Maverick Matt Durbin
by Gene Fowler
“I don’t like things that look all cookie-cutter,” says Matt Durbin, when asked how he got interested in working with leather. “I always hated it when somebody had on the same clothes I did. Even in high school, when I worked at Cavendar’s Western Wear, I didn’t like it when a guy walked in one day wearing the same shirt I had on. I always wanted to express myself more as an individual.”
Not to worry, hombre. The leather wallets, belts, spur straps and other custom leather items Matt builds at Durb’s Leather, in his home workshop in Leander, Texas—on the northwest edge of Austin—are pure-dee originals. Matt’s a maverick.
Of course, a leather artist can craft a unique vision and style in any corner of the good old USA and beyond. But it’s a known and undisputed fact that Texas invented the maverick. The big state offered up a name and a definition for folks who don’t follow the herd. And Durbs—as Matt, his brothers and his dad were all dubbed—has clearly absorbed that spirit of lone-coyote independence.
The story goes all the way back to 2014, when Matt was attending Texas A&M University. Having developed a love of the outdoors and the western lifestyle while spending time at family ranches in Central Texas, he’d enrolled as an agribusiness major. In his freshman year, he got a hankerin’ to have a custom belt made. “But I was a broke college kid,” Matt recalls, “and when I looked at the prices, I started thinking maybe I should get into a hobby…and that maybe that hobby should be leatherwork.”
He started by checking out YouTube videos, but soon ran across the leathercraft work of Clayton Kinney, who at the time also lived in College Station. “I reached out to him on Instagram and asked if he’d ever taught anybody how do create custom leatherwork.” As it turned out, Kinney himself had apprenticed with College Station-area saddlemaker Don Gonzales and agreed to take Matt on.
Matt worked with Clayton part-time for about three years while finishing college. “We started off slow—he said he would teach me one tool at a time, beginning with beveling.” Then, over time, Kinney added bar grounding, pear shading, thumb prints, edging and skiving. “There were two things he didn’t teach me,” adds Matt with a mischievous grin, “how to use a sewing machine and how to use a swivel knife. He kept saying, ‘We’ll do that later.’ And I’m still mad about it and he knows it. I eventually picked up a swivel knife and figured it out. But it was my worst enemy for a long time.”
Joshing aside, the leather artist adds that “Clayton taught me a ton of stuff, like how to really use your tools well. And his and Don Gonzales’ work is the best I’ve ever seen. I aspire to make mine look as good as theirs does.” Kinney has since relocated his own CDK Leather to Austin. “We share secrets back and forth,” says Matt. “If I can’t figure something out, I’ll call him and vice versa.”
Like many leather artists, Matt had grown up scratching an artistic itch. “I was always drawing and painting. I even did sculpture. But while I loved it, I wasn’t in love with it, ya know? But that’s where I developed my creativity and hand-to-eye coordination.” Agreeing with this interviewer that the art world can sometimes be a little nuts, Matt continues, “But when I discovered leatherwork, I fell in love with it. Leather was the medium I had been missing the whole time.”
When Kinney left town, before Durbin graduated, Matt took his own growing tool collection home and slowly started getting and filling orders for pieces from his buddies and family members. Then in August 2018, agribusiness degree in hand, Matt and his fiancée Maeghan moved to his grandpa’s ranch near the Central Texas oil patch town of Luling, where she performed her student teaching residency. While applying for jobs, Matt also spent a little time advancing his leather skills and know-how at Luling’s venerable Slade’s Saddle Shop.
Slade’s origins can be traced back to Uvalde, Texas. In 1929, Will A. Slade took over Uvalde saddlery that had been started by one A. M. Rice back in 1883. “One of Will Slade’s early customers,” says the Luling saddlery’s website, “was an old friend and schoolmate by the name of Will Rogers. Other notable characters to go down in the Slade hall of fame include former Texas governor Dolph Briscoe, General George Patton and Pancho Villa.”
Today the saddlery is run by Will Slade’s grandson, Will G. Paradeaux and Will G.’s son, Will Slade Paradeaux. “My mom grew up in Uvalde,” Matt explains, “and my grandfather knew Will Paradeaux.” Durbin adds that he started building a saddle at Slade’s, but soon discovered that his true calling was for smaller pieces of leatherwork. “I love it when the space you have to draw and tool in is smaller…. I just find that more interesting, artistically.”
While applying for ag jobs in the Luling area, Matt confided to Maeghan that he still had an order list for custom leather goods that was about six weeks long and asked her what she thought he should do. “Make it work,” responded his better half. “Go for it.” But even before the couple moved to Luling, she had another piece of good advice.
“You need to put your name on your work,” she advised, apparently aware of leathercraft traditions. “You need a maker stamp, so people will know it’s yours.”
“I didn’t have a clue about that at first,” Matt confides. “About what to call it. I didn’t want to go by Durbin’s Leather and then I remembered the family nickname, Durbs. I designed the maker’s stamp and Maeghan had it made for me as a gift to help me launch.” Durb’s it became, and Durb’s Leather the growing business remains. Instagram, of course, has been one of the most important reasons for that growth. “It took a little while to get traction on Instagram,” Matt adds. “To make it work for you, it’s essential that you take quality photographs of your work and it’s a good idea to post every day. People like that consistency of activity.”
Maeghan started a teaching job in Leander in January 2019, and Durb’s Leather has been based in the fast-growing city—by some metrics it’s the fastest-growing city of more than 50,000 in the entire country—ever since.
One lady customer, who reached out to Matt after seeing his work on Instagram, wanted a tooled piece of art in the shape of the state of Texas. “I wasn’t sure what she wanted at first,” Matt recalls. “But when we got on the same page, she said she wanted floral tooling to fill in the state outline and that it should be 24 X 24 inches. It’s one of the items I’ve made that I’m proudest of, and when I finished it, I kinda wanted to keep it. But she sent a photo of it hanging on her wall and it looks great.”
A floral-tooled sunglasses case was also too sharp-and-sweet to let get out the door. “I saw one a while back that Seth Stidham had done out in Johnson City, and I built one even though I didn’t have an order for it. When my wife saw it, she said, ‘This is sooo cool. I’m gonna keep it.’”
While the distinctive floral tooling on Matt’s belts, wallets and other items looks as fine as that of more seasoned leatherhands, his geometric designs have become a “game changer” for the young artist. “It’s a shading technique called cross hatch,” he explains. “It’s more modern, not very western and definitely not old-school. Ever since I first put a couple of them up on Instagram, I’ve had continuous orders for them. I haven’t seen anyone else doing it and it’s that unique aspect of leatherwork that translates into there being enough business for everybody. When people see my stuff, I want them to say, ‘That looks like Matt Durbin’s leatherwork.’”
When it comes to sourcing, Matt is a Hermann Oak man all the way. “I buy from the sales rep, about 10 to 15 sides at a time. Their grade B veg tan has spoiled me rotten. I never use anything else.”
Down the road, Durbs may follow the lead of his mentors, and of so many leathercraft artists, by sharing his know-how with a younger generation. “I’m thinking our next house will have a bigger shop in a separate structure,” he says. “And then I could see myself taking on an apprentice or two. But I’d be teaching them how to make their patterns better, not mine. I’d want ‘em to be originals.”
Like all good makers of custom leather goods, Matt builds his creations to last. Perhaps some of his distinctive leatherwork will even end up gracing the personages of future Leannes. In 1982, archeologists unearthed the skeletal remains of an 11,000-year-old woman near Leander whom they named Leanne. And listening to Matt talk about the desire for his work to flow with an organic, balanced look, I can’t help thinking how the “Leanderthal Lady” must have approached her world.
Organic. Balanced. Flow. I am certain she would concur.
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