Billykirk and the Fascinating Story Behind The Brand

For These Leather Heads, It All Started with a Watch Strap

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Here at Gear Patrol, we usually bring you one carefully selected and reviewed product at a time. Today I’m changing it up and bringing a whole company to your attention. Billykirk is a unique company owned and run by two design minded brothers, Chris and Kirk Bray. All of their products are manufactured here in the US, most of which is made by the Pennsylvania Amish. The majority of their materials are sourced in the US or manufactured by their employees. All this comes together into a simple and rugged-looking product line that features a heavy dose of leather, metal (not like the stuff Eric wears to his favorite clubs), and canvas.

I was lucky enough to demo a trifecta of Billykirk products. Hit the jump for a rundown and some insight into their enrapturing story of success.

No. 166 Overnight Travel Bag:

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This is the perfect weekend bag. It fits enough clothes for three days and even lugs my embarrassingly obese dopp kit (allergy meds I swear, I do not moisturize). I’ve taken it on a number of trips lately and have had questions and compliments each time. It reminds me of an upgraded old-school tool bag. The fit and finish are without flaw (this was a trend amongst my Billykirk selections), and the leather and waxed cotton is only going to get better. I look forward to wearing it with my Barbour.

Cost: $345

No. 177 Double Collar Button Belt:

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This belt is unlike any I’d seen before and is now my primary day-to-day belt. Some of the best examples of attention to detail are on this belt, such as a riveted instead of sewn belt loop. Best of all, it’s engineered to take some abuse.

Cost: $150

No. 92 Card/Cash Case

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This replaced a cracked Jimi wallet, which I saved for a few days and then promptly recycled once I realized it would be collecting dust for a long time to come. It fits all the cards I need without being bulky at all, which is an absolute must for me. The back pocket of the wallet is perfect for my ID, providing easy access at the bar. After searching for the right front wallet for years, I’m finally settling down.

Cost: $85

Honestly, the attention to detail on each piece is impressive to say the least, and I’m already giving some of their other stuff the ole hairy eyeball. The quality is impeccable, and, as such, I wholeheartedly recommend Billykirk’s products to our readers.

The Interview: Chris Bray

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If you’re still dying to know more, read on for my in-depth interview with Chris Bray (pictured on the left) and find out about Billykirk and the ideas behind it.

Jon: So, you guys have been around as a company since 1999, and it all started with a watch strap. I know you and your brother had a design background (furniture and clothing respectively). When you made those first watch straps, did you see it as the beginnings of a company or just a fun project? And how did you make that jump from the watch strap to a full blown leather works company?

Chris Bray: Yes, that was around 1997, and that old 70’s watch strap was the inspiration. We would go into this particular pawn shop in Santa Monica from time to time and we noticed the watch strap but didn’t want the watch that was on it. The owner was an ass and the watch sat for months. Finally, we went back and he agreed to just sell the strap. Kirk wore it for a year or so at this coffee/ music venue he worked at and got a lot of compliments. There was nothing really like it on the market accept for real cheap, punk rock style extra wide watch straps that you would find on the Venice boardwalk or places like Hot Topic. Kirk’s was made with decent leather and it was less than 1 ½’ wide.

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Initially, I don’t think we thought a company would spawn from it but we both like nostalgic things and the watch strap resonated with us, plus we both (me a bit more) were into 70’s style fashion in the late 90’s. Not the exotic polyester shirt extreme, but more into Big E Levis jeans and shirts, campus boots, vintage belts with old buckles….

Sometime in 1998, Kirk came into my office and basically said, “let’s make these.” I grabbed the phone book and found a local leather wholesaler, and we set up an appointment. Steve, the man that basically gave us our first introduction into the leather biz, was very cool. We told him what we wanted to do, and he sort of spelled it out for us, told us who to talk to and who not to talk to, what type of leather would work best, etc. We left the meeting very optimistic and thought, what the hell lets give it a go. The next step was to find someone who could make them (the watch straps) for us. Again, the phone book proved very useful and that is where we eventually met Arnold who would become our mentor, teacher and friend for 3 years.

The jump took a while, but in August of 1999 we did a trade show in Las Vegas that got us thinking there maybe something here. We talked this company my brother did fit modeling for into allowing us to have a small section in their booth. We had three styles and three colors of cuffs and watch straps. It was the smallest display you could imagine. We had found these old metal industrial tool chests with three drawers each that we sanded and clear coated. We stacked them on top of each other, then had a plastic display case made to house the cuffs. It was very slender and vertical but it attracted a number of stores and we ended up writing around 8 orders. It was very cool to see the response, and I think it set things into motion.

Once back, we got started on the orders and I started cold calling stores and setting up appointments. More orders came in and then in September of 1999 Ron Herman wrote an order and in November Fred Segal did. These are the two stores any young designer on the West Coast would want. The sell-throughs were great, and in 2000, we got more and more orders. However, we both kept our day jobs for a number of years.

I think in 2003, we both went full time and started to take it more seriously. We began designing belts, bags, and smaller leather accessories and moved out of Arnold’s space and found our own in downtown Los Angeles.

(continues on the next page)

Jon: Well I would say that’s more than a sufficient answer. One of the things I find great about your product line is the way it seems to mix vintage and utilitarian influences, yet it resists feeling either dated or too contemporary. I feel cliche asking, but where do you draw your inspiration from to keep coming up with new ideas?

Chris Bray: We are constantly looking for new trims, attachments, unique closures, etc. So sometimes a simple brass snap hook, buckle, or handle will inspire an entire bag design. We go to a lot of swap meets and flea markets to find ideas. I bought a very old English rifle sling recently that has a number of exceptionally well crafted brass fittings. The leather was shot but the fittings will be reworked and cast again at some point. Historic websites, military surplus shops, old movies, E-bay… all provide ideas and inspiration to build from.

Jon: See that’s really interesting, you almost work backwards from how I would’ve expected. Building the product around unique details, as opposed to building the product then figuring out the details. Obviously, much of this stuff is no longer in production and oftentimes the companies that made them no longer exist. How hard is it getting this stuff reverse engineered and produced? And as a guy who loves researching things a little too much, I’d imagine it takes some serious digging at times to source these pieces of hardware.

Chris Bray: This is true. Companies that make hardware for the leather industry in the US are becoming nearly non existent. So digging around can get frustrating. The cost to make the goods here, trying to compete with China, fighting with the EPA and their taxes makes it very tough. One of our metal guys had the EPA out to his manufacturing plant and they told him he had to retro-fit his roof because of air quality issues. The bill was 200k. The EPA isn’t running around China, if you get my drift. A bunch of leather tanneries have had EPA issues and, again, there are a lot of Chinese based tanneries fighting for US based companies business. I know a few West Coast tanneries whose land was worth much more than what they made each year. So these 100+ year old tanneries closed their doors.

…after you have been designing in any given field or discipline, keeping it fresh and always finding a way to make it more interesting will only keep the fire burning. Much like a relationship…

So, in designing, I would say it goes both ways. Sometimes we will sketch a shape and then find the parts to make it function and be unique. Other times we will find a cache of buckles and buy them all up and build the item around that buckle. Since we do not buy from China and US-made hardware is becoming obsolete, we are casting more and more items out of bronze. More expensive initially, but in the long run (if the item sells well) it works out pretty good, plus we get a unique, one of kind piece.

I would also say that since we have been at this for ten years (in June), we like to mix up the design processes a bit. Go through the back door instead of the front, take a different way home sort of mentality. I think after you have been designing in any given field or discipline, keeping it fresh and always finding a way to make it more interesting will only keep the fire burning. Much like a relationship…

Jon: Excellent analogy for keeping things interesting. You kind of veered into what my next question was going to be talking about the Chinese competition. All your production is done in the US, surprisingly by the Amish in Pennsylvania. American business to me is fascinating, it seems we’ve obviously moved away from being mass producers and towards smaller niche businesses and doing things exceptionally well. At the same time, you’re often dealing with a public that is desensitized to the cost of true quality after being spoiled by cheap imports. Was domestic production something you guys intended to do or something you kind of became dedicated to over time? And how did you get hooked up with the Amish?

Chris Bray: All made in the USA and about 85% by the Amish. We have a couple of California based manufacturers we still use. The good stores we sell to really try and get the customer to understand what we are all about and our philosophies. When the sales staff is educated and excited about our product, then the customer is too. In my opinion, it is hard to get excited about anything mass produced, no matter where it is produced.

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When we were in downtown Los Angeles, we had a 2000 square ft. studio at around $1/ft. Cheap as chips. We usually had 4-6 workers making our product under one roof, with a few smaller LA based manufactures doing some select items for us. It was nice having all that control, etc. When we decided to move out East we knew that the rent was not going to be good, so I did some serious brain storming. Luckily, I had been dealing with a guy that dealt directly with a number of Amish leather workers and when I explained our situation he simply suggested it. I didn’t hesitate. He had the name of the neighbor who kept a phone there for Amish to use. It’s a crazy roundabout way of getting in touch with people but it worked and gave us that introduction. It wasn’t long before I was navigating dirt roads in rural, PA and shaking hands with some of the hardest working folks on earth.

Jon: Sometimes the simplicity of the life they lead seems like it would be a welcome trade for the insanity of the modern world. Anyway, I was curious about the collaborations you guys have done. From what I’ve seen, they’ve run the gamut from a tote bag made of colorful art to toe clips for bicycles. I’m interested to know how you end up doing these and the specific products that come out of it. Do potential collaborators tell you what they’re looking for or give you free rein to come up with a product(s) that fit their M.O.?

Chris Bray: We get calls to do collaborations quite a bit. For most of these we just don’t have the time or interest to invest into them. If it feels right, we have the time, and all the brands involved have a connection, then we usually try and pursue. It all depends; most of the time we are given a concept or some sort of sample to go off of.

For example, for the Freeman’s Sporting Goods bank bag and suspenders collaboration, Taavo, the owner, had collected an old bank bag and some turn of the century suspenders and wanted us to essentially re-create them. We then had to get to work sketching ideas and sourcing materials. The bank bag was a challenge because the US based company that manufacturers those bank bag locks had to be convinced that we were not going to try and steal bank business away from him. I had to sign an agreement to get the exclusive rights to just buy their locks. They had never done that before so they created a sku # just for us.

The suspenders also provided a few pitfalls. When I got on the phone, I was quickly reminded about our dying manufacturing sector. I heard time after time from grizzled, old elastic dealers that ¾” elastic hadn’t been made in the states in 40+ years! The old East Coast guys, in particular, are great and will laugh at you if you ask them dumb questions and apparently inquiring about ¾” suspender elastic gave them great pleasure. And forget about ¾” suspender hardware. You would have more luck stumbling into Roman Polanski in the West Village.

So, that was a dead-end, and I was not going to deal with China, so I looked to our smartly dressed friends over in England. It did not take long until I found the correct source. They could even dye the elastic any color I wanted and also had the old-style suspender hardware that was still being produced. After the cutting dies were prepared and my US based manufacturer was clued in, it all fell into place.

Jon: That Freeman’s bank bag is great. Ok, from a perspective of entrepreneurship, any advice for our readers inclined to start their own ventures?

Chris Bray: This is a tough question and scores of business execs will have differing opinions, but I suspect near the top of each list would be to ‘keep your day job’ so you have some income rolling in. I think we kept our day jobs for around 3 and a half years before we went solo with Billykirk.

  1. Do not get into a long term lease situation early on if it is not necessary. I think most designers/business owners in our profession probably started out off in their houses/garages. We were no different and spent about a year in our tight quarters. Not only did it save us money, but if you can continue doing something in a tight work environment that is not suitable for your endeavor than you must really enjoy doing it. Obviously, not everyone can do this but if possible save that rent money. Once we outgrew the house/garage, we were luckily enough to, at no cost, use a few shelves at our mentors factory. We would go there nearly every day and work on our designs and orders. He charged us a piece price, so it was extremely fair. It wasn’t until 3 years in or so that we actually began renting a space in a large factory with two other designers. Finally, around 4 years after we started Billykirk, we rented our very own space which was designated as a live/work space in DT LA. We had 2000 square feet and Kirk could live there, pluss it was only $1 a square foot. Finding this type of live/work situation is ideal if you don’t mind sharing your living quarters with work.
  2. Ask questions of the right people. It is imperative that you have some knowledgeable, trustworthy people you can turn to when you have questions regarding the business structure, legal issues, financing, accounting, etc. We had some success early on dealing with the volunteers at SCORE “Counselors to America’s Small Business.” Especially when registering a business entity with state you reside in and the appropriate business structure for your business. (See: score.org)
  3. Write a business plan. This doesn’t have to look like a Harvard MBA wrote it, just get something down and continue to update it. There are numerous business plan templates out there that will assist you in this.
  4. Learn Quickbooks and basic bookkeeping skills early on.
  5. Know your business, the market, and know your competitors. Obviously, before you invest too much time and money make sure your product or service is viable, relevant, and customers will want it.
  6. Guerilla marketing – look into it.

    These were just a few ideas off the top of my head……..

    Jon: The keeping your day job advice is something I have heard from a few sources and is probably even more relevant right now with the economy. Alright, last question because I could pick your brain for another 5,000 words easily. What’s next for Billykirk? Can you give us any preview? I know I saw some hats featured on selectism.com recently.

    Chris Bray: The felt hats are new and are being produced by the oldest hat manufacturer in the US. The leather hat bands are made by the Amish and we added a sterling silver Hammer & Maul logo hat pin. New flight bag in vintage mattress ticking canvas and a game bag messenger in waxed cotton/leather. We have a couple of new collaborations in the works which are under wraps and we will continue our collaborative efforts with the guys over at Freeman’s Sporting Club.

    Jon: I’m digging the game bag, very cool. Alright Chris, on that note we’ll wrap this up. Thanks a ton for your time and keep up the good work.

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