Inside scoop: will adler of will leather goods

by Brian Lipton

Thomas Wolfe may have written you can’t go home again, but Will Adler, the founder and creative director of Will Leather Goods, feels differently. Decades after leaving his hometown of Detroit, Adler has returned there to open the company’s most unusual retail shop. Located on the former site of the historic Tomboy Grocery Store at 4120 2nd Avenue, the 9,000-square-foot concept shop not only provides an ideal showcase for the company’s large selection of wallets and other leather goods, it boasts an art gallery, a café, local architectural treasures, and even a teepee.

“My family has been in the retail clothing business for 100 years,” says Adler, who founded his company 35 years ago. “But it was really my brother, who recently passed away, that prompted me to build this store. He ran a store here in Detroit called Man Oh Man, and before he died, he said to me that he felt Detroit really had the potential to become the Brooklyn of the Midwest. So after I decided to open the store, as an early influencer, I wanted to create a gathering place for the community. You can come in and see art, have coffee, and just hang out. What we’re already finding is that whole families are coming in, and not just because we sell something for everyone. One of the reason I put this 8-person teepee in the front of the store is that the teepee is the first American house, and it’s a place where you need to look at each other when you talk. I want to give people the unexpected experience.”

The store’s selection includes such items as burnished vintage leather baseballs and footballs, boxing gloves, antique-style hats, canvas-and-leather bags with lots of reinforced buckles and locks, as well as pieces made from all corners of the earth. “We embrace artisans from everywhere from Mexico to Africa to Japan,” says Adler. “Every product has its own story, and our sales associates have to memorize each of those stories.”

As Adler admits, getting people into a store has become more challenging in recent years. “We know people can just sit at home in their PJs and order cool stuff on the web, so my mission is to keep in-store shopping interesting,” he says. The new Detroit store, for example, offers a place where you can put together your own belt. It also offers free embroidery, embossing and logos on its products, as well as various versions of gift presentations. Meanwhile, in his flagship store in Eugene, Oregon, Adler has added items to its merchandise mix. “With the legalization of marijuana there, we discovered people were interested in lighters with leather cases,” he says.

One thing that has remained consistent for many years is Adler’s commitment to charity through his “Give Will” program. “When the business took off in the wholesale market – we now sell to 700 stores – I decided I wanted to give something back, and it had to be in a way that was inspiring to me,” says Adler. “So I decided to give the same backpack that I sell to Nordstrom to children, on which there’s a space for students to write both their names and their dreams. It’s a way to reach their heart, inspire their creativity, and stimulate a conversation about their future. In Detroit, I’ve committed to donating 50,000 bags over the next 24 months, including some to my old elementary school.”

Adler doesn’t have much time to enjoy his return home, as his San Francisco store, which was supposed to originally open this summer, is now scheduled to let customers in this month. “Because of the city’s strict rules regarding earthquakes, we had to do some retrofitting, which lasted four months. But we will be open by Thanksgiving!”