For as long as Jarret Schlaff remembers, he has met too many hardworking people who desire meaningful, living wage work but cannot not find it.
“That’s unacceptable, especially when it’s the case with veterans,” Schlaff said.
He felt most dismayed in 2014 when he realized he was sharing a Detroit neighborhood with driven, qualified veterans his own age (now 31) who were unemployed. As a result, he decided to take action while also, as he described, “addressing a severe lack of sustainable alternatives to the basic everyday needs like clothing, footwear and shelter.”
This is how Pingree Detroit was born.
Co-founded in 2015 with veterans and the Detroit community, Pingree, whose name was inspired by bootmaker, businessman and former mayor of Detroit Hazen Pingree, is a worker-owned, social impact company that creates “resiliency and living wage work for veterans and Detroiters” and, at the same time, “sustainable products that maximize well-being.”
Not only are Pingree customers receiving high-quality and durable leather products that are handmade using only American-made materials, but in purchasing the products, they are helping give jobs to US veterans and civilians who, as co-founder and CEO Schlaff said, “love what they do.”
Environmentally-friendly, adventure-ready handmade products
Thousands of pounds of new leather from the Detroit auto industry goes “unused for reasons as simple as color issues and small imperfections” every day. Typically the material would be sent overseas or disposed of in landfills, but, as a sustainable design and manufacturing house, Pingree Detroit gives “this nearly perfect material a new life by transforming it into high-quality leather products that are sustainable and handmade to last.”
Additionally, the equipment used in the workshop to make the products could also be said to have been given new life, some actually dating back many decades but still extremely effective.
“Buy new? No, buy used! Sustainability is vital to us, and buying used equipment just makes sense: it cuts down on the waste of importing new equipment, makes our products more affordable and allows us to use only the best, US-made tools,” Pingree Detroit posted on Instagram.
It is not surprising, however, that in order for the material, the tools and the vision to all come together, it took time and an abundance of dedication from the artisans. And although footwear has always been at Pingree’s forefront, shoes were actually not the first Pingree piece to launch since, as Schlaff light-heartedly explained, “they are very hard to make.”
“A lot of time had to be dedicated to learning the craft of hand making them, which meant many prototypes,” Schlaff said.
In the meantime, the main focus during the beginning stages of the company became the accessory line.
Currently, the available accessories for online purchase include:
- Signature Leather Tote: a simple leather tote to serve your everyday needs for work or travel that includes a leather laptop pouch, two deep leather interior pockets and soft flat leather handles
- Leather Tote in Grey: the perfect companion for a day at the office and your weekend adventures that has the same features as the Signature Leather Tote
- Hemp Tote with Leather Accents: simple and sturdy tote that also features a leather laptop pouch, two deep leather interior pockets and soft flat leather handles
- Slim Card Wallet: a wallet featuring pockets on the front and back, as well as a middle pocket that runs through the body
- The Adeline Wristlet and Crossbody Clutch: a crossbody, with the option of adding a wristlet for increased use that includes an adjustable and removable gold plated purse chain, a removable leather wristlet strap, a cash pocket, three credit card pouches, a zippered pocket and magnetic closure
“The Adeline, because of a customer’s request, now has different color options,” said co-founder Kaleb Fulk, who is in charge of marketing and communications at Pingree.
When Pingree wants to improve their products, they turn to its community. The Slim Card Wallet was redesigned in July 2018 to include more color options, as well as an interior pocket and durable edge sealing that ensures its longevity.
After years of learning and practicing, The Mayor, also known as Detroit’s very first locally-crafted sneaker, was released in October 2018. Customers now have the choice of either black or brown, and since these highly-anticipated shoes are built by hand and meticulously crafted, no two pairs are alike.
“These should be ordered online expecting that it will take a couple months to make,” Schlaff said while emphasizing the high-quality and handmade focus of Pingree.
In fact, each pair of sneakers is uniquely numbered, “your Pingree Mayor is yours and yours alone.”
“We call them shoecial security numbers,” Fulk said laughing. “The numbers continue to stay with the customer.”
In November, Pingree posted a photo of a pair of Mayors on Instagram, explaining to followers the purpose of these “shoecial security numbers.” Livonia resident, Detroit employee and self-proclaimed Pingree fan Catherine Porter saw this post and realized these were her shoes.
“These are mine!” she commented beneath the photo. “I was so happy to receive these this weekend and wore them all over town. Great look and perfect fit.”
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In 2019, Pingree will be releasing another boot as well.
“It’s all very exciting,” Fulk said discussing the continuously-growing footwear and accessory collection.
Quality is always Pingree’s top priority, and the team hopes that customers are 100 percent satisfied with what they receive from the workshop. In order to ensure this, each product undergoes several rounds of quality control and intensive inspection before receiving the “Pingree Seal of Approval.” With that said, Pingree does have a “30 Days No Questions Asked” return policy in place, as well as a “365 Days Satisfaction Guaranteed” warranty.
Designed and built in Detroit
Teaching new skills to veterans is a crucial aspect of the Pingree brand. Since January 2015, Pingree has employed eight veterans in both part- and full-time capacities. At the moment, there are two full-time and two part-time veterans plus three Detroiters on the team.
“The more products we sell, the more veterans we can train,” Pingree Detroit posted on Instagram.
Pingree prides itself on being concerned with the well-being of its workers, ensuring everyone in its supply chain has both fair and safe working conditions and always putting makers first. In fact, #KnowYourMaker is a social media campaign that Pingree is participating in, introducing each team member to its social media followers, so they can say they do, indeed, know who created their chosen piece(s) of Pingree.
“Every one of our goods has character and purpose. Just like the people who make it. Right here, in Detroit,” Pingree’s website reads.
The Pingree Detroit team, especially Schlaff, is often out of the workshop and in the public, most regularly at Eastern Market.
The team is appreciative of their workshop location as they share what was once a bank with Anew Life Prosthetics & Orthotics at 6438 Woodward Ave in Detroit.
For more information about Pingree Detroit and its products, visit Pingree’s website or follow them on both Facebook and Instagram.
Interested in seeing the workshop in person? The public is welcome to tour both floors of Pingree’s workshop during certain days and times of the week. Give the Pingree team a call at 313-757-0291 to arrange a tour.
Freelance writer Danielle Alexander absolutely loved touring Pingree’s workshop, seeing the handmade products in person and having the opportunity to share with readers Pingree Detroit’s impressive and inspirational story.