Even with the present boom of skilled American craftsmen rising to the spotlight in the realm of men’s accessories, there are still a few who stand tall above the rest. Operating out of Dallas, TX, Barrett Alley is a self-taught leather goods maker who takes a truly traditional approach to his work. His starting materials consist of U.S. sourced leather, organic cottons/linens, bone and vintage metals. The leather is cut and sewn together by hand using sturdy saddle stitches, which are actually stronger than lock stitches used by sewing machines. His finished products exude his passion, creativity, and distinct artistry, and there is an originality to his workmanship that’s different from anything else on the market. It’s no surprise that he’s already been sought out for collaborations with major brands like Levi’s and Red Wing. We tracked down the extremely hardworking Mr. Alley to discuss his method, inspirations and even mused about existential philosophy.
Where did you learn your leather craftsmanship technique?
I started exploring leatherworking in 2008. Anyone else that has tried to revive a lost art knows that a lack of teachers and documentation means you end up learning most of it yourself by trial and error. A lot of people were exploring leatherworking at the same time, so today you have quite a few small handmade wallet companies out there.
Did your craft start as a hobby first, and when did it become a full-time profession for you?
My entrepreneurial side usually takes up new skills with profession in mind. I was working as a corporate graphic artist when I first started making leather accessories. Leatherworking became a profession when people started buying the articles I was making and I didn’t have time for my old job anymore.
It looks like the Barrett Alley brand is mostly a one-man operation – just how many hours do you put in at your workshop each day?
Currently I’m the only full-time employee and there are two or three part-time assistants that help out with production and fulfillment. For several years I would work 80 hours a week in whatever venture I was exploring, which is about the maximum that I could sustain over a long period of time. Now that the company has some momentum – and that I’m not in my 20′s anymore – I probably only work 50-60 hours a week. As an entrepreneur, sometimes even when you’re sleeping, you’re still working. When your mind is very relaxed creative original ideas start arriving. Sometimes I have to wake myself up and write them down before I forget!
You have a very impressive and eclectic assortment of products – pill pouches, woven Japanese bracelets, smuggler belts etc - where do you come up with the inspiration for these different products?
I think inspiration is more passive than active. Our products are a result of the combination of limitations. We lack a lot of the traditional tools that you would find in a leather shop. We don’t use sewing machines, and we don’t use “clickers” to cut out the leather. We cut out each piece of leather by hand and hand sew every stitch in each product. Another self-imposed limitation is that I only use specialty materials in design – like antique fabric and antique beads, or handmade belt buckles. These restrictions mean the products almost create themselves.
What does Conscious Consumerism mean to you personally?
As Americans we don’t realize that our national religion is Consumerism. And it’s not just in the US, it’s pretty much all over the world by now. Like all religions, Consumerism has tenants, and the two main ones are: 1) buy often and 2) buy the cheapest possible. Practice this every day and you will find salvation.
Paying developing countries to make cheap stuff for us means that even the poorest American can have a pretty decent middle class lifestyle, but it also has its repercussions. Landfills are growing, pollution is increasing and job security is something only our parents talk about. A few years ago when the economy collapsed we had a brief moment of clarity when we looked up and realized we were surrounded by piles of stuff, but didn’t have any money in our bank accounts.
Conscious consumerism basically means that we accept consumerism, but we become conscious of the implications of this lifestyle, both in our own backyard as well as globally. Is paying China to pollute the planet better than doing the pollution ourselves? Is buying a cheap refridgerator every 5 years better than buying an expensive one that will last 50 years? I picked up a General Electric steam iron at an estate sale a few months ago for $2. It was made in Connecticut in the 1960s and we use it in the studio every day. That’s conscious consumerism.
If there was one phrase/sentence to describe your overall design aesthetic – what would that be?
Where are you based in Texas, and what are some places you like to go for unwinding, kicking back and letting everything go?
We’re based in Dallas. I also own some land about an hour East of here. There’s nothing there but a big forest populated by deer and wild hogs. You can hike around for hours and no one bothers you except the mosquitos!
Apart from your leather craftsmanship, what other passions do you pursue?
I like working with materials in general. I’m always getting sidetracked playing around with metals, dyes, paints and wood.
Through the spectrum of your own experiences, what does Happiness mean to you?
We are homo sapiens. We evolved struggling to survive. That is the secret to happiness.