books photography

Fair leather friends

Working a job where I trade in words all day, I have this vicarious obsession with people who do and make things with their hands. Via DoubleOhTwo, today I found Secret Forts’ fantastic photo feature on the workspace of a couple of American brothers who turn out handmade leather products under the moniker BillyKirk.

Chris and Kirk Bray are the brothers, and their site includes a great interview that sets out how they got started, the design and business ethos of the brand. They only use the best leather and highest quality hardware… There’s a clear and understated design signature, and their emphasis on quality materials and functional simplicity lends a consistent industrial elegance to all their products. They use a lot of antique leatherworking machines, and initially learned the trade from a “third generation leatherworker” still using his grandfather’s tools. As the brand has grown, now much of the manufacturing work is actually done by a group of Amish leather workers in Pennsylvania.

This photo (from Secret Forts) shows a BillyKirk shoulder satchel they designed based on “a World War II Belgian map case”.

At the risk of sounding kinky, there’s something I find seductive about leather. It’s an inherently masculine material; in its rawest state it retains something of the scent of the beast that is its origin. With time its patina showcases all the stories that leather has seen, whether burnished to radiance or scuffed to graffiti; marks of age like wrinkles on a well-loved face, or the rings of trees in cross section. One of the world’s oldest materials, it has cultural and historical associations with pioneers, cowboys and tribal artefacts. Yet it can also be incredibly delicate, like buttery soft kid gloves, an exquisitely tooled handbag, or the earliest form of paper, vellum.

Unlike so many products today, leather rewards loyalty. Leather grows with you. A sturdy pair of leather boots mould themselves to your foot. A leather wallet, once it makes its home in your back pocket, cups your bum like an overfamiliar friend. Leather, like a hot dude, looks even better with a few scars and imperfections. Because they’re the marks of character, a life lived unreservedly.

I’m by no means into high fashion or “it bags”, but I’ve always fantasised about letting loose in the Hermes store. Their bags and goods just seem so beautifully made, the immaculate waxed-thread stitching and attention to detail. Luxurious and gorgeous as Hermes bags obviously are, it’s the traditional saddlery skill and functionality echoing through their design that captivates me.

An overpriced brand is an overpriced brand; but something hand-made just for you, tailored and customised and cut just right, that’s true luxury. Be it a suit, a pair of shoes, a chair or a bicycle pannier: bespoke is the ultimate in style because it silently affirms its owner’s taste, respect for craftsmanship and design, and confident individuality.

On that rambling note, and pertinent to skills like leatherwork that seem like they belong to another time: found a gorgeous book today that I wish I’d discovered sooner; hell, I wish I’d thought of writing it! It’s a large format hardcover book by Leta Keens called Shoes For The Moscow Circus: Scenes from a hidden world (published by Pier 9).

“Tucked away above a nondescript shopfront in suburban Sydney there is a workshop where dance shoes are made the way they have always been made – by hand. This workshop makes shoes that are worn by can-can dancers in France and by the acrobats of the Moscow Circus.”

The book basically explores small industries, specialist manufacturers and artisan craftsmen. Leta looks at 28 different hidden worlds with an inquiring yet lyrical style – discovering what drives the people who make bicycles, cricket bats, flags, umbrellas, taxidermy….

The design of the book is a lovely complement to its material – it’s luxurious and beautiful, but not in an obvious or ostentatious way. The book is generous in size and in its use of photography by Oliver Strewe; but the pages are matte rather than gloss, black and white with an occasional splash of red. The book is clothbound with no slipcase and the titles on the cover appear screen-printed by hand.

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