My New York State of Mind. Part One: BillyKirk
In the last two years I had come across a number of New York businesses which had captured not only my imagination but also the essence of what I had frequently called beautiful businesses. I needed little excuse to arrange a visit.
Initially, I was not sure what New York city would throw up in terms of small scale craft and artisanal producers. I imagined a city arranged around the two ends of the economic spectrum; businesses which flew by the seat of their pants and managed to scrape a living wheeling and dealing, buying, trading and servicing; and those at the other end… recognised departmentalised brands and swish high end stores serving the tourist and the cash rich and time poor.
However I soon discovered that this was also a city of neighbourhoods. Whilst many struggled with the realities of post-industrial decay, urbanism and global recession, some others, like Williamsburg in Brooklyn were busy generating their own dynamism focused on a sustainable economic and cultural reinvention. In many cases it appeared these neighborhoods were tied together by a cultural aesthetic, a taste or state of mind. One which was rooted in a distinctly stylish and a-stylish demographic.
I had noticed this very distinct style the minute I arrived in New York. There was plenty of hip-hop casual, college style preppy and main-street trend driven normality. But this was also combined with a distinctly old style western. I was particularly drawn to the latter as it chimed, not only with my own disposition, but also the cultural aesthetic of Americana, boots and checked shirts, heavy tattoos and the ubiquitous full beard on most of the guys. This was cool that tried very hard to give the impression it didn’t care. The old school look coincided nicely with a retro vibe and return to roots feeling of many small businesses. The lexicon of the vibe included heavy reference to the past and of terms such as heritage, tradition, skills, artisan craft and authenticity. A strata of DIY found in indie, bmx, skateboard and west coast cultural creativity. A return to things lost, things local and things real not transitory and faux.
This vibe included many of the features of traditional craft economies that Charles Heying had described in his book Brew to Bikes; non-uniformity, variance, adaptation, authenticity, distinct, emphasising the beautiful and egalitarianism. These businesses were part of the Precariat. However, they are not forced into a corner by the inequalities of capitalism but one actively trying to establish its own way of doing, creating, engaging conversations and reinventing and reinterpreting old values and skills.
Billykirk leather goods and Mast Brothers Chocolate epitomised my beautiful business ideals taking the spirit of the craftsman’s skill and combining it with a hipster design-based artistic aesthetic. These businesses acknowledge the past but also recognised the future and the need to incorporate values which include substance as well as longevity. It would be fair to say that both understood the
value of heritage, skill and craft as an desirable economic commodity, as well as an aspect of identity.
In this respect I was particularly taken by the words of Chris Bray of Billykirk who noted how it was important for the goods they made to be imbued with an heirloom quality. In contrast to the mass produced and throw away, these were products that would last the test of time and could be handed down to children and grandchildren. These were not trend driven products. They were purely utilitarian; belts, bags, key rings and wallets which would be used repeatedly, generating the trendy patina created of life and usage. Not the one used by brands and designers to create that ‘faux lived-in or authentic look’. These would be used over and over again. It is somewhat Ironic that these products fall prey to fashion and turnover increases; fall out again, become unfashionable and turnover continues simply because of what they are, what they do and how they endure through cyclical fads. A win-win scenario.
It struck me that the skills employed by the Bray brothers embodied working with ideas and values which were in danger of being lost and designs inspired from the past. But rather than consign these skills to history and the curiosity of the heritage museum, Billykirk employed the skills handed down by a third generation leather maker, worked on machines which where designed for use in the earlier parts of the 20th century and have stood the test of time without the hint of a micro-processor.
But perhaps the most illuminating manifestation of the Billykirk value system was the method of outsourcing work. A two man team could not cope with all the demands of the flourishing artisanal craft and design business and begin to look for help. Chris Bray takes up the story
When we were first contemplating the big move to the East Coast from the West Coast one of the constant worries was how would we find new workers and would it be financially viable. We were paying $2000 for over 2000ft2 in DT LA so we were very fortunate to have low factory rental costs. We also had a great network of friends/workers to make our product. So this looming production/manufacturing concern was omnipresent. Luckily I was sharing these concerns with one of my vendors and he told me of some Amish guys that make some machinery for him in PA and that he would reach out to one of them and see if they had some contacts in the leather trade. Luckily there are a number of Amish who are solely involved in the horse tack trade and very capable of producing the types of designs we like.
Over the last 7 years we have had a great working relationship with them. Visiting them is like the 1850’s though there is a hmm form a large gas powered generator which looks out of place on their wooden barn floor. We usually take the kids packs of Gumi Bears and gum. On the first occasion we visited them one of the younger boys was sort of hovering around us and studying our buttons, belts and watches (items they are not allowed to use) and Kirk took out a piece of gum and this boys eyes widened. We asked if it was Ok to give him a piece and that boy chewed that piece of gum for hours. Over the course of that 2 day visit we probably gave him 3 or 4 pieces. Kirk asked him what his favorite flavor was and he said, “the brown kind.”
During this time of year they are beginning to work under the light of hurricane lanterns. It’s a very peaceful scene as the sun goes down and we are all sitting around stitching belts and wallets. I wish they would allow photos. They make incredible homemade pies, ginger snap cookies and other pastries. During the work day they break for snacks and coffee. The younger girls bring down the coffee and snacks. It’s very quiet and they are very shy so Kirk and I try our best to smile and be polite. They drop the items and quickly scuttle off giggling. We are now both pretty addicted to their ginger snap cookies. It could easily be a side business for them and they often do sell their baked goods at the local farmers markets. Another thing I particularly enjoy, though somewhat sneakily, is to drive to the hardware store with one of the Amish workers. I usually pop on some classic rock station and see if they start to move to the beat, hum or tap a finger. Not once have I got any sort of reaction. They are so immune to popular culture and music that they have no idea who the Rolling Stones or Elvis even is. TV, Movies, national news is simply unimportant to their daily lives and in many cases this is for the best. Like camping or being on holiday without any sort of social media connection spending time with the Amish helps open your eyes to more important things in life. It’s my dose of reality and something we cherish.
On the business side they are about the best manufacturer to work with for a number of reasons. They are totally fair and honest people, they are extremely eco-friendly, they are very skilled, – many honing there leather craft since they were boys while sitting on their fathers knee. There is never a shortage of workers and, because of the way they live, they are virtually immune to the daily expenses that normal business owners and their employees have to deal with. They have no cell phone or internet bills, they don’t drive so there are no car insurance or gas expenses, they don’t have to dress their kids in the latest fashions and buy sorts equipment, they don’t have TV’s or tennis or music lessons to pay for and don’t take expensive vacations involving flying. They are totally self-sufficient and resourceful so they are no plumber or electrician bills piling up and in their later years there are no nursing home or retirement community costs to fork over. It’s a match made in heaven.( Chris Bray 2012)