Will Leather Goods' aim: Neighborhood impact

Will Leather Goods' plan to move its hat manufacturing and e-commerce operations from Oregon to Detroit and hire 50 more staffers over the next 18 months will further expand the retailer's impact on a rapidly developing neighborhood.

"We're in the process of beginning to do some manufacturing in Detroit. We're going to bring our hat shop to Detroit," said Will Adler, who founded the Eugene, Ore.-based luxury leather products maker in 2004 and whose retail outlet in Detroit's Midtown has helped further a shopping and dining renaissance in the area. (See box.)

Adler's comments came during this month's Detroit Homecoming event, produced by Crain's Detroit Business.

He opened his 9,000-square-foot retail space at 4120 Second Ave. (the old Tom Boy Super Market) in November 2015 — an outcome of Adler's 2014 participation in Homecoming, an event that draws Detroit expatriates in business back for possible local investment.
The Midtown Will Leather store has 18 employees. Adler said he intends to hire 50 more to work in creative, design and e-commerce roles.

Business for his store, the eighth Will Leather Goods nationwide, continues to grow, he said.

"When we first opened up, it was gangbusters (ahead of Christmas 2015), but the first quarter was slower. Business is getting better every day," Adler said.

He bought the building for $550,000 from Invest Detroit Inc., which spent $1 million on the initial build-out. Will Leather Goods' parent company, Spirit Leatherworks LLC, spent another $1.6 million on build-out for the store. Midtown Detroit Inc. spent about $1 million for shell and core work to the building, Executive Director Susan Mosey told Crain's last year.Adler, who was a theater major at Wayne State University and attended the University of Detroit before embarking on an acting career in the 1970s and early '80s, previously has said his business is also driven by philanthropy. Through Will Leather Goods' Give Will initiative, Adler's business has committed to donating 500,000 backpacks to underfunded public elementary schools in America, including thousands in Detroit.

He thinks the sprawling, mixed-use District Detroit development surrounding the new Little Caesars Arena nearby will stitch downtown and Midtown together.

"It was great to know there was going to be more action happening outside the Midtown area," he said. "I'm a big believer that Midtown is going to be the Brooklyn, the SoHo of Detroit, the place where creative and innovative stores and restaurants are going to occur."

All of the projects underway in Detroit, and the outside media attention, have helped quiet critics of his decision to open a store in his hometown, Adler said.

"From a business point of view, people are seeing my crazy idea of moving back to Detroit is not so crazy anymore," he said.

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