When Lincoln Heller started his fiveleft leather design business, he was working with an antique, hand-cranked sewing machine. There were no motors or fancy foot pedals to ease his toil. Heller would get a grip on the machine, gather his strength, haul down on the crank, and be rewarded with…one stitch.
Moving one yank stitch by one yank stitch challenged Heller to be innovative in his bag design. “I was designing things not only for fascination and unique look, but to have minimal stitches.”
To meet these minimal stitch requirements, Heller came up with DayGoods – a line of bags in his ‘fold-a-bag’ series. “That bag has only one line of stitching. The shoulder strap weaves through the bag and ‘sews’ it together.”
That was ten years ago, but the DayGoods bags are still remarkably popular. “It’s the most consistent bag I sell, to men and women.” says Heller. “It will hold a wallet, an ipad, sketchbooks.”
Heller has a more hand-friendly machine now – “The Adler 205. An industrial harness sewing machine” – but he still looks for clever ways to marry form and function. “I’m a bit of an obsessive mechanical person. It’s not just about looks.”
Fiveleft’s leashed clutch is a piece of leather ‘pinched, tucked and rolled into a mini bag. The secure tongue closure makes for easy in and out.’
“You’ll see a black bar or band,” Heller notes about the clutch. “That’s a functional part. It’s woven from one side through the other. The bag will soften over time. The strap holds it tight.”
Heller has been experimenting with leather since he was a child. “My Mum worked at a leather furniture store. She brought home materials that I would play with.” While Dad made sure that the Heller kids could handle themselves at the farm, Mum taught the kids how to sew. “We made our own shorts.”
Both Mum and Dad’s training came in handy when Heller was working at an Alaskan logging camp to put himself through Emily Carr University.
“These guys would throw away their boots when they were going to leave. The caulk boots have spikes on the bottom, so you don’t slip. They are really high; they go almost up to your kneecaps. I was chopping off the throat of the boot and making tool pouches for myself and my brother. I still have the tool pouch here in my studio. It smells like logging camp.”
The caulk boot tool pouch was the seed for Heller’s foray into leather bags. The next career nudge came from an old leather camera bag Heller found in the alleyway. “I’m a bit of a junkyard, thrift shop, back-lane person.”
The abandoned camera bag was in sad shape. “The stitching had disintegrated. I took it home, re-stitched it all together.” Heller incorporated an old belt – another laneway find – and embellished the front with an old patch from the Canadian Automobile Association. “I got non-stop comments on that bag. Men would stop and ask if I wanted to make them a bag.”
Heller did indeed want to make them bags and fiveleft was born. The company name is rooted in Heller’s interest in numbers and the fact that he and his five strongest fingers are left-handed. “Since I was young, it was always apparent that I would navigate through life with my hands.”
Fiveleft’s first sales were through the Portobello West Market. Heller went on to set up a studio at 1000 Parker, where he is still today.
Heller’s bag-making process starts with vegetable tanned leather. “Seven years ago, no one knew what it was. What tans the leather is vegetable tannins or vegetable matter – mimosa plant, tree bark or whatever. It’s the ancient way of tanning.”
“This is also the way that they tan leather to use on horse saddles when they do all the tooling. The leather is tanned and preserved from rotting, but all the life hasn’t been sucked out of it. I fell in love with the material long ago and stuck to it.” The vegetable tanned leather will start off hard, but soften beautifully through touch, over time.
Heller will look for interesting materials to texturize the leather. “We take found textures like broken umbrella parts, steel mesh, fishing nets, bike parts. We run it through a press to stamp into the leather to make impressions.”
Next, comes the colour. Heller – and his one part-time co-worker – will mix their own colours. “The red of the bottle is awful.”
Rather than dunking the bags in a vat, they will apply their dyes to the top surface. “If you took a knife and carved the top of the bag, you’d see the leather. It’s the idea of a canvas that we painted on. We are making imagery on a bag. That’s one of the things that makes my process unique. Every two bags are different.”
From the start, Heller has numbered his bags. “I have this old postage stamp where the number counts up. When you look inside the back, you’ll see the date it was made, the year, my signature and a serial number.”
Once fiveleft reached its Bag #999, it was time to make a special bag and throw a party. The design for Bag #1000 was inspired by the little milk cartons you find in lunchboxes. “It operates just like a milk carton. The handles were braided. “
Heller also graced Bag #1000 with a “super beautiful” piece of Brazilian hardware he had been saving. “I call it the ‘happy clip,’ because everyone smiles when they use it.”
Now, it’s fiveleft’s tenth anniversary and it’s time to celebrate with clients, new friends, his ‘business wife,’ Carol Hyslop – “we call her The Boss” – and a beloved community. “It’s a byproduct of my business that I didn’t expect – the community it has created around me. They have become my extended family in a way.”
Heller’s life wife, Allison Marie MacDonald, and his two children have been a vital part of his business story. “I’m a super family man, raising my two kids with my wife. Since they have been quite young, we made it a mission to see if we could raise the kids without using childcare or nannies.”
For the Ten Year celebration, Heller is tapping into his broader artistic instincts. He and his team are creating a multi-media event with the premiere of fiveleft’s first fashion film, a runway show, an auction and an after party. Tickets are free, but limited.
The event will feature bags from the past, the current collection and lots of surprises. “It’s a transition for me. I had surgery on my spine and my hand. Both of those times, I was laid up and really processing. I want to start mixing it up. People love fiveleft and we’ll keep the classic side, but we will also bring in a new language.”
What has been most challenging for Heller in running fiveleft?
“The business started organically,” says Heller. “I’ve had to finance the whole thing. It didn’t start with a formal business plan, kickstarter or venture capital. Ten years down the road, I’ve developed a reasonable amount of business savvy.”
What advice would Heller offer to artisans looking to start their own businesses?
“It’s like having kids. You’re never going to be perfectly ready. You just have to do it. At some point, you have to jump and take the risk. Even if you fail, you know you’ve tried.”
“My buddy told me: ‘don’t try to do everything. Do what you’re good at. Get others to help you in areas where you are less skilled.”
“Once you are in the mix and solo, then you have to keep trying to inch your way up the ladder.”
4. Balance Business with Passion
“As long as the passion and dream are there, you keep going forward, even if you have a bad year. If you have a bad year and you’re in it for the money, you move on. If you follow a passion, that will show in the work.”
And what does Heller like most about his leather life?
“Not so long ago, we were at a dinner party, and someone asked: ‘what makes you happy?’ My wife answered and said: ‘he loves it when he makes a new bag.’ She’s right. I love the leather. I like designing bags. I don’t want to make shoes, belts or gloves. I love a bag. The handbag, the wallet – these are the vessels that hold our lives.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
If you’re interested in going to fiveleft’s 10 year fashion show party at the Waterfall Building, there were a few tickets left as of writing:
*Photos Courtesy of Lincoln Heller