Youthful leather-goods enterprise embodies the Millennial Generation’s spunk and spirit
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Nashville. It’s Tennessee’s burgeoning capital; a place that conjures up images of an explosive country music scene, twangy honky-tonks and the legendary Grand Ole Opry.
But only a few short minutes from the city’s busy cluster of neighborhoods jammed with coffeehouses, boutiques, breweries, eateries and music venues, is a fine example of its vibrant, artisan craft scene — a leather workshop studio called Loyal Stricklin.
The productive, five-year-old enterprise, owned and operated by Michael and Sarah Stricklin, is a relative newcomer to the Nashville scene. In March 2018, the young couple moved their leather goods workshop roughly 300 miles north,from the small city of Opelika, Alabama, to the famed music metropolis.
Their current 1,000-square-foot workshop produces an assortment of handmade leather goods — billfolds and envelope-style wallets, coasters, toiletry bags, belts, waxed canvas-and-leather rucksacks, duffle bags, waxed canvas baseball hats, aviator mugs and more.
“Our location is sort of hidden — around the side of a building,” said company founder Michael Stricklin, 29. “But people are starting to find out about us now.Here in Nashville, people walk right in. So, we’ve created an appointment-only system and have occasional, open-studio days.”
The workshop is already cramped for space. “We’re bursting out of it. It’s got 17-foot ceilings, so we’re trying to use loft space to display our products. In Opelika, we had a showroom,” he said.
“We would like a retail space, someday, in Nashville,” Sarah Stricklin, 26, added. “It’s a cool city. I love Nashville. In Opelika, there was not very much to do for our age group. There are so many young people in this city. It’s way bigger. We like being here — all the action.”
Today, Michael and Sarah live in Franklin, Tennessee, in a home they share with their golden retriever, Mason. “It’s a vibrant, nice town,” he said. At least five days a week, they ride the roughly 20 miles together to their Nashville workshop. Typically, they put in a seven-hour workday and close shop at 4 p.m., to beat the traffic.
Keeping a viable work/life balance is key. “I work at least two Saturdays per month. If we want to go camping on the weekend, we prioritize that. This past year, I took six weeks off, all in all,” he said.
He does most of the leatherwork; she specializes in photography. “Sarah has a degree in art. We do almost all our photos in-house for our website,” he said. They both do designing.
“We also work on strategizing,” she added. “We set business goals — products we want to add, how we want to market, how we see the business changing this year. With a small business, you have to take on the role of different jobs.
“Oh man, I have quite a few roles,” she said, laughing. “I’m on production; so I make wallets. Mike does higher-end items; I do the regular line. I also design and make women’s bags, like our crossbody bag. I love designing and making things, and I love photography. I have the best of both worlds.”
“This is why it’s so good that Sarah is a designer,” he said. “She gives the eye to what women buy. We mostly make men’s stuff. We’re trying to even it out. All our female customers love the products they get. We’re working to improve the women’s line. There are a few more bags we’re planning to make.”
Sarah also handles shipping. USPS Priority is fast. But for big or heavy products, UPS or FedEx is better and cheaper, she pointed out. Customer wait times for products are typically one to two weeks, depending upon the items.
While working, they break the tedium by listening to music. “We split our time between Spotify and bands like Fleetwood Mac. We mostly listen to indie rock. I’m a big classic rock fan. Every now and then, we throw on some jazz. Our employee, Noah, likes hip hop,” she said.
Loyal Stricklin’s sales revenue rose significantly in 2018. The way Michael sees it, “moving to Nashville is paying off.”
Notably, their holiday sales that year exceeded their 2017 season. “In November, we made what we normally do in two months. I was able to pay off my credit card and buy new machines. Bags were the big items. Whenever we held a sale, bags sold the most,” he said.
Fifty percent of their total sales are made direct to the customer and 50 percent to stores. About ninety-five percent of direct sales to customers are made through their website.
“Fifty-five percent of our customers are male, according to Google Analytics,” he added, referring to the free, web analytics tool that generates detailed statistics about website activity. The company’s sale events are held twice a year — before Father’s Day and at Christmas. “That’s the two times to get a bargain, but quantity is limited.”
Their two biggest customers are Double Indigo (@double_indigo), a retail store in Nanjing, China, that sells high-end, well-made, American and Japanese casual clothing and Manready Mercantile in Houston, Texas (https://manready.com/), which sells made-in-USA clothing, handmade leather goods, jewelry, accessories and more.
They sell mostly in the U.S. and their second biggest market is Hong Kong and China.
“We have one distributer in China. They advertise our products as an ‘American brand’ or ‘retro brand.’ Many Asian customers like the rugged or vintage style of American goods. Most of our bags go to China. They have a rising middle class, and they’re spending more. But, we’re feeling their economic downturn. I’ve noticed less orders from China,” he said, this past January.
The Stricklins enjoy traveling in the U.S. and abroad. They mix business with pleasure by setting up photo shoots for their leather products at various locations — the woods, beaches and mountains — to get good backdrop imagery. “We were recently in Montana. We do a photo shoot every three months,” Michael said.
In 2017, they took a two-week trip to Italy to take photos and visit tanneries. They discovered that there are roughly 200 tanneries in the Santa Croce Sull’arno area, a town located in the province of Pisa, about 45 minutes west of Florence. The area, renowned for its leather industry, is also chock-full of leather goods shops. “That one town makes 85 percent of the cordovan that comes out of Europe,” he said.
“It is definitely not your picturesque Italian town,” she added. “It’s very industrial, with a lot of factory buildings; they’re filled with people making leather. We visited one tannery in Santa Croce, in particular, called Rocado s.r.l. ( www.cordovan.co), that makes shell cordovan. The owner gave us a tour and drove us around the town. We saw untanned hides and the finished products. He gave us a free shell of cordovan.”
Italian leather is used for Loyal Stricklin’s high-end, black and natural leather wallets. While in Italy, he and Sarah purchased Italian veg-tan leather from Conceria Walpier in San Miniato, Pisa, Italy.(www.pellealvegetale.it/en/consortium/associated-tanneries/).
Most of the leathers used in Loyal Stricklin’s products, however, are ordered from U.S. companies such asHorween Leather Co. of Chicago, Illinois; Wickett & Craig of Curwensville, Pennsylvania; Thoroughbred Leather of Louisville, Kentucky; and Hermann Oak Leather Co. of St. Louis, Missouri.
Michael enjoys working with cordovan on wallets and bags. “Shell cordovan can take 12 to 16 weeks to get in. It takes six months to tan. It’s in high demand. . . . I just got an order for a backpack to be made in Dublin leather from Horween, a horsehide that uses the front of the horse. We make some of our women’s handbags out of Essex, a buttery-soft leather, also from Horween,” he said.
What’s a workshop without tools? Here are a few used in the Loyal Stricklin workshop/studio:
Embosser – “I use a Kwik Print machine that does hot foil monogramming, in whatever font we have. It’s a leather embossing machine, made for bookbinders. You can apply gold foil or just stamp with it. Customers can send logos that we can stamp on wallets,” Michael said.
Clicker press – “We use a hydraulic clicker press from Cowboy, a big industrial machine made in China. It has 16 tons of pressure. We use it a lot on brass stamps, coasters and company logos,”he said.
Stitchers –“Our shop has seven sewing machines. Each one does something different. I use a Juki for light sewing and a Pfaff for binding, which can put a strip of leather or fabric that is pre-made, over edges. A Cobra leather machine is our big dog. It can sew inch-thick leather — a great machine.
“And, I’ve got three new, Durkopp Adler sewing machines, model numbers 669, 869 and 868. A German company in Czechoslovakia makes them. They’re expensive, but it has great stitchquality, ease of use and lack of problems. They’re medium duty — good all around — but you don’t use it to stitch through inch-thick leather,” he advised.
THE BESPOKE LINE
Current prices for Loyal Stricklin leather goods range from $24 for a set of four leather coasters, up to $800 for a leather briefcase. “All our small goods are under $200, larger canvas and leather products go from $200 to $400 and leather handbags, $200 to $800. We try to keep our prices reasonable and worth what we’re asking,” Michael said. Free shipping is given on orders that total above $175.
Their higher-end, custom line is called Loyal Bespoke. “The price range for our bespoke items are $400 and up, depending upon time and materials,” Michael said. Bespoke is a branding/marketing term that refers to high-end items made to fit a customer’s specifications.
“We specialize in alligator, which is really expensive leather,” he said. “Wallets made of this leatherstart at $400 for a small wallet, but can go up whatever the client’s vision and budget allow, depending upon the leather and the time it takes to fit and finish.” Alligator leather is ordered from U.S. suppliers.
Other leathers used in the bespoke line are high-end Italian and German calfskin and French goat leather. “We don’t have any bespoke products that take less than five hours to finish. I try not to do anything custom made for under $500. A custom handbag could cost more than $3,500, depending upon time and materials. It’s not about the price; it’s about customers getting what they want,” he said.
All Loyal Stricklin products come with a warranty. Leather goods have an eight-year warranty; canvas gear is four years. “We’ll fix it for free, unless someone abuses a product beyond regular wear. In the past five years, I’ve had only four or five items come in for repairs,” he said.
Looking ahead, he is exploring ways to develop his talents and brand, and to keep creative juices flowing. “I never wanted Loyal Stricklin to be just a leather company. I want to do denim — jeans and stuff. I’m looking into that this year. I want to create a brand. We want to venture into designing a clothing line — like denim jackets and create our own t-shirts that fit really well. Loyal Stricklin was never meant to be just leather goods. My visions don’t stop at leather.”
Currently, he is working on adding a waxed canvas jacket to the product line and learning how to make patterns. “I want to make sure my patterns are right. It’s a lot more involved than making a leather bag. It has to be scaled up and down,” he explained.
“I most enjoy making something new, products I’m excited about. I enjoy being challenged — getting out of my normal routine. Loyal Bespoke is a fine-art line. It’s my personal work as a craftsman,” he said.
BEYOND THE BOTTOM LINE
To the Stricklins, keeping an eye on the prize means more than accruing the fattest business profits possible. For one, they work to build friendly vibes in their workshop. “We love to take our employees out to coffee or lunch, to build an atmosphere. We want everyone to enjoy it. We’re not all about the bottom line,” Michael said.
Currently, the workshop studio has one assistant, Noah Tidmore, 22, a photographer and videographer fresh out of college, who lives in Nashville. “We employ a lot of musicians. We like to hire people with flexible schedules,” Michael said.
Being motivated by meaning and expressing a desire to make a difference in the world are two traits collectively ascribed to the Millennial Generation, people their age who were born between 1981and 1996 — a generation Michael and Sarah can readily understand.
“The overarching theme of this generation is, that so many people weren’t able to find jobs out of college — only entry-level jobs and entry-level pay,” he noted.
“Millennials have to create their own opportunities. There is a huge entrepreneurial spirit in this generation — a willingness to improve our lives through our own efforts. We had to go out on our own and figure things out.”
In keeping with that spirit, the business donates 20 percent of Loyal Stricklin profits to charity. “We’re focused on a group that fights human trafficking,” he said, citing the International Justice Mission, a non-governmental 501(C)(3) organization focused on human rights, law and law enforcement, based in Washington, D.C.
“They go in and pull people out of sex slavery. They send in teams and physically rescue people from trafficking and abuse. We have donated roughly $6,000 in the past year and a half,” he said.
“We wanted something better from our company than goods. We want to create a legacy with the giving aspect of the business, to use what we’ve been blessed with, to bless others. The more we can grow, the more we can give.”
CREATING A FAMILY LEGACY
Loyal Stricklin, a leather goods workshop based in Nashville, Tennessee, was launched five years ago by Michael Stricklin, who named his leather craft enterprise after his grandfather, a U.S. Marine who served in Okinawa during World War II. He died two years before Michael was born.
“I never met my grandfather, but I spent a lot of time with my dad, Les Stricklin, making stuff with wood and working on cars in the garage. I wanted a business name that had a legacy to it — to create a family legacy,” he said.
“I grew up doing art — comic books and cartoons,” he continued. “I loved drawing. I took advanced art in high school. I wanted to do something with art, but I also wanted to make a living.”
His solution was to study architecture at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, ranked as one of the top 25 U.S. universities for architecture and interior design. By his senior year, he ventured into working with leather.
“At the university, we began building architectural models, a skill that transferred over to leatherwork. Starting with leather was more cost effective than getting into woodworking or some other project. I could do leatherwork at my bedroom desk,” he said.
After graduating in 2013, he went on to get a master’s degree in integrated design. But something was missing. “I got tired of how long it took to feel creatively satisfied. I didn’t want to improve my art. I wanted to make something I could sell, to make money,” he said.
He started out with a few hides, some leather tools and lots of late-night coffee, and built things from there. Soon, he was making small leather goods, like iPhone cases, travel wallets and Dopp kits. “Compared to what I’m doing now, they were pretty ugly,” he admitted. “I sold on Etsy.com at first. I liked the freedom — having the time to do what I wanted and still pay bills.”
Then, in the lull between undergrad and grad school, he dove into leatherwork full time. His first workshop was in an old train depot in Opelika, Alabama, a small town about a 10-minute drive from Auburn. It had no insulation, which meant he had to deal with extremes of heat and cold.In winter, he’d work in long johns and jeans, thick sweatshirts, a beanie hat and gloves.
“It was miserable. But it was cheap and I could afford it. My first employees were friends. We were all school buddies, in the same boat.”
Around that time, the photo-sharing website Instagram got big. “I got contacts there. The aviator mugs were our first big product,” he said. The popular mug consists of a Mason jar wrapped with a wide band of harness-leather stamped with an image of flying biplanes, a stylized mountain scene or a custom-branded design. A sturdy, harness-leather handle is stitched to the band.
“After launching the mug in September, 2013, I did as much in sales during that December as I had the entire year. Sales stayed steady and I was able to grow, hire and go full time.”
From that point on, his leatherwork leapt forward. “The timing was crazy,” he recalled, meaning it was excitingly opportune. “I don’t know if I could start now with the skill that I had then. I was just 25. I didn’t need to make much money. I had only a few bills. I could take home $1,000 per month and put a lot more into the business.”
In 2014, he met his future wife, Sarah, who had been hired to work in the shop. “After eight months, I asked her to marry me,” he said.
A THOUSAND TRUE FANS
Michael Stricklin, founder of the leather goods company, Loyal Stricklin, shared a business income model that he likes called “A Thousand True Fans.” The idea was first put forth in a short article by Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Kelly wrote the piece in 2008, when Facebook and YouTube were only four and three years old, respectively.
“You want 1,000 customers who will basically want anything you do,” Michael explained. “For example, if you like a musician, you buy every CD they make. You can make a good living on any scale with that goal — enough to pay the bills, take home some money and make great products that last.”
Social media sites have boosted the visibility of Loyal Stricklin niche products, making their videos, write-ups and photos accessible to a broad range of friends and potential customers. And these days, almost anyone can be reached with a smartphone.
It looks like the small leather goods company is well into attracting 1,000 fans. At last check, its Facebook page showed 2,056 likes. “We have 4,300 followers on Instagram, which is doing well for us. It’s the easiest place to share photos. Instagram allows you to post on Facebook at the same time,” he said.
“You really want a few good customers who come back, who are invested in your product. It’s better to have a good relationship with a few stores. It’s all about people and relationships. I’d rather have repeat customers than a bunch of new customers. Repeat customers love what we do. They stand with our mission.”
Browsers can sign up for Loyal Stricklin’s company newsletter at: (www.loyalstricklin.com).
Folks who want to visit Loyal Stricklin’s small leather studio, take a tour, or commission a custom product, can contact Michael and Sarah Stricklin on Instagram: (@loyalstricklin).
FOR MORE INFO
Michael & Sarah Stricklin, owners
2022C Lindell Ave.
Nashville, TN 37203