Where There’s a Will Leather Goods, There’s a Way
By Vivian Henoch, Editor myJewishDetroit
January 4, 2016
Travel through Midtown Detroit these days and you’ll be hard pressed to recognize it from the Midtown of even five years ago. The revitalization of the area, like Detroit as a whole, is happening through independent businesses setting up shop, rising population taking residency in brownstones and condos, bike lanes and gardens. The newcomer to the neighborhood is Will Leather Goods, a 9,000-square-foot retail experience that sells vintage and new belts, bags, wallets, home goods and hats, that opened in November at 4120 Second St. in the former Tom Boy Market.
Beyond selling its “rough luxe” leather items, the space is intended to be a gathering spot for the community. There’s an inviting coffee station, a massive teepee with seating inside for impromptu powwows and an art gallery which will display rotating shows from local and nationally-recognized artists and photographers for visitors to enjoy. And behind all the attention to detail of the new store is Shane Adler, Will’s daughter, who serves as Will Leather Goods’ Director of Retail Development.
At 27, Adler’s been involved in the family business since the early age of eight when she would make the flea market rounds on weekends along with her brother Brent and uncle, Robert (Bob) Adler, selling leather goods to the public. From its humble beginnings as a small belt stand started on the boardwalk of Venice Beach in 1981, Will Leather Goods has evolved into a brand that is recognized for uniting natural leathers with artisan textiles discovered during Will’s travels around the world.
Although she grew up in Eugene, Oregon, Adler has strong ties to Detroit where her father grew up on the west side of the city and family members still reside around metro Detroit. In fact, the Will Leather Goods’ Detroit location is the realization of the vision credited to Will’s brother, Bob, who passed away in 2014. It was he who prompted his brother, the year prior to his death, to visit and consider Detroit for a new location. Bob, who resided in Oakland County, served as vice president of Spirit Leather Goods (SLW), parent company of Will Leather Goods.
Building a legacy
The Detroit store is the eighth and by far largest retail location in the WLG portfolio which includes stores in New York City, three in Portland, Oregon, as well as a hometown store in Eugene, Oregon, a flagship location in Venice Beach, California and latest addition in San Francisco. When it came time to plan the Detroit store, it was decided that this one was to be a legacy store paying tribute to the Adler’s Detroit roots as well as the city itself.
Retail is in the Adler genes. Will’s father worked as a buyer and merchandising manager for Detroit-based upscale men’s clothier, Hughes & Hatcher, and his grandfather was in sales for the New Center area’s Saks & Co., now known as Saks Fifth Avenue. Will’s brother Bob was a sales rep for men’s clothing and owned the “Man Oh Man” stores around Metro Detroit.
When Will Leather Goods was founded in 1981, it was solely focused on wholesale, selling its leather goods to independent retailers and large luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. A little over three years ago, Will looked to his children, and Shane especially, about expanding the company into retail. He saw “producer” qualities in his daughter essential to the development and growth into the new enterprise.
In her role with the company, Adler has planned, designed and opened all eight locations, requiring her to relocate to each city through the process. Adler admits that Will’s prompting changed her perspective of her own career, “Retail was a huge step for us and I knew I wanted to work hard on something that mattered, and nothing matters more than working with your family,” she said. “Opening eight stores in three years is a really big deal and I couldn’t have done it without my dad’s vision.”
Following in her father’s footsteps
Before founding Will Leather Goods, Will enjoyed a professional acting career in the 1970s – performing classic American and Shakespearean dramas at repertory theaters across the country, and acting in guest spots on popular TV shows like CHiPs, Trapper John, M.D. and Welcome Back Kotter.
And like her dad, Shane is also an actor, appearing in several independent films such as “The Sister” based on Anton Chekov’s “The Three Sisters” where she played the younger role of Mary Stuart Masterson’s character. Her biggest break (yet smallest role) came in 2010’s “The Social Network” portraying a stoner in the hit film about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s founding. She’s also an accomplished ballet dancer and travelled with a dance company in her teens before an injury shifted her to pursue acting. While her priorities are now focused on the family business, acting remains with her and she still auditions for parts.
Whether its dance, acting or design, creativity is Adler’s driving force. And with Will’s direction, she works to leave that imprint on each store, bringing a unique character that is cohesive with each city.
“We are creating a market bazaar totally from our hearts that is about self expression, discovery and Will’s own creative desires,” said Adler. “My dad is still an actor. . . he’s just found a different outlet to express it.”
Gratitude and spirituality
Like many, with age comes a renewed appreciation for our heritage. Adler acknowledges that her personal spirituality has become more important and prominent in her life now as an adult. Growing up, she attended Hillel Camp which provided her with a foundation for Judaism, but drew the line at Hebrew School that meant strict structure which was not appealing to the free-spirited young Adler. “I was the only one in my family to not go to Hebrew School, something I regretted later as a teenager,” said Adler. “I was much more interested in exploring the woods or dancing.”
Yet she always was drawn to the spirituality central to Judaism, finding solace in the ceremony, meditation and rituals. “I remember going to bar and bat mitzvahs and always loved the ceremony much more than the party afterwards,” she said. “The spiritual side of reading from the Torah, the prayers and traditions were what I looked forward to the most.”
She became engaged while building the Detroit legacy store and as she and her fiancé are deep into wedding planning, her focus is squarely on the ceremony itself, seeing it as the grounding structure and basis of the joining of two families. “To me, Judaism is about family, showing gratitude and the ability to be quiet with your own spirituality and providing connectivity. It’s a huge part of my Jewish heritage,” said Adler.
Detroit always will hold a special place in Adler’s heart, not only as a connection to her family’s past, but also as a touchstone to the future. “Our store is about community and creativity and bringing a part of ourselves to the city,” said Adler. “I’m in a family business, opening a family store and lately I’ve been having moments of realization that we’re living a legacy, not just building it.”