Henry Lefens has quite the resume. He started his career designing soft-goods at Black Diamond Equipment for professional alpine athletes before moving to the Palo Alto design firm IDEO. From there, he went to Levi’s, first as the head of all men’s bags and accessories before becoming lead designer of the technical Commuter Collection. Now, he’s the head of his own wallet brand, Pioneer Carry, which he started in 2016.
Pioneer wallets feature custom 10XD nylon ripstop fabrics, which are made from polyethylene yarn that is ten times stronger than steel per weight. The material is incredibly durable, lightweight and it repels both dirt and water. Utilizing FutureForm core technology, these wallets keep their shape without conventional stitching. Recently Pioneer released the Onyx collection, showcasing its range of wallets in a blacked-out colorway.
We caught up with Lefens on a recent trip to New York to explore the origins of Pioneer and potential of technical fabrics.
Q: Were there any hurdles in starting Pioneer?
A: The hardest part was getting the right manufacturer to take on a little company. Anyone can start a little leather wallet company because they can do it by themselves or it’s a very crafty thing that doesn’t require high-tech machinery, necessarily. But this process is something that is almost exclusive to large brands — The North Face, Lululemon, Nike — so, I had to have access to that. The reason this all came together is because the factory that could do it the best agreed to take me on as a little guy.
Q: What was the impetus for the first design?
A: I was going climbing and skiing when was living in Salt Lake, and everything I was wearing was super technical. I remember skiing one time and everything I was wearing was synthetic, and then I had this leather wallet. It felt sort of archaic or strange to me. So I wanted to figure out some other way to do it. There are velcro wallets, right? And, there are also high-end leather wallets. So this is trying to take some of the cache and luxury and precision that people love about more high-end goods and inject it [into a synthetic wallet].
Q: What’s special about the FutureForm technology?
A: It’s the same material that they use to make nice bras and things that don’t have stitching; it’s a replacement for stitching. If you’ve seen the Nike clothes that have stuff that’s not stitched but looks glued, it’s that technology that’s in the wallets. So that helps us remove seams because seams break in wallets — it’s the first thing to go. We’re calling it FutureForm because as it breaks in, it doesn’t break down. So leather being a hide that you pierce into will break down — it’s an organic material. This will break in, which is what you want from a wallet, but it’s not going to break down because it’s not leather.
Q: What companies are using technical fabrics in a interesting way?
A: At the most mass level, Lululemon does really great things in really great cuts. I also really like what Reigning Champ is doing — both Vancouver. But Vancouver has a very strong history of technical fabrics — Arc’Teryx obviously. Of course, Outlier is doing cool things, but that’s more of an avant-garde brand. I think in general, in the whole men’s space you’re seeing a lot more crazy fabrics — more sailcloth, or you’ll see Outlier use pure Dyneema (which is extremely price-prohibitive). So the customer is starting to understand that, which even 10 years ago they didn’t know. The benefits of leather and all these other materials are known, but there are lots to come.
More from a cultural standpoint, that fact that people are trying to inject these synthetics into every day and seeing how they stick — that’s really provocative to me. It’s less about the nerdy details of the fabric and construction, but the grander scheme of: ‘I’m wearing denim all the time, but can I also that pair with a Schoeller jacket? Does that seem right? Is it just a fad, will it last? Are some of these inventions better than what we’ve had, and will replace them?’ Like Lululemon leggings. Those are here to stay regardless of the fad, just for their benefits. It beats denim in a lot of ways for certain things.
Q: Is this a renaissance for technical materials in the style space?
A: It’s like a tipping point: it’s all based on what the customer is ready to do. Maybe these technical fabrics were only for outdoor people, but, as people start to get familiar and give permission to these brands to play in this space, that’s what opens the door. Especially these big brands: they’re not going to make something if a million people won’t buy it. So people have been giving permission and fashion has been giving permission, especially on the West Coast.
Q: What brands excite you on a personal level?
A: Had I not worked at Levi’s and been super brain-washed by denim heads, I would probably be on a really far technical spectrum. But, luckily, I had this humanization at Levi’s because I was the odd-man out. I was the technical guy. With Commuter, I had to play these two worlds so much, so I play those worlds. I wear a CP Company jacket — Stone Island — and I’m wearing Tanner Rancourt boots. I think that’s the most appropriate way: you can be an urban ninja Acronym guy, or you can be purely a Red Wing Boots guy, and I love that you can play with both.
Q: How do you pack for air travel?
A: I’ve been flying a lot of United Basic, which only lets you bring one little bag — I love that constraint. So it’s funny, I have a pretty technical Gregory bag and then I have a pure denim Dopp kit that I made when I was doing all the men’s accessories at Levi’s. I didn’t even bring my computer on this trip — all phone — and just a change of clothes, absolutely nothing. That’s why technical materials are better. I love denim jackets, but for travel, if you’re trying to condense them down into your bag, good luck. And, that’s [one area] where technical fabrics excel. Our wallets can be way thinner than leather would allow.