We talk with leather crafter Chris Bray, one half of the design duo behind men’s accessories company Billykirk, about the Amish, the good old days, and the new Brothers Bray collaboration with Sebago shoes—exclusively at Urban Outfitters.
Tell us about the inception of Billykirk. You work with your brother Kirk—what’s that like?
Oh yeah, we’re blood brothers. We started Billykirk in 1999, but we had been tinkering with the idea for a few years before that. The catalyst for the company was really this old watchstrap my brother found in a pawnshop. Consequently, he was wearing it a lot in this café where he worked. It was only a 1.75" wide, but it was wider than what you’d been seeing. In 1999, when we really launched the business, we got some good orders, and from there it just spawned into, ‘Well, what are we going to do next? We can’t just do watch straps.’
So how’d you learn about leatherwork?
Luckily, when we were figuring out who was going to make things for us we came across a guy who was sort of sympathetic to our situation. He was about our father’s age, his kids were about our age. His son was an attorney, I think, and his daughter was a vegan who wanted nothing to do with leather. He was a third-generation leather guy and so when he retired the business was going to fold. So he had us to come to his old factory in downtown L.A.—he was our mentor for three years. We ended up renting a space a few miles from him and started our own L.A.-based manufacturing and design business there with five or six people working for us. When we decided to move to the East Coast in 2004, a friend suggested I contact these Amish guys he knew. I ended up meeting with these Amish leatherworkers who have been with us for five years now.
I was going to ask you about the picture of the Amish farm on your website.
The guys we use now are third-generation leatherworkers who make saddles and bridles for horses. They do this without electricity too, they are pretty ingenious. They are totally eco-friendly and that’s not by choice, it’s the way they live. This is age-old leather crafting by these guys who are pretty much living in the 18th century. And then there’s us with our high-tech phones and computers, but the combination just works.
There’s been such a resurgence of interest in heritage brands in the past few years.
I think there are just a lot of people in this economy sitting there thinking ‘What happened?' We live in a throw-away society, things are cheaply made and we don’t put a thought into where and how they are manufactured. I think it’s just getting under our skin. My grandparents had a toaster for 30 years and it worked fine. People used to have a ‘If it’s not broke don’t fix it’ state of mind. I think we’re trying to get back to this past, and instead of buying junk every six months, we’re investing in things that maybe cost a little more but we can eventually even pass down to our kids.
What interested you in working with Sebago?
My brother and I have worn Sebagos since the ‘80s. We’re from Minnesota, that’s the shoe there. The Campside shoe is the reason I called them—I wanted to see if they wanted to do something with our leather, or at least change it up a bit. They were pretty much all ears and when we first went in they showed us some old catalogs. Paging through it we found this shoe that had never been available in the US. Bells went off—this was big! The boat shoe has been so overly marketed and blogged about that we wanted to do something heavier. This shoe is a dockworker’s shoe—in Europe these guys wear this shoe for working on the docks; they aren’t the guys eating caviar on the boats. We picked out the leathers, the colors, we just made some minor changes to the silhouette of the Fairhaven and there you have it.