produces fine leather goods like watches, bracelets and wallets, with each new product undergoing months of design work before going on sale. That’s why Form-Function-Form only sells 15 products at the moment, but each one speaks for itself.
The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.
Chris Reed blogs at Primer magazine: A Guy’s Post-College Guide to Growing Up (Affordable Style, How-Tos and Self-Development for the Everyday 20-Something Man). You can see what Chris is up to on chrisreed.com and follow him on Twitter @_chrisreed.
Photos: Top, Getty Images; above, courtesy of Shinola