By Anna Hoeschen.
All photos by Caitlin Cooreman.
An American flag rests against a white brick wall in the Leather Works Minnesota studio. It keeps watch over the swivel knives and mallets, the sheets of chocolate leather and the metal sewing machines. Before the clamor for American Made, Kent and Lee Begnaud were making quality leather goods at home—in both the figurative and literal sense.
Leather Works started in the Begnaud’s garage in 1999. They joke that their dining room table was shipping and receiving. A little over a year ago, the lean operation found a new home in St. Paul’s Historic Lowertown District. Their son, Nathan O’Malley, joined the team after graduating college. He has helped grow the brand and the business, contributing his talents as a maker and a marketer. Leather Works joined Instagram and started collaborating with other designers. Upcoming projects include partnerships with Shinola, Hackwith Design, and Fairbault Woolen Mills.The Begnauds also contribute to the Makers Coalition, a mix of local businesses and schools that seeks to revitalize industrial sewing and craftsmanship through education. Students are invited to use the machines and learn the craft of leather making at the Leather Works studio.
The Begnauds credit their success to a gracious community of like-minded makers and followers, but it’s likely that no one would have bit if their products hadn’t been honest.
I’ve heard these terms before: an honest man, an honest wage, an honest living. And that’s the adjective that seems fitting for the ideas that Leather Works embodies and the objects they create. Leather is the perfect medium for their model. The tensile and agile qualities of the material—its ability to withstand and to last—are what made Leather Works.
I touch one of the Navigator Passport Wallets. It’s a deep mahogany color with beautiful cherry grains. It feels smooth and buttery. When I lightly scrape my nail across the surface, the fibers react, leaving a tiny broken line.
I love what this object represents. I love that it will acquire a certain worn beauty as it ages. I love that its stories may align with its intended use; it might traverse continents and cross borders. Maybe it will become like Nathan’s, who shows us a Navigator wallet filled with field notes. Perfect for a writer, a wanderer, or an artist.
For anyone reading closely, pay attention to how this company grows and evolves.
The story gets better with time.
How did this all start?
Kent: I used to work for Leather Works back in the seventies. A buddy of mine from high school started it. It was just me and him … in the nineties we were doing mostly promotional products and he got bought out … the new owners came in and six months later they took the whole thing to China. So we said, let’s bring it back A year ago in January we found this space, and it’s like a complete circle for me, because I’m just a couple of blocks from where it all started, back in the same neighborhood.
How did you become interested in leather making?
Kent: I have an art background … and it was everything that I liked, working with my hands and being creative, but you could actually build something that was functional. We’ve never been satisfied with our products. There’s something you can always polish a little more. And finding the right leather, that’s the key.
Nathan: I grew up doing it. I used to work out in the shop with them through middle school and high school to earn some extra money. My parents are artists. I would always say that growing up. I’ll say I was never really interested in the company until about three years ago, in my last year of college. [Leather Works] got really busy after Northern Grade, and asked me to come work. I kind of had a vision. I remember thinking, I want Leather Works to be as well-known as Red Wing boots.
Lee: And all through high school [Nathan] would always go out and alter his clothes. He picked up the sewing machine at a very young age. Which is neat, because Kent has always done sewing. And Kent’s father was a tailor.
What are your thoughts on American Made and the consumer response?
Kent: We don’t take it for granted. After fourteen years, we’re an overnight success. All of a sudden the economy got better and American Made became a movement. People are consuming a little better and a little less. You find the value in it, because you’re helping somebody make a living. That’s what I tell these guys. I want them to make a man’s wage. I don’t want them to have to come here and then do something else to make a living. I used to be bashful about it, but I’m not anymore, because this is what they have to be paid to be able to make it. It’s fair.
Lee: There are other leather companies that we work with. It’s just boomed in the past three or four years. We’re all splitting up work, so we can help each other. It’s not just American Made. People want to eat local and have chickens in their backyard. They want to hang clothes on the line and do things for quality rather than quantity.
Describe the process and the leathers.
Kent: We do all the die cutting, imprints, and assembly. This is our hot stamper which came off the Mayflower, as you can see. We heat it up to about 350 degrees. We use a heat tape to mount it, and there’s a removable plate that we can use to position the dies. We also control the thickness of the leather with a splitting machine. There’s a huge scrap factor with leather. A lot of them have the brands on them. The belly is the softer grain. Typically, we’re fighting against brand marks, healed scars, or tick bites.
What is it like to work with your family?
Kent: The first few years it was just Lee and I. She called me Pharaoh and I called her Houdini, because she said I was a hard task master, and I said I could never find her. She was disappearing all the time. I can honestly say it’s the greatest thing that we get to spend a lot of time together. And Nathan’s great. He’s the best.
You have four kids?
Kent: Five. And eight grandchildren.
Stores around the world sell your products. How do you build and sustain those relationships?
Kent: It’s so cool, because they see your story first of all. And that’s what they’re looking for, and they like the story of who’s making what. We just got a store in Oslo, Norway because a guy from Norway bought a product online. And [Lee] was emailing him, and she goes, I’m Norwegian. And he goes what’s your maiden name, and she tells him. And he says I live six miles from them; that’s a family that lives in this region. So she just got back from a two week trip to Norway.
We were down in Kansas City a few weeks ago, and we were in the Baldwin Shop. They don’t have any belts in their store, which I found odd, because they sell blue jeans. And one of the guys pulls out his Leather Works wallet and belt. They were friends with our son-in-law who owns a coffee shop in Kansas City. We love that.
Lee: We don’t want the stores to be so flooded that they have the same stuff. For us, it’s really important to have that exclusivity. Even like the new store in Oslo; he is a very cool guy. Several of the people from Parliament come get their shoes from him, and we have told him that you have an exclusivity from us.
Nathan: But we actually do have a plan to take over the world by 2020.
Kent: This is phase two.
Leather Works: www.leatherworksminnesota.com
Hackwith Design: hackwithdesignhouse.com
Fairbault Woolen Mills: www.faribaultmill.com
Makers Coalition: www.themakerscoalition.org
Baldwin Denim: www.baldwindenim.com
Caitlin Cooreman: caitlincooreman.com/places