About two years ago, William Adler went on a tour that changed the way he thought about Detroit – a kind of wake-up call that forced him to really look at the city he calls his hometown.
The founder and CEO of Will Leather Goods in Eugene, Ore., was here to visit his brother, Robert. Robert lived in Oakland County, and his ill health had Adler visiting him regularly. The two had a lifelong bond, spurred by their mutual drive, creativity and love of entrepreneurship.
The two had grown up in Detroit. Back then, they were just Billy and Bobby, hanging out at James Vernor Elementary School on Pembroke near Seven Mile. Yup, their neighborhood school was named after the soda-pop creator. Will went on to Wayne State for a time before jetting off to the West Coast to pursue an acting career. More on that later.
Back to 2013. Robert insisted that they go into Detroit that day – he wanted to show Will Adler everything that had changed. The city where their father and grandfather lived and worked as retailers was no longer a hollow shell. There was life – growth and development abounded, especially in the downtown area. Robert wanted to take Will into Midtown in particular.
“He took me around the city. He said, ‘There a lot of things happening here. You’ve got to get into it. Let’s open in Detroit,’” Adler recalled. “I met with Sue Mosey (executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc.) and I was impressed.”
Will Adler announced this week that he is building that store his brother wanted, setting up shop in a former Tomboy grocery store at 4120 2nd Avenue. Adler spoke to me at length via telephone about the new store, his family and his excitement about the city. He even threw a little shade at its new neighbor, Shinola – so you know there’s going to be some interesting Midtown block parties down the line.
Will Leather Goods, described as a lifestyle brand known for offering hand-crafted leather bags and accessories, will open a sprawling 9,000 square foot “retail experience store.” It is slated to be finished in September 2015. There will be an array of bags, wallets, totes and other leather goods as well as demonstrations and other interactive displays, Will Adler said.
His excitement for the project is tempered by the fact that he is going it alone, so to speak. Robert “Bob” Adler – the man whose vision inspired this latest retail offering in Detroit – passed away in June 2014. Bob, who was the vice president of company’s parent Spirit Leather Works, was “so enthusiastic, all the way to the end,” Will Adler said.
You may be thinking at this point…Yes, it’s another “Rah Rah” story for a new store in Detroit. Yes, they’re going to sell goods that are kinda pricey, much like John Varvatos and Shinola. I get it.
But I’ll never get over that we have another high-end retailer bringing one of its signature stores to Detroit. It is something to be celebrated – I’ll never get tired of seeing a press release pop up in my email announcing another grand opening. You can say whatever you want about the development that’s here or is being developed. I’ll always be giddy for investment, jobs and economic green shoots. All of this stuff is going on behind the scenes all of the time.
What I dig most about this Adler guy is his passion to be here, to be part of the present and future. His brain is percolating with the concept; his enthusiasm for Detroit retail is palpable. Adler has the competitive drive as well – when I mention Shinola is expanding its leather-goods line this fall, Adler scoffs. Those newcomers are no challenge, he notes. Those nubes have some nice things – bikes, watches and the like, he notes. But they won’t have leather like he does, he says.
“This is about my brother. This is about my family. This is about the passion we bring to our projects. This isn’t just a whim of being a leather guy. We’ve been doing this for 35 years. We’re not trying to do other things. We don’t do bikes. We’re not watches. We’re not sunglasses,” Will Adler said. “We are leather experts. This is our core competency. We really have a great knowledge of what type of leather fits what type of bag for what type of function and for what kind of travel.”
So what will the store be like? It’s going to have a throw-back feeling, Adler said, much like the shops his father and grandfather worked in when they were in Detroit. His father was a buyer and merchandising manager for upscale men’s clothier Hughes & Hatcher; his grandfather was a salesperson for Saks Fifth Avenue, located in the New Center area as Saks & Co. back in the day.
So how did the Adler brothers get into this business? Bob studied fashion in New York City, worked in sales as a men’s clothing rep and owned the “Man Oh Man” stores around Metro Detroit. Bob knew marketing. He understood business in the best ways. He was a mentor to many and friend to all, Will Adler said.
Will Adler left WSU for Chicago for his Bachelor of Fine Arts with stops here and there, working at Meadowbrook for two seasons. He got to Hollywood, where he did a variety of television shows from Kojak to Vegas to Trapper John MD to Welcome Back Kotter.
An actors’ strike in the early 1980s left the newly minted father with a baby and no jobs. His brother came to visit and suggested Will look into small leather goods. They went to a trade show, found a supplier and started selling belts and wallets around California’s fairs, swap meets and boardwalks. It kept Adler’s family well fed. It allowed him to give jobs to a lot of people. It helped him come home again.
“I started on the street; 30 years later, I’ve got eight stores,” Adler laughed. “And I’m coming back to my hometown. This is not a made-up story. This is a Detroit story.”