“The Proof Is in the Patina”
Leather Products as Distinctive as the Company Name
By Gene Fowler
Brothers Chris and Kirk Bray—owners of the Jersey City-based quality leather gear company Billykirk—know a thing or two about savvy branding. Really, has there ever been a cooler company handle than the peppy Billykirk? It almost yodels with glee as it pops off your tongue.
Creators of distinctive bags, wallets, totes, belts, card cases, molded valet trays, accessories for keys, bikes, cameras and much more, the brothers had realized the value of a catchy name way back when they were in high school. Chris even designed a business card with the distinctive word at the time. Doubtless, it’s one of the first things inquiring minds inquire about. “My full name is William Kirkland Bray,” explains brother Kirk, “and our dad used to call me Billykirk.” Even as teens, the brothers could see that the quirky handle makes for a brilliant brand name.
The Brays first experienced the pleasures of leatherwork while growing up in Minnesota. “Our dad painted and sculpted, and our mother made all our clothes, so there was always a creative, do-it-yourself atmosphere around the house,” explains Chris. “And our dad, who was also into hunting and fishing, had a workshop at home where he would make knife scabbards and other things out of leather. So as kids, Kirk and I got a little taste of wet-molding leather, wax casting and other techniques.”
The bros Bray always knew they would start a business together someday. They just didn’t know what it would be. “It could have been furniture design or any number of things,” says Chris. But like so many leather artisans, it was the functional mystique found in one specific item that put them on the path.
“It was 20 years ago,” Chris recalls. “We had moved together out to Los Angeles—I’d wanted to explore the acting world and to pay the bills I’d decided to get into real estate. Kirk was working at a coffee shop, but we still had the idea of someday going into business.” Then one day while browsing in a pawn shop, Kirk came across a cuff-size leather watch strap. “It was from the late ‘60s or early ‘70s,” adds Chris, “about an inch and a quarter wide. That was the catalyst. People at the coffee shop kept asking him where he got it, and then one day he came to my office and said, ‘This is it. This is what we’re gonna make.’”
Researching the cuff-style watch strap as a utilitarian piece, the brothers discovered that it was a cyclical fashion item. “Guys in prehistoric days made them for protection out in the field,” Chris continues. “Soldiers wore them and when they got home their sons and daughters decided they were cool. Look at Norman Rockwell’s painting Rosie the Riveter—she’s wearing cuffs. Elvis wore them in Jailhouse Rock, and you know how influential Elvis Presley was.”
The brothers started the business slowly, making three different widths. They also realized they needed to learn some fundamentals of leatherwork. Consulting the Yellow Pages, they found a fellow named Steven who operated a Los Angeles company called Caldelle Leather. “He was a hippie throwback,” says Chris, “with a big mustache and a scarab necklace—and he was an old-school leathercrafter. We must have caught him on a good day because we peppered him with questions and he gave us a mountain of information on things like where to go for the best leathers, whether a certain thing needed six to seven-ounce leather or nine to ten-ounce leather, whether we should use top grain or latigo.”
Chris and Kirk bought leather from their teacher and sat around in their apartment cutting pieces to make them fit together. “And that’s when we realized we needed a rivet setter, a splitter and—well, we needed a lot of tools,” says Chris.
Another mentor, Arnold Aaron with Aaron’s Manufacturing, rented them shelf space to get their business started. “He did big piece work,” recalls Chris, “in military volume, so he had great equipment. His son was an attorney and his daughter was a vegan, so they weren’t interested in the business. He taught us how to skive leather, how to put a buckle on a strap, all kinds of things. We were there for three years, schooled by an expert. But before we went out on our own and rented a place, we bought some equipment from Arnold, including a 1919 skiving machine and some 1940s jack shears. We still use them today.”
Around 2005, the Billykirkers made the decision to relocate to the East Coast, partly because Chris’ wife hails from jolly old England and being on the Atlantic seaboard cut flight time in half for visits back home. They were also doing a lot of trade shows in eastern states at the time. It was tough, Chris recalls, leaving the employees who had come on board, but the brothers helped them find new jobs.
One employee, whom Chris remembers as an especially talented leathercrafter was a Vietnamese-American named Lap Lu. “He was a former tank commander with an eagle tattooed on his chest. He fought the Vietcong, was captured, and spent eight years in the Hanoi Hilton. When he came to the States in 1981, he went from eating rice and being tortured to valet parking cars in Beverly Hills. He was an amazing man.”
The brothers found affordable square footage in Jersey City, New Jersey, in a building Gentleman’s Quarterly described as “a sunny loft in an old margarine-and-tobacco warehouse overlooking the Hudson.” Their usual quarters in the building, however, are currently receiving some upgrades from the landlord, and Billykirk has relocated to a temporary space a few floors up. When they move back in next April, they plan to have a small retail footprint in their headquarters and open their doors for small groups attending public events and workshops.
Some Billykirk products are made by Amish leathercrafters in Pennsylvania. “We have a great relationship with them,” explains Chris. “One family has been working with us for 16 years and over that time we’ve seen them have 14 kids. But they’re really hard workers, and they’re insulated from fluctuations of manufacturing costs. I had a guy in Connecticut, for instance, who had a Cessna and when gas prices went up, his manufacturing prices went up.”
Chris sees another benefit in the Amish lifestyle. “Visiting them is like going back to the 1850s. They’re completely unaffected by things like the political turmoil gripping the rest of the country. I feel like they can teach us what really matters in life.”
Asked for a virtual tour through their handsome product line, Chris begins with the Mechanic’s Belt. “It’s a real piece of Americana,” he says. “Our mentor’s grandfather made a similar belt for the auto industry in the 1950s. It includes a leather flap that covers the belt buckle so that the buckle won’t scratch a car’s paint job. Guitarists like it because it won’t scratch the back of their guitars. Plus, it can be worn with casual dress or with a suit.” Like most Billykirk products, it comes in black, brown, tan and natural colors.
The Billykirk Claw Buckle Belt features a buckle modeled on a piece of horse hardware. “We bought a bridle in a junk shop for two dollars,” Chris explains, “and had a lost wax copy of the buckle made. We have our claw buckles cast in white bronze.”
In the bag department, Billykirk really goes to town. The line includes briefcases, tool bags, backpacks, carryalls, schoolboy and shoulder satchels, totes (regular and “commuter”), cable pouches (in multiple colors including postal blue, camo and peanut suede), clutches, portfolios, toiletry bags, and mini and full-size musette crossbody bags.
“Frankly, we’re not fans of just fitting in…” Billykirk copy says of its No. 237 Briefcase, available in camo, black and ash, “and that doesn’t stop at the office. We made the 237 to be functional, reliable and most of all, unique. Designed with heavy use in mind, our No. 237 Briefcase is constructed with extremely durable waxed cotton canvas and latigo leather. We’ve also included our signature all-leather shoulder strap, handcrafted by a kindly Amish man. Go ahead, business with style.”
The No. 095 Shoulder Satchel is modeled after a Belgian map case from World War II. “We took parts off the case,” says Chris, “and had lost wax casts made. Most iPads will fit the map case or satchel, but the tech world changes its designs so often it can be difficult to keep up with.”
Journal covers are “super performers” as well. “They make great gift items,” adds Chris. And just like with any maker of quality leather products who know the histories of their products’ influences, talking to the Bray bros leads to a fascinating sidelight niche of American manufacturing history. In this case, the pencil that comes with the 404 Memo Holder. They’re sourced from a company in Tennessee founded by one Colonel James Raford Musgrave back in 1916. In addition to harvesting the state’s red cedar trees for pencil wood, Musgrave would provide new wire fencing to farmers in exchange for their cedar rail fences, which had weathered perfectly for making them into pencil slats.
And when it comes to sourcing leather, Billykirk also turns to some of the nation’s homegrown, blue-chip, heritage companies, such as Hermann Oak, Horween, Weaver and Wickett & Craig.
Chris Bray says it’s gratifying to see the made-by-hand craze sweeping the country, but when he and Kirk first started their company, it wasn’t trendy yet. The brothers will soon celebrate Billykirk’s 20th anniversary with a dinner party for some of their best customers. Clients range from rock-n-roller Jenny Lewis to Prudential Insurance and the Preakness. Personal appearances of the Billykirkers include such top-end events as the New York Times DealBookConference, where exhibitors can grab face time with the likes of Mark Cuban and Bill Gates, and the Brooklyn Whiskey Fest, where a ticket will only set you back 20 bucks.
By now you may be thinking, “Whoa, two brothers in business together for 20 years….how does that work?” Well, in a really excellent eight-minute movie about the company posted on Vimeo since 2009, Kirk sighs with an unseen wink before answering the question. “How is it working with my brother?….We get along great. It’s a good working relationship—we blow up at each other, but it’s, you know, within half an hour later, three hours for me, within a few minutes it’s forgotten.”
Part of that brotherly camaraderie can be attributed to the therapeutic, calming aspects of working with leather. Another factor has to be the TLC that the Billykirk brothers and their employees put into each item stamped with the company name. “We love it when customers tell us that a Billykirk item transitions from being a thing that’s relied upon to a thing that’s revered,” says Chris. “We like to think of our products as being beautifully ‘worn-in.’” Some customers have even asked the brothers to write notes of provenance about their purchases, intending to pass the leather items along to future generations. A coffee table book of Bray brothers’ creations after years of graceful aging is in the works.
“At Billykirk,” Chris adds, “the job isn’t done when an item is purchased. It isn’t done when a year, or two or three pass by. These unique leather goods become a part of their owner, evolving and molding with each passing day. The proof is in the patina.”