Behind the Build: Phil Kalas of Ashland Leather Co.
Ashland Leather Co. was created by two long-time Horween tannery workers in Chicago, Phil Kalas and Dan Cordova. Both founders developed a great passion and love for leather while working in tanneries for most of their professional careers and launched Ashland in 2011 to share this passion with people like us.
Using exclusively Horween leather, Ashland Leather Co. is dedicated to making a wallet that will last forever, in terms of construction, quality, and style. Nothing less could live up to the time-honored Horween name we've all come to admire.
Enjoy this interview with co-owner Phil Kalas as we learn more about the careful construction of Ashland's timeless leather goods.
The superior quality of Horween leather does not go unnoticed by the Grant Stone team and many of our loyal customers. For the unfamiliar, what makes Horween unique?
The Horween Leather Tannery, based in Chicago, has been in continuous operation since 1905. We still tan leathers using the same methods and techniques. I call the tannery a working museum. A majority of the machines are 100+ years old and many processes are done by hand with a highly-experienced workforce. I’d estimate that the average employee at Horween has been there 30 years.
With over 100 years of experience in leather tanning, they make some of the finest leathers in the world: Shell Cordovan, Chromexcel, Essex, Dublin, Latigo, and hundreds of others. Initially, Horween was famous for using shell cordovan in razor strops.
Image of vintage razor strops, found on the Horween blog
In 1905, many men shaved with a straight razor and sharpened the blade with a shell cordovan strop. Shortly after, with the introduction of the Gillette safety razor, the tannery needed to find a new home for their cordovan. They quickly found an exceptional use in footwear. The leather is extremely durable, has a great luster, and is porous and breathable. Many people have pairs of Horween leather shoes that get decades of use. All you need to do is replace the sole.
You started with a timeless wallet design for yourself and your circle. That design took off and today you and your team are busy making several wallet styles, watch straps, belts, and many other leather goods. What would you like to make in the future?
To be honest, we love making wallets and we actually have a hard time keeping up with the demand for wallets alone. I think it would be exciting to use leather in more home goods or basically on anything that you can touch and feel. I'm inspired by leather antiques. For example, I think it would be really awesome to make a wood and leather sling chair.
Leather valet tray by Ashland Leather Co.
Did you ever try creating a style that just did not work?
I have made many things that did not work! In fact, Ashland initially started because we observed only men’s brands making items from Horween leather. Dan (co-founder) and I thought it would be smart to introduce this amazing leather to the women’s market by making women’s bags. As it turns out...we know nothing about designing for women and quickly pivoted to wallets.
Ha! A smart pivot if we've ever heard one. Which part of the construction process is the most delicate?
All of our wallet crafting steps take a high level of understanding. Even knowing which pieces are appropriate to cut takes a good amount of leather and construction knowledge.
For example, we try not to thin down or split the leather. This is because cutting off a layer of thickness on the leather is like reducing the foundation of your house. The leather will have a higher chance to rip. We have to pick naturally thin pieces of leather for the interior of our wallets to avoid thinning. Cordovan is a specific challenge in this regard because the shells can range from 2 oz to 6 oz…sometimes even in the same piece of shell!
Having said all of that, skiving is the hardest part. We skive the folds on the watch straps to avoid a big bulky stack of leather on your wrist. When we skive we are often removing a millimeter or less of material. It takes a lot of practice.
Other steps are difficult for another reason. We sometimes do special projects that require hand stitching. This process is not as difficult as it is tedious and time consuming. It takes a lot of focus to hand stitch 100 items.
Lorenzo, the Shell Cordovan Department supervisor, checking the thickness on some freshly pit-tanned shell cordovan double horsebutts.
We salute Ashland's warranty policy. Nothing screams confidence in a product line quite like a lifetime guarantee. What advice would you recommend to designers and manufacturers looking to offer such a guarantee?
This is the easiest question for me to answer so far! The best advice I have is to stand behind your product and learn from your mistakes. Over the last seven years, we have seen how a stitch can fail, how a wallet can come apart, and we use this information to determine where stress points are.
Each time we have a return from a customer (which we replace at no charge), we take a good deal of time to analyze why the stitching failed, why pattern pieces split, or any other issue. We will change, and have changed, full pattern pieces, stitching layout, thickness of leather, and other things to make the best product possible. Again, after seven years of crafting tens of thousands of wallets, we have learned quite a bit.
"The details are not the details. They make the design." - Charles Eames
Quality and sustainability go hand in hand, benefiting both consumers and the environment. As a heritage brand setting a high standard, what is one checkpoint you wish companies [in any industry] had to pass before production? There are two sides to this equation and I believe one side is mostly ignored. On one side, we have the materials and processes used to make those materials. Leather tanning requires a lot of water, energy, and chemicals, for example. On the other side of sustainability, I don’t think most people consider product longevity. From my perspective, I see a lot of people buying several pairs of shoes to use each year. Sometimes they use these shoes for a few months and then throw them out. With Horween leather boots, shoes, wallets, etc. you get a product that is built to last. From the example way above: I know many shoe enthusiasts that have worked their pair of Horween shoes for decades simply by re-soling the shoes as needed.
Watch Phil's interview about this topic with Chicago Comb The Fat Herbie is our personal favorite (as evidenced in this post from way back in April 2016). How did you determine the dimensions of the Fat Herbie wallet?
Fat Herbie is my first and favorite design! The dimensions were determined simply by stacking two cards on top of each other. I wanted a different card layout to spread the contents of your wallet out over more surface area. As a consequence we got a large bill slot that holds all of the world’s paper currency. Also unique to this model is the exterior bill slot. I don’t think that anyone was doing this before us.
What has been your favorite part in creating Ashland? You were already well-practiced in Horween leathers; did shifting to a product development role change your approach? My favorite part about creating Ashland is seeing all of the different colors, textures, and leather types age over time. In fact, this was the whole reason we started Ashland. At many points in time I was wearing two or three wallets just to see how the leather aged!
Before and after: Below is a new, natural shell cordovan Fat Herbie on the left. On the right side is my friend's Fat Herbie in the same natural shell cordovan but after five years of daily use.
Your work is a natural complement to Grant Stone's boots and shoes. We wouldn't dare try and create anything similar when you do it this well – so it goes without saying we are excited to begin offering Ashland Leather Co. goods for our community of enthusiasts! What are you excited about heading into 2019?
Cliche answer incoming; I’m just excited to keep doing what we’ve done for the last seven years. I get a thrill every morning to go make the world’s best leather at Horween and can’t wait for the evenings where I get to cut, sew, and make the best leather into an amazing wallet.
Phil Kalas, co-founder of Ashland Leather Co. and a true champion of quality goods and an exceptional customer experience. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!
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