Billykirk shoulder bag

BillyKirk N0. 95 Shoulder Satchel

Why can’t more civilian bags be like this – free of bling, glitz, chacha, weird anatomical looking folds, pointless, slouchy, ruched wrinkledness, and dopey hardware? I don’t understand the bags being churned out by the big couture houses at the moment. So many of the bags I like are either military or close to military, probably because they’re beautiful by virtue of their pure functionality, simplicity and their complete lack of pointless, purely decorative features and general fussiness. This ridiculously beautiful bag is the No. 95 Shoulder Satchel by Billykirk and it’s a fairly faithful copy of a WWII Belgian military map case. It’s entirely handmade and the company casts its own white brass hardware.  This Billykirk bag is quite transcendent, too, and click below or here for an interesting interview with the designers.

BillyKirk N0. 95 Shoulder Satchel

BillyKirk N0. 95 Shoulder Satchel

Interview with brothers Chris and Kirk, the two designers at Billykirk. They were raised in Minnesota but then moved to LA and founded the company together:

The following is an interview we recently did for Flash Film:

When did you start? Could you tell us the brand concept?

Chris – We formed the company in 1999. We always knew we would own a company together and it would be called, “Billykirk.” What that was going to encompass just hadn’t surfaced. In fact, in the mid 90’s I made some “Billykirk Designs” business cards for Kirk who was graduating from college with a clothing design degree.

Kirk – Our brand name came from our father who often calls me “Billykirk” because my full name is William Kirkland. This is also probably due to our Southern roots and the melding of the first and middle names.

Chris – The concept was always brewing. Kirk was signing his paintings “Billykirk” at one point and I had been designing furniture and house ware items under that name. Kirk had recently graduated from design school so it was just a matter of time before we realized what Billykirk was going to be. It finally surfaced shortly after we moved to Los Angeles from Minnesota in 1996.

Kirk – We both frequent thrift stores and antique shops and one day we stumbled into a pawn shop in Los Angeles and walked out with a nicely worn, wide 1970’s watch strap. Somewhat surprisingly, I got a lot of compliments and inquiries while wearing it at a coffee shop I worked at. That’s when the light bulb went on. I remember the day I went to my brother’s office and I said, “Let’s make these.” He picked up the yellow pages and within a day or so we were buying leather and learning the trade.

Chris – I think we were ahead of the trend on the resurgence of the wide watch straps. Soon after our first collection hit the shelves in 1999 everyone from Guess to Gucci was making them again. The line has expanded into belts, wallets, satchels, travel bags and house wares.

Chris – When developing the concept of our brand we knew, first and foremost, that our collection had to have a clear mission. Our thinking was that no matter what we designed it would have to be cohesive and flow nicely from one style to the next. In my opinion, this was one of the smartest conceptual ideas we had in the beginning and one that guides us in all of our designs. We also decided early on that our brand would only use top quality leather and hardware. It was paramount that we started with a decent product that we felt proud to make and wear. We knew that if you started with a cheaply made item and then wanted to change into a higher-end item you would most surely fail.

Kirk – When we were beginning our initial designs and concepts we wanted to keep the designs simple and let the organic qualities of the leather speak for it self. Leather is always changing and that in itself is very appealing to us. There are so many companies out there that add all sorts of unnecessary embellishments that they end up looking the same. We knew from the get-go that we would never fall into that trap. We have never been a company that follows fads; instead we just try and design stuff we like. So far we have been fairly successful in reading the market.

Chris – I think a company that can churn out quality made products and stay true to their aesthetic over the years will remain respected in the industry. We hope the buyer can feel a since of security with our brand. There are a lot of brands like this – Coach, Pendleton, Tod’s, Filson, Gokey, Patagonia, etc. You just know you will get a quality, well designed item from them time after time. We hope we have that type of market respect one of these days.

How did you learn to create hand crafted leather accessories?

Kirk – We worked under a 3rd generation leather maker in Los Angeles for 3 years. We eventually bought some of his antique machinery and opened our own studio a couple of miles away.

Chris – It was like going back to the early 1900’s. Our mentor was very understanding and a great teacher. He literally showed us how to put a rivet on a belt. We had this incredible space to go to each day for free! We were surrounded by all of his grandfather’s tools and machines and had nothing stopping us for exploring and creating. We owe him a lot.

Kirk – Now that we have relocated to the East Coast, much of our collection is made by a group of Amish leather workers in Pennsylvania. It has, no doubt, been one of the most interesting business relationships of our career.

Chris – Working with these Amish leather workers for a week will really open your eyes. They are not distracted by anything the world’s marketing machine is currently pumping out. They have no idea who the Rolling Stones are or that we are at war. It is essentially the 1870’s, aside from the hum of a large Honda generator looking out of place in one of the corners. They are allowed to use gas since it is from the earth.

Kirk – We bring the kids gum and they will literally chew the same piece all day. I asked one of the boys what his favorite flavor was. Taking it out of his mouth and pointing to it he said, “The brown kind.”

Kirk – We still do all of the finishing work in house, as well as collaboration and custom work.

What kind of leathers do you use for your pieces?

Kirk – Most of the leather we use is domestic or Italian in origin and is vegetable dyed in the tradition of the old West. It is ideal for our designs because of its durability and how it changes and ages over time. Vegetable dying is also better for the environment than chrome dying. We will soon offer a collection of eco-friendly, ‘green’ leathers as well.

Chris – Our leather is also hand treated with natural oils and beeswax so that over time the patina that the leather achieves is beautiful. Working with leather reminds me of my youth and learning how to “season” my winter boots and baseball glove. We would also get all sorts of old leather things from our uncle from old knives with leather sheaths to his old Vietnam boots. We both have always liked leather and its many uses.

What do you emphasize most in your work? What do you think is important for the ideal product?

Kirk – I think we emphasize the understated, again, keeping the designs simple and fresh. We have never been ones to add garish or tacky details. Our particular aesthetic does not necessarily want to be the focus of attention, but instead blend into the wearer’s everyday clothing choice.

Chris – What you see it what you get. We are not reinventing the wheel; we are just designing with a more minimal, modern approach with an emphasis on hand stitching. We both appreciate attention to detail and working with our hands. If you really study everything that went into making a leather ammo pouch or map case from WWII, for example, you would be stunned. The crazy thing is that these were mass-produced for thousands of soldiers.

Kirk – To recreate that item today would be nearly impossible and cost hundreds of dollars.

What would you say are some of the favorite pieces that you designed over the years?

Kirk – There are a lot. We both feel our shoulder satchel bag, inspired after a WWII Belgian map case, is a favorite as well as our selection of hand stitched card cases. We are also proud of our custom hand carved belt buckles and I.D. plates.

Chris – We try to source vintage hardware and materials and buy them in large quantities whenever possible. For example we have hundreds of used Korean War snap-hooks that are of the best quality and add a great deal to the item.

Currently which stores carry Billykirk in US and Japan?

US – Takashimiya, Hollander and Lexer, Barney’s, Camouflage, Oak, Odin, Unis, Fred Segal, Ron Herman, American Rag, Base, Aloha Rag, Rolo, Blackbird, Carve, Map…..Canada – Brooklyn, TNT, Sydney’s, Gravity Pope….

Japan – Barney’s, Beams, Ships, Margin, Sazaby League, Akiz, Baggagehandlers Union, Decade, Glow, Hips Company, Rags, Monju, Rato, Wolves

Could you tell us the prices of your accessories?

Kirk – Retail prices range from $65 for small leather accessories to $550 for our leather weekend bags.

Could you tell us the project that you are working on right now?

Chris – We just finished designing for Spring 2008 and are close to re-launching our website.

Kirk – We are in the process of finishing our studio. It’s important to feel inspired where you work. We just came across some reclaimed 150 year old white pine that we are turning into shelving and tables. And I finally have my painting studio in order again…

What are your long term goals as an artist?

Chris – To create original leather goods that stand the test of time both in design and functionality. I have no doubt that I will still appreciate these designs 20-30 years from now. We have also had some great experiences collaborating with various companies like Levis, Vans Vault, Hollander & Lexer, Earnest Sewn, Lutz & Patmos, Henry Duarte, Unis, Zune, Noah, etc. I would like to continue doing more of these collaborations.

Kirk – We also have goals of expanding the brand name into other markets and opening a flagship store one day. Find more time to paint and showing my work in more galleries.

Any last words?

“You can’t fake quality anymore than you can fake a good meal.”
-William S. Burroughs

1 comment

  1. First thought: Beautiful! But expensive. Well, I had a similar leather bag since 1962. I used it 30 years, just had to replace the sewing a few times. That would be 10$ a year, not too bad, isit?

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