When people buy handcrafted bags from Palmer & Sons, they can be reluctant to break them in. These leather treasures are clearly the result of thoughtful design and skilled building. The latches, rivets and hides are just so. Must keep it perfect.
Nik Palmer hears these fears a lot and he has a suggestion. “Same thing I say when people get a new car. Just make a little scratch on it. With real leather, there is not much that you can do to harm it. The leather I work with is a quarter of an inch thick. My own bag gets left in the rain. It has scratches all over it. Leather is better that way.”
Palmer started his leather design business about 8 years ago. “I had been looking for something analog to do. For the last 15 to 18 years, I had been working mainly in the digital domain with consul games, apps – at EA, Microsoft… My day to day was very digital.”
Palmer was looking for off-line projects that he could carry from start to finish, over a shorter time-span. He started cabinet making, but found that wood projects were similarly endless. “One piece could take months to do.” Palmer also developed a rather inconvenient allergy to one of the woods he was using.
One day Palmer was down at Octopus Studios – the low-cost art space his wife Beata Kacy runs on Powell Street. Inspired by an artist he saw carving abstract images into leather, Nik wondered what he could do with the hardy material. “I got a chunk and decided to make a suitcase. The first one took 5 days, not 5 months and at the end I had a finished, tangible product.”
Palmer was pretty excited about his first foray into leather, but would others like it? He devised a test. He would wander around Gastown and see if anyone stopped him. They did. Where did he get it? Where could they get one? Palmer was delighted and a new analog business was born. He would keep up his work in the digital world, but return home to his leather studio.
Palmer decided to keep riveting the bags together by hand. “I didn’t want to be hunched over the sewing machine every day. Being hunched over a sewing machine and sitting in front of a computer is not that different. I use a lot of tools. I can make a suitcase with a knife, a straight-edge mallet and an anvil.”
It was also important to Palmer that he buy local whenever possible. “I try and buy my tools from Canada or the US.” When he can’t buy tanned leather from Canada, he will turn to Italy, England and the US. “These guys make some of the best leather you can buy”
When Palmer pictured his analog life, he pictured his family being involved. Sure enough, Nik’s son Jack can often be found building bags with his Dad. “We’re both strong willed and stubborn, but it works.” One challenge they run into: Nik is right-handed while Jack is left-handed. “You wouldn’t believe what a problem that is in a small studio. All the work stations – for riveting, for instance – have to be both right and left handed. Same for the drills. Even the construction of the bags is different.”
Yet they make it work and the products they create are cohesive and beautiful.
Palmer sees a clear link between the work he is doing now and the work of his Mother. “My Mum was a seamstress and a Manager of Burberry in London. She made all of our clothes. I remember my first day of school when I was 5. The outside of my jacket was made from an old jacket and the inside was lined with an old shirt.”
If the family had a Christmas party at noon, Nik’s Mum would wake up in the morning and start sewing outfits for all 7 children to wear. “My Mum was into fashion all of her life. The walls in her room were covered with Tatler magazines and Burda patterns.”
Palmer’s Mum passed away before she could see Nik’s foray into the fashion world. “I’m disappointed that she didn’t see that one of her kids got invited to New York Fashion week.”
With high profile showings in New York, Palmer could have pushed for his business to grow much faster. However, he doesn’t do advertising, doesn’t do free media giveaways and likes to keep the business at a size that he and Jack can handle with quality. “We try to make something that is contemporary, but that also has long term value.”
Right now, Palmer is enjoying the juggling of his digital work, his analog leather work and lecturing in Visualization and Analytics at the Vancouver Film School. “In the digital world, there is an age ceiling, I think. I’m not there yet, but could the leather be the thing I could do forever – part time, full time? “
What advice would Palmer offer to others looking to do more hands-on, analog work?
- Don’t take out a loan.
“Just don’t. If you need a $10,000 machine to do it, then think of doing something else that doesn’t require at $10,000 machine.
- Be wary of investors
Venture capital. Angel investors. There is a lot of pressure involved when somebody else owns your company and tells you what to do.
- Maintain your Focus
In fashion, it’s all about new lines. What are you doing tomorrow? You can get coverage if you’re always doing something new. But, for a small company like I want to be, that is difficult. You can’t just keep making a few of so many different lines.
Keep in touch with your contacts if they are nice people. You never know when they’ll come back.”
- Test the Market
Just as he did with that first suitcase, Palmer still wanders – bag in hand – through Gastown and into stores like Holt Renfrew to see if people comment or ask him where he got his leather creation. “I want to see if people will still stop us.”
Written by Elizabeth Newton
* All photos courtesy of Palmer & Sons. http://palmerandsons.ca