For These Leather Heads, It All Started with a Watch Strap
Billykirk and the Fascinating Story Behind The Brand
Here at Gear Patrol, we usually bring you one carefully selected and reviewed product at a time. Today I’m changing it up and bringing a whole company to your attention. Billykirk is a unique company owned and run by two design minded brothers, Chris and Kirk Bray. All of their products are manufactured here in the US, most of which is made by the Pennsylvania Amish. The majority of their materials are sourced in the US or manufactured by their employees. All this comes together into a simple and rugged-looking product line that features a heavy dose of leather, metal (not like the stuff Eric wears to his favorite clubs), and canvas.
I was lucky enough to demo a trifecta of Billykirk products. Hit the jump for a rundown and some insight into their enrapturing story of success.
No. 166 Overnight Travel Bag:
This is the perfect weekend bag. It fits enough clothes for three days and even lugs my embarrassingly obese dopp kit (allergy meds I swear, I do not moisturize). I’ve taken it on a number of trips lately and have had questions and compliments each time. It reminds me of an upgraded old-school tool bag. The fit and finish are without flaw (this was a trend amongst my Billykirk selections), and the leather and waxed cotton is only going to get better. I look forward to wearing it with my Barbour.
No. 177 Double Collar Button Belt:
This belt is unlike any I’d seen before and is now my primary day-to-day belt. Some of the best examples of attention to detail are on this belt, such as a riveted instead of sewn belt loop. Best of all, it’s engineered to take some abuse.
No. 92 Card/Cash Case
This replaced a cracked Jimi wallet, which I saved for a few days and then promptly recycled once I realized it would be collecting dust for a long time to come. It fits all the cards I need without being bulky at all, which is an absolute must for me. The back pocket of the wallet is perfect for my ID, providing easy access at the bar. After searching for the right front wallet for years, I’m finally settling down.
Honestly, the attention to detail on each piece is impressive to say the least, and I’m already giving some of their other stuff the ole hairy eyeball. The quality is impeccable, and, as such, I wholeheartedly recommend Billykirk’s products to our readers.
The Interview: Chris Bray
If you’re still dying to know more, read on for my in-depth interview with Chris Bray (pictured on the left) and find out about Billykirk and the ideas behind it.
Jon: So, you guys have been around as a company since 1999, and it all started with a watch strap. I know you and your brother had a design background (furniture and clothing respectively). When you made those first watch straps, did you see it as the beginnings of a company or just a fun project? And how did you make that jump from the watch strap to a full blown leather works company?
Chris Bray: Yes, that was around 1997, and that old 70’s watch strap was the inspiration. We would go into this particular pawn shop in Santa Monica from time to time and we noticed the watch strap but didn’t want the watch that was on it. The owner was an ass and the watch sat for months. Finally, we went back and he agreed to just sell the strap. Kirk wore it for a year or so at this coffee/ music venue he worked at and got a lot of compliments. There was nothing really like it on the market accept for real cheap, punk rock style extra wide watch straps that you would find on the Venice boardwalk or places like Hot Topic. Kirk’s was made with decent leather and it was less than 1 ½’ wide.
Initially, I don’t think we thought a company would spawn from it but we both like nostalgic things and the watch strap resonated with us, plus we both (me a bit more) were into 70’s style fashion in the late 90’s. Not the exotic polyester shirt extreme, but more into Big E Levis jeans and shirts, campus boots, vintage belts with old buckles….
Sometime in 1998, Kirk came into my office and basically said, “let’s make these.” I grabbed the phone book and found a local leather wholesaler, and we set up an appointment. Steve, the man that basically gave us our first introduction into the leather biz, was very cool. We told him what we wanted to do, and he sort of spelled it out for us, told us who to talk to and who not to talk to, what type of leather would work best, etc. We left the meeting very optimistic and thought, what the hell lets give it a go. The next step was to find someone who could make them (the watch straps) for us. Again, the phone book proved very useful and that is where we eventually met Arnold who would become our mentor, teacher and friend for 3 years.
The jump took a while, but in August of 1999 we did a trade show in Las Vegas that got us thinking there maybe something here. We talked this company my brother did fit modeling for into allowing us to have a small section in their booth. We had three styles and three colors of cuffs and watch straps. It was the smallest display you could imagine. We had found these old metal industrial tool chests with three drawers each that we sanded and clear coated. We stacked them on top of each other, then had a plastic display case made to house the cuffs. It was very slender and vertical but it attracted a number of stores and we ended up writing around 8 orders. It was very cool to see the response, and I think it set things into motion.
Once back, we got started on the orders and I started cold calling stores and setting up appointments. More orders came in and then in September of 1999 Ron Herman wrote an order and in November Fred Segal did. These are the two stores any young designer on the West Coast would want. The sell-throughs were great, and in 2000, we got more and more orders. However, we both kept our day jobs for a number of years.
I think in 2003, we both went full time and started to take it more seriously. We began designing belts, bags, and smaller leather accessories and moved out of Arnold’s space and found our own in downtown Los Angeles.
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