Profile: Basil Racuk

If I had to pick someone to be Handful of Salt’s resident philosopher, it would have to be Basil Racuk. He’s known for his custom handcrafted leather accessories, yes, but he’s also a damned incisive thinker about that thing called personal style, and an articulate advocate for the role of craft in our lives. Plus, he makes a mean shortbread and he’s damned funny. What else would you want?

Ah, maybe talent? OK, let’s talk about that. While Basil custom-makes leather accessories for men and women: work bags, weekenders, belts, portfolios, etc. what he’s really doing is creating a whole new style, a new vibe, capturing the times without being trendy. That style is spare, subtle, sleek, but rugged. And as you might expect of a person with those qualities, the effect is kind of sexy cool (yes, even in a briefcase.) You feel the hand of the maker (note the small “m”, folks) throughout, which gives the pieces soul, a sense of history, a sense of value.

The pieces read classic but are the farthest thing from staid. They’re completely modern with strong, architectural tendencies and surprising touches (a decadent velvet interior; an unexpected but welcome pocket.)  The designs have been boiled down  to their essential elements, not a gew-gaw or logo in sight. And there’s an ease to them, a pitch-perfect slouch…but no slop.

Then there’s the custom thing. As a point of departure, Basil develops his designs, test driving various models on a jaunt to the Alameda Flea Market, dinner out with a bunch of his friends (many artists and creatives), or on a trip to Sonoma. But that’s just the jumping off point. He works with clients to figure out what their needs are, what their lives and styles are about…and then he’ll tweak an existing design, or create something entirely new.  And you get to choose the leather, of course. Classic browns and blacks with just the right amount of distress? Sure. A slick orange? Of course. Painted? Very cool.

In his live/work loft studio, above the rather womb-like workroom filled with huge rolls of leather, vintage Singer sewing machines, we met over tea (in vintage porcelain tea pot and cups) and the aforementioned shortbread. The “live” level is light, streamlined, filled with gorgeous vintage modernist pieces and piles and piles of art books. And a fabulous cat who weaves around our feet as we chat.

So who are your customers? They’re from all over the place…a lot of people in the creative world. But overall, it’s someone who’s confident enough to want something unique that expresses them, someone who’s done with having the “right” label or someone else’s brand. And it’s someone who really loves the idea of working with a craftsperson, of being part of the design, and being part of a bigger heritage. (Perfect!)

You’ve been a designer for a fair part of your life. You’ve had your own line, designed and worked for others like Andrew Marc and Banana Republic, among others.  Why the move to accessories? Well it all started when I was in Hydra in Greece, several summers ago, when I was celebrating my 42d birthday. I went on a hike around the island, hiked into a burnt forest area (this was the summer of all those fires) and…I went in too far. I only realized this, of course, when I figured out that I wasn’t going to make it back before nightfall. There was  just nothing there…nothing. Everything had burnt down. It was definitely the most out there that I’ve been….ever. I realized that a) I was a total city boy  and b) realized that as much as I enjoyed my life, I’d stopped creating….I’d just fallen into this abyss of numbers and global production and traffic, etc. But I didn’t want to get back into menswear as a designer….so much was already being done and I wasn’t sure that I would do anything different. And thinking about it a little more, the idea of accessories and bags became really interesting.

Why’s that? Because accessories say so much about a person, their taste, who they are. Accessories are the punctuation…it runs on a level that people don’t click into, but they get at a really deep level. Clothes and accessories are different things. Accessories are more unconscious (unless it’s the trophy bag) and more interesting. Plus, what was going on a few years ago? It was all about bling and logos. It was the crassness of the bling that drove me even further to the desire to design accessories. (Oh amen to that.)

How do you feel about Hermes, which blends real craftsmanship, an amazing legacy, but also one helluva powerful global brand? I love Hermes. Their workmanship and philosophy…the spirit is there and right. But they’re global in that way it is commodified….it’s the commodification of luxury. I think the real difference is that you’re putting the product before the experience with Hermes. Working with me, or others who do custom work, you’re getting more of the experience, along with the product. We talk about who you are, what you need, and we take it from there. As a client, you’re really an integral part of the design process.

Where did  your sense of style–and this commitment to craftsmanship–come from? You know, I must have been in the 8th grade (in the East Bay suburbs–Concord, in fact). I started going to thrift shops, and there was something intriguing about things that weren’t new. As I bought more and more at thrift shops, I grew my appreciation for the hand in things….the quality, the construction, the thinking behind things. Anyway I started reselling stuff. I’d buy in Pleasant Hill (CA), resell in SF and make a lot of money.  (That’s funny, on so many levels.)

I don’t even want to think about my sense of style in the 8th grade. Anyway, at some point you moved East. Yeah, I started doing vintage in Miami. What was that like? Such a different vintage scene. All these snowbirds from NY…all those fabulous clothes. Oh, and there was Porky’s. As in, that super tasteful 80‘s teen boys-in-heat movie? Yeah. (Big laugh. I’m still having a hard time visualizing this.) The costume people from Porky’s came in and bought all my menswear from Porky’s! My vintage claim to fame. Anyway Miami was where I started sewing. I was going to thrift stores, buying old fabrics and curtains and converting them into these concoctions, who knows what they were.

So after all this, I moved to NY with the intention of going to school at FIT. Which I didn’t. I ended up working with this Dutch woman who was an incredible designer and really gave me an education. She taught me the idea of economy and that there’s a lot to be said for the economy of spirit when it comes to design. If you can understand the properties of material, it speaks to you about what needs to happen to it in order for it to voice your opinion. The materials need to maintain their own voice. You can’t force them.

What are your designs about? It has a lot to do with the imperfect. I’d like to think that the whole idea of wabi sabi can endure. There’s an instability to what’s happening here. I think that my work is resonating because the shapes are identifiable but they’re more thumbnail sketch than fully dialed. There’s something undone about them. (Exactly!) But the flip is the whole DIY craft scene. How do you keep the sense of craft without feeling homey? I think that the difference is a certain level of rigor and intent that people respond to. You feel the difference between mastery and DIY.

What’s the story with the hat? I’m loving that. The hat is a cross between a fedora and a cowboy hat. It was important to me to have roughness of shape and finish.  It’s completely hand stitched. Whoa. Completely? Completely. I watched a couple of movies while I was doing it. This is what people did for millennia. Visually it’s quite ordinary but….we’ve been anesthetized to real work, to real craft. We can’t even see what’s important about the craft any more. Did the leather come like that? No. I dyed it. In a lobster pot. Over the course of a few days, I worried it, twisted and worked it. Then I took it outside one day, and a bird shat on it, leaving that mark. Fabulous! I know, I was pretty upset at first, but it kind of looks cool. (Absolutely. Try getting that from a factory.)

Do you design on paper or on a computer? Definitely paper. Working on a flat surface and with pencil allows you to put in curves that other design tools don’t give you.

OK. Who plays you in the movie of your life? I’ll have to figure that out. Lots of people have been saying Daniel Craig recently. (Totally.) But then I’d have to cut out the shortbread to make that happen. More shortbread?

And what genre would Daniel Craig be playing in? For some reason, I don’t think that Woody Allen is so far off. Lingering neuroses. Battling with the demons of my life and others. (Having a hard time with fitting Daniel Craig into a Woody Allen movie.) Maybe not. Maybe a Mike Leigh film instead.

I’m going to guess that you’re not super “thing” oriented, but what are the five things that define you?

Just loving the conversation about process. This is important stuff.

Water. (What about it?) The transitory nature…I think about motion, how things are being moved around….we’re not aware of what’s happening with it. I’ve been a swimmer ever since I was a kid.

Silence. This is a new for me. For a long time I always worked with the music on.  I guess that’s a shift with me. I get silence now.

Tradition. (What kind of tradition?) Everything. Within tradition, the subgroups of religious expression, cultural definition, language. I think someone’s desire to dedicate time and energy to maintain things that existed before them shows great strength of character.

Any objects, though? Oh lots of things. Ceramics from 1968, like this sugar bowl. I got it from a thrift shop for 2 bucks. Why does it resonate? It’s a successful design in its function. It’s just perfect. Perfect shape. I love it. And these glass sculptures from Travis Sandoval.) (He runs over to pull a jacket out of a closet.) This thing I got at the white elephant sale….it will never fit me. It’s from Ernst Engel, which is just a random name. But it was just an incredible piece of design. The way the collar works, the way it fastens, the seaming…it’s amazing.

What’s your transcendent moment? I think it might be something kind of basic. Like on a beautiful morning when I wake up upstairs, looking up at the Berkeley hills. That’s pretty transcendent. Maybe because I balance it against the basement apartment I had on Leroy Street in NYC, but it’s pretty damned good, wherever you’re from.

And what’s next for you? There’s some good stuff going on. Maybe expanding distribution. The challenge is how to keep balanced with all that going on. We’ll just have to see.

In other words, stay tuned. We will.



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2 Responses to Profile: Basil Racuk

  1. Pingback: The Artisan Series: Basil Racuk (Part 1)