At Orion Calf, Ltd, it all begins in France and with the way a calf is raised
By Lynn Ascrizzi
It is fine-grained leather, delicate but durable, soft and velvety to the touch.
We’re talking, of course, about French calfskin — the real deal — an elegant and unmistakably dressy leather that lends class to fashionable items, like premium shoes, Western boots, handbags, attachés, stylish jackets, belts, gloves and wallets.
“The thing about calfskin — there are not many places to get it,” said Greg Carmack, a sales and customer service rep for Orion Calf, Ltd., a leather supplier that specializes in French calfskin.
“If you want true French calf, the raw stock has to be tanned in France on animals raised in France…. The origin of the animal has to be France,” he repeated, underscoring his point.
For more than two decades, Orion Calf has had an exclusive working relationship with two French tanneries. “We distribute their French calfskin throughout North America — not just the United States. That’s a huge piece of turf, and also, unique leather. We have to have a very high-quality calfskin,” he said. Carmack also works with a European tannery that manufactures baby calf in 15 colors.
“It really is French calf,” he emphasized, describing it as the company’s primary leather product. “European laws dictate what you can call French calf. In France, the animal has to be no older than eight months.”
He makes it clear that raising a calf correctly and producing true calfskin — something the French seem to do with a passion and a certain je ne sais quoi — is an exacting, holistic discipline.
“It has to do with breed, climate and how the animals were raised. You won’t find feed yards in France,” he explained, referring to livestock raised intensively in feedlots. “If you’re pushing grain on a calf, it’ll grow too fast. That affects the structure of the hide. French calf is all about tight, smooth grain…. You can’t take any old hide and get French calf leather. It starts with the raising of the animal.”
Orion Calf is owned by Jeffrey Schwarzof Connecticut. The companyhas about three employees who share all manner of tasks. Its offices are located in Greenwich, Connecticut, and another office and a small warehouse is based in Waco, Texas. Carmack, 50, lives near Waco.
“It’s not like we have racks and racks piled to the ceiling with calf. It’s not that kind of leather. You can stack a lot of calf in a small space,” he said. This past summer, he estimated that the warehouse hadon hand around 20,000 feet of calf leathers. “Sales are definitely growing. I’m shipping more leather. We can ship leather worldwide. Most of our business, however, is in North America.”
The company offers small, workable sizes of calfskin, instead of selling leather in drum loads from the tanneries, “a large quantity that would be prohibitive to someone like a boot maker who doesn’t want 3,500 feet of cognac calfskin,” he explained.
A minimum order for calf is one skin, but larger volumes for shoe companies, and the like,are offered through AXMS Corp., the parent company of Orion Calf. Shell cordovan and horsehide vamp lining for Western boot makers are also available through Orion.
“We carry calfskin and shell cordovan in colors and also crust,” he said, referring to leather that does not yet have color or finish. “We’re really working on crust leathers. We also offer a range of liquid, cream, paste and wax French dyes, so you can finish chrome-tanned or veg-tanned leather to get the effect you want on your own products.”
IN SEARCH OF REAL CALF
For many years, Carmack was a full-time, Western bootmaker based in Waco. “At age 12, I started making boots as an apprentice to a bootmaker in Walnut Springs, Texas,” he recollected.
About a dozen years ago, he was introduced to real French calf. “The calfskin I had been using before was neither French stock, nor tanned in France. It was an inferior, raw material. You couldn’t make a boot out of it! It was difficult to do my job cleanly. I needed to know where to get true French calf.”
His frustration led him to contact AXMS Corp., which is based in Connecticut. The business represents two French tanneries and supplies raw calfskin to shoe factories. Through them, he contacted Amelia Corey, of Woodbury, Connecticut,who sold volume amounts of French calf.
“I told her my troubles. She put me in touch with the man in charge of all sales at Tannerie d’Annnonay of Annonay, France. He answered my questions and set me straight on my misconceptions about calfskin. He told me why I was having difficulties with the raw material I had been using.”
Two years ago, Orion Calf hired Carmack full-time. “I was their first new hire in over 20 years,” he said. Today, he and Corey are business counterparts. They do sales and marketing and represent both Tannerie d’Annonay and Tanneries Du Puy of Chadrac, France. The two tanneries manufacture handcrafted, premium calfskin. He visited the tanners in 2017.
Both Du Puy and d’Annonay are owned by HCP. The acronym stands for, Hermès Cuirs Precieux, which translates, Hermès precious leathers. HCP is the tannery division of Hermès International, a high fashion, luxury goods manufacturer established in 1837 and based in Paris. Hermès is one of the largest luxury brands in the world and their prices reflect the famous brand’s status. A modest example: At the Hermès website, a number of women’s finely crafted, leather handbags range from $3,500 to $8,850.
By owning the heritage tanneries, HCP can guarantee their supply of legacy-quality French calfskin and also preserve the tanners’ exceptional know-how. In fact, HCP owns six tanneries, according to Business of Fashion (BoF), a global fashion industry media company.
“I’m not aware of any U.S. tannery that is, on a regular basis, tanning baby calf or calfskin for footwear or any other purpose,” Carmack said.“I believe the number of calfskins manufactured in the U.S. is small. RealFrench calf is a unique product, and not all leather called French calfskin is made to the strict standards of true French calf.”
Because of calfskin’s soft, delicate feel, leatherworkers might wonder if it is also long lasting.As he sees it,“If you want long wear, you need tight, fine grain. Cowhide is leather with a looser fiber, compared to calfskin. Loose fiber does not make for good wear.”
French calfskin, he added, can be subjected to different treatments, depending upon what it will be used for. For instance, there is French box calf, or “shoe calf,” which he described as “a very solid piece of leather, used largely in shoemaking.” And, there is a velvety soft calfskin, or “bag calf,” tanned specifically for making small goods, like handbags.
“We have fairly good sales for leathers to be used in accessories, such as billfolds, wallets and handbags,” he said. “We probably sell more calf for use in footwear, than anything else.”
Orion’s calfskin ranges from $7 to $14 per square foot. “This is niche leather; it’s not cheap,” he admitted. Occasional sales are posted at the company website,orioncalf.com.
In his opinion, however, French calf should not be considered an exotic. After all, he said, calfskin was once used for shoes worn by hundreds of thousands of people. He encouraged leather history buffs to check out a 1930s silent documentary featuring a Thom McCan shoe factory, https://www.facebook.com/kenny.vigue/videos/10155427046214779/.
The retail chain once had hundreds of U.S. shoe stores — one of the oldest and best-known brands in the country. “They offered rack after rack of calfskin footwear,” Carmack said.
In recent years, large Western boot companies in the U.S. had also used French calfskin as a staple leather, he added. “When they got competitive, however, they got away from using calfskin. Instead of looking at leather, they looked at the price. I get bootmakers telling me that they never get a call for French calf — that many of their customers have never heard of it.
“The challenge is to re-educate people,” he said. “You can afford to use French calf. Once you do, you can see how distinctive it is — that it sets itself apart from other leathers.”
Orion Calf, Ltd.
27 Woodside Circle
Woodbury, Conn. 06798
Greg Carmack, sales & customer service
6020 North State Highway 6
Waco, Texas 76712
HER SPECIALTY IS LEATHER ART AND USING FRENCH DYES
By Lynn Ascrizzi
Katie FioRito of Bend, Oregon, is an independent artist and leatherworker. Her specialty is creating one-of-a-kind, hand-dyed, pictorial art on dog collars and other small leather goods, like wallets, belts and holsters.
“I do portraitures and characters on leather for people who want customized items with pictures of things like their dogs, cars, kids, homes and motorcycles. Not a lot of people have my particular niche,” she said.
Her home business, KNM Leather, was launched about six years ago, mainly in order to fulfill her artistic talents. “It’s not easy to sell a painting on a canvas. But if you can get the same image on a wallet that is functional, people will pay for art that they can use every day,” she explained.
The business really began to take off about two years ago, after she posted a few of her collars on Instagram. “A dog collar collector posted an image of one of my collars on Facebook, at a collectors’ site that he belonged to, and I’ve been busy ever since,” she said.
“I don’t even have a website,” she added. “When I have made a bunch of collars, I post them on Etsy and they post on Instagram that I’ve stocked my Etsy store. All my business comes from Instagram.”
Products made of French calfskin make up 70 percent of sales; the rest is from items made of veg-tan cowhide tooling leathers. “If customers want color, I use calfskin; if they want texture, I use tooling leather,” she explained. Traditional, Western-style leather tooling however is not part of her artistic repertoire.
Before launching her leather art career, FioRito, 39, worked in retail sales for corporations like Coca-Cola and Budweiser. Her partner of 15 years, Mark Armstrong, was formerly a liquidation consultant. Today, they work at home together.
“KNM Leather has doubled its business in less than a year,” she said. “We have a very comfortable income. Mark quit his job. He was making very good money at his former workplace, but it had him traveling a lot. We do enough business for him to stay home and not travel. He likes to work with leather. Mark hand stitches all the collar panels. He finds it therapeutic.
“We realize now — all the perks are at home. We literally get up and have coffee and decide what leather goods we’re going to make today. And, he gets to work at home, with his dogs,” she said, with humor. “I like to say they’re our dogs, but they love Mark.” His buddies include two Labrador retrievers and a frisky husky pup.
Prices for their dog collars range from $250 to $350. “Many customers only keep the collars on their pets for short periods at a time. But they hold up. I leave mine on, 24-7,” she said.
DYES WITH A FRENCH ACCENT
Early in FioRito’s leather art career, however, things weren’t going all that smoothly. She found out that dyeing leather, which in her case largely involved applying a dye color with a brush, could be a tricky business. “Leather, by nature, doesn’t want to be another color. It wants to breathe and age on its own,” she observed.
Her challenge was to get consistent results, every time, and a finish that wouldn’t rub off. “I couldn’t find a comprehensive dye system. I’d just pick a product and find out if it worked.”
These days, to apply colors onto leather, she uses an imported French dye system distributed by Orion Calf, Ltd. Thesystem includes a liquid dye, a liquid wax dye, a cream wax and a paste wax. “I do not work for the supplier,” she said.
“I noticed that these dyes applied differently. For instance, I could apply half the amount of dye and get better coverage. It really has changed my business.”
She works with a chrome-tanned crust leather also supplied by Orion Calf. The crust leathers, produced by two tanneries in France, are not finished at the tannery and are manufactured specifically for shoes.
“It will hold up for a dog collar. Crust leather holds color better, too. Dye color on veg-tan cowhide gets darker over time — a patina. It’s the veg-tan leather, underneath that darkens, not the dyes. Crust leather absorbs so much more color, because it doesn’t oxidize.
“Then, I finish it and wax it,” she said, of her leather artistry. “I love art on leather!”
FOR MORE INFO
Katie FioRito, artist, leatherworker
LEARN MORE ABOUT FRENCH CALFSKIN AND LEATHER DYES
Greg Carmack, sales and customer service rep for Orion Calf, Ltd., will be attending the Boot & Saddle Makers Trade Show, Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4 – 5, at MPEC, 1000 5th Street, Wichita Falls, Texas. Artist-leatherworker Katie FioRito will also be at their booth, demonstrating Orion Calf’s line of imported French leather dyes.
Also, FioRito will be giving a hands-on Dye Workshop based on using the French leather dye system, from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 6, at the above location. Sample leather and dyes will be provided for participants to learn several techniques for coloring crust leathers, should they wish to purchase. Admission is $250.