By Danna Burns-Shaw
Jeramiah Kapp has led an adventurous life to which most “homebodies” could not relate. Born in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri on a cattle ranch in 1974, he moved to St. Louis in 1982 and would spend the next 18 years living a somewhat atypical upbringing.
Attending Webster University in Webster Groves (a suburb of St. Louis), known as the “study abroad” school, Jeramiah began his studies in international business, with a minor in religious studies.
During Jeramiah’s junior year of undergrad, while walking down the hall between classes, he noticed on the bulletin board that they had just opened up a campus in Thailand, two hours south of Bangkok. The flyer advertised a Buddhist religious study course, stating every weekend you would travel to different Buddhist temples and study forms of meditation while staying at the temple. Jeramiah quickly decided Thailand was where he would do the first of his international studies.
Thailand is a Southeast Asian country, with coasts on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. It borders Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysia to the south.
Who wouldn’t want to sign up for a four month university course in a country known for great food, tropical beaches, opulent royal palaces, majestic mountains, fascinating culture, ancient ruins and ornate temples displaying statues of Buddha?
During Jeramiah’s four month course he was fortunate to have a very interesting professor. Fluent in both Thai and English, he traveled with the class to different monasteries where they would live on the weekends. He was also an anthropologist, so his studies were both fun and informative.
Jeramiah saw his first stingray leather in Thailand. The leather products were being sold at different tourist shops and markets; he remembers being so intrigued that he would go back to the shops and markets after class and on weekends to learn more about this mysterious leather.
Jeramiah discovered that stingray leather is 25 times more durable than cowhide leathers, that they have no threat of extinction and that the fish provides a useful protein source to many regions throughout Southeast Asia. It was offered in all sorts of sizes and colors, with different finishes and grades. Soon Jeramiah started purchasing stingray products for himself and his family members. Little did he know – he would one day be the industry leader in stingray leather sales.
While visiting with Jeramiah, you instantly know he is a top authority on stingray leather. He interestingly explains, “Most people don’t know that stingrays are fish. In fact, many people take excursions around the reefs of Bora Bora and Morea to swim with giant rays and actually hand feed them. All stingrays, despite their size differences, are equipped with long whip-like tails. There are usually one or two sharp spines on the tail near the middle. These spines have sharp teeth along their edges making them barb-like, much like a fishing hook. At the base of these teeth are small glands that contain poison pockets capable of causing wounds nearly as painful and dangerous as a snake bite. Stingrays swing their tails upward to defend against predators. They live on the sandy or muddy bottoms of all warm, shallow parts of the oceans and bays. In South America, they can be found in the rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Stingrays also live as far as 2,000 miles above the mouth of the Amazon River.”
Jeramiah’s four-month semester abroad, where he learned so much about stingray leather, turned into a four-year, life-changing adventurous experience.
Jeramiah got a job at the university running their athletic department and doing personal training; he organized events and tournaments while pursuing two master degrees.
Jeramiah would travel throughout Southeast Asia during semester breaks; he stayed in elevated bamboo huts with screeching pigs roaming around underneath. Every day they would harvest a pig – he recalls the goriness of the blood flying everywhere and villagers celebrating with a pig roast.
With a couple semesters left of school, Jeramiah’s mother, Rosalie Putnam, called him and asked if he would be interested in going into business with her. He said yes, and in 2003 they decided to start the business they would name Global Trading and Travel. The first concept they tried was setting up travelers/patients from the US that wanted to travel to Thailand and get plastic surgery. In Thailand they could get 60k worth of work done for 10k. After their first two clients, he realized that this wasn’t the type of business for him.
Still very interested in stingray leathers, he decided that Global Trading and Travel would become a leather trading company. He started to attend leather shows, markets and various trade shows in Thailand. After meeting with many different vendors, he decided to do a finished product line that was to be designed by his mother and him, Rosalie and Jeramiah. And a new name for the company was born –Roje –using the first two letters of each name. They started with a 50k investment of stingray leather products, using part of the money to pay for logos that would go into the linings, zipper pulls and hardware. They placed their orders and when the shipments came in, while opening up boxes, they noticed if their fingernails grazed the leather in a certain way – the color came off! They later found out, that particular tannery didn’t drum dye their skins; they had practically just spray painted the leather, so they had to discount and get rid of all the products from that particular tannery. The other products did very well and soon they were reordering and selling lots of stingray products.
Deciding to add more products to their line, they extended their international business to include buying products from Europe. Exotic leather products made with finer European leathers, and they extended their business to include fur as well. With their exciting new products, they decided to go to the Magic Show in Las Vegas and set up a booth to sell their line of products imported from Thailand and Europe. The Roje collection was very well received and they received many orders to send off for their manufactures to fill.
Unfortunately, customs dilemmas continued –they held all of Roje’s shipments for 3 three months, so they missed the season.
At that point, Rosalie lost interest in the business and left the company. Jeramiah decided to shift the business and learn as much about the material itself, concentrating on selling materials to designers and manufactures.
In 2008, Jeramiah met and married a beautiful, intelligent woman that also shared business interests, Natalia. She was born in Russia and her strengths were logistical, with the ability to develop processes and systems, making them a great team.
The first thing they did was build a website, www.rojeleather.com. Integrating high-res photos, state-of-the-art videos and search engine technology, the intention was that when someone was searching for a specific species or information about those species, they would find Roje on the first page.
Embracing the model of giving out as much information about the species and skins as possible, the idea was to become the authority on exotic skins. If you were searching for information about a particular species, Roje would pop-up on the first page of your search results.
Roje keeps building its leather stock, with a wide variety of both common and unique colors and finishes, including every type of legal species.
Clients would even send Roje their patterns to be laid out on the skins, ensuring a correct fit and use of the skins. Using videos or facetime with the client to show them firsthand what the hides look like, Roje is able to build confidence with the client through technology.
Jeramiah loves to go to tanneries and warehouses and pick individual skins, ensuring he receives the highest quality and grades of exotic leathers.
After five years of just carrying materials, Roje moved to Los Angeles to be closer to the manufactures. After years of filtering through various factories specializing in exotic leather production (including handbags, belts, wallets – even furniture), Roje put together a crew of skilled craftsmen and has been doing private-label manufacturing for independent designers and boutique store owners.
Roje clients can provide their own designs, or use Roje’s designs. They stamp the species name inside the products, as well as the store name. They have now been doing private label manufacturing for almost seven years.
Now that Roje had the capacity to source the hides and a team to build them, Natalia felt that their next move should be selling direct to consumer.
So, last fall they took the retail plunge and signed a lease in Aspen, Colorado. The Kapp’s had moved from Los Angeles to Colorado a few years ago to raise their two children Jedi, 6, and Jude, 2. Adding a luxury retail store, in a resort town like Aspen, would require lots of sacrifices and juggling schedules for this young family of four.
The Kapp’s named their Aspen shop, REAL, because everyone always asks…Hey, is that real? It also stands for Roje Exotic American Leathers.
The shelves are lined with designer-style handbags, wallets and small leather goods. You can also design your own “bespoke” bag, choosing from an array of colors and species of the full hides there for clients to touch and feel. The Kapp’s have also reconnected with the fur business and are offering beautiful rare furs to the affluent Aspen crowd.
Many decades and miles have since past Jeramiah’s college days, when he first fell in love with stingray leather at that street market in Thailand. But, when you visit with Jeramiah, it is evident that the love and passion for exotic leather and what can be created with it, still runs deep within his soul.