On the Fringe 

By B. Crawford 

People in Austin, Texas, like to live on the fringe of music, architecture, business and politics. But no one lives more on the fringe of the Austin fashion scene than Kimberly Brown, the founding force behind Austin-based Fringe Hill Design.  

“When I started my company, I felt like I was on the fringe of everything. Like I didn’t fit in perfectly anywhere. I was just a little of this and a little of that. It took me a while to accept my style and that it was ok to combine my styles –western, Mexican and bohemian beach – but I just did it. I always just kind of go for it.” 

Western, but unique. That’s how Kimberly describes the look of Fringe Hill design. She creates everything from handbags to saddle wallets, zip-up wallets to backpacks, most of which are fringed, but all of which demonstrate a look that combines classic leathercraft with a variety of colorful fabrics from artisans south of the border.  

“My bags are designed by me in my workshop,” Kimberly says, “I mix western and bohemian style with Mexican traditional style. They are mix of fringe, cowhide and colorful weaving or embroidery. I like them to be neutral enough for every day, but not boring. Maybe just a little unexpected color or design, but not overwhelming. Subtle I think.”  

Each piece is a unique leather collage, with a history all its own. Oh, if only Fringe Hill bags could talk. If they could, they would have a lot to say about Kimberly, hard work, creativity and the craft traditions of Mexico and Texas.  

Designing western-style fashion items is nothing new for Kimberly Brown. “I’ve been sewing since I was a child, probably since I was 10 years old,” she says. A Dallas native, she learned her sewing skills from her grandmother and great grandmother who were dress designers in San Angelo, Texas. Kimberly married a man from Vermont. The Yankee and the Texan set out on the adventure of a lifetime, moving to the small beach town of Sayulita, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta.  

“I surfed every day!” Kimberly says. “The town was very small and casual back then. I created a small shop in the square with one of my best friends. It wasn’t only a store; it was also a gathering place for our friends. My sewing machine was set up in the back, and I made flowery beach-style dresses and handbags out of artisan fabrics. I used recycled fabrics like pillowcases and sheets, kitchen towels and whatever I could find around town. I’d finish a dress and hang it up. Then it would sell. That was the pattern. My sewing skills probably quadrupled during that time,” Kimberly says, “but I could still just put a “Gone Surfing” sign in the window and close down in the middle of the day.”  

When Kimberly discovered that she was pregnant with twins, she and her husband decided to leave Sayulita and move back to Texas to be near her family. The twins passed away at birth. It was an unspeakable tragedy that Kimberly faced with unbelievable grace. “I am not sad,” she says. “I’m grateful for everything in my life.” Kimberly’s strength is truly a blessing, and an inspiration, for all of us. 

Kimberly stopped sewing for a while and focused on her family. She had a son, and when he grew into a healthy, raucous and (sometimes) exhausting kid, “the urge to create just crept back in.”  

Kimblerly says, “One day I woke up and said ‘I’m buying a machine. Not a little machine. I’m getting an industrial machine and making leather bags. My friend in Mexico introduced me to a belt maker and another friend introduced me to a bag maker. Both meetings were the natural next step…happening organically.” Kimberly began working with materials supplied by her friends south of the border and so began Fringe Hill in 2017.  

Why the name Fringe Hill? “My style before was beach bohemian. As I grew up, I lived in Texas, Idaho and Utah. At that time, I was western. Western was in my blood. My husband is from a farming family in Vermont. They are all horses and cows. So, that added a touch of western New England to the mix. Then we moved to Mexico, and my style became beach bohemian. When I moved back to Texas, I was confused about whether or not my style was Mexico bohemian or western and I eventually combined the two styles. This was how Fringe Hill began.”  

At first Kimberly sewed every bag in her home, using upcycled leather and vintage belts. As her business expanded, the workshop in her home expanded as well. “My shop takes up two and a half rooms in our house,” Kimberly says. “I have debated many times renting a spot as my business has grown, but the convenience and comfort is just too good. It is inevitable though that I will need to move out one day.” 

When she looks around her shop, Kimberly sees several sewing machines, piles of leather, magazines, photographs, fabrics, embroidery, a mannequin, tons of handbags, belts, and some clothes she’s made, buttons, ribbons, pillowcases, leather scraps, leather working tools, Fringe Hill paraphernalia – bits and pieces of a leather worker’s life. 

Kimberly in Mexico searching for new artisans!

She began her search for artisans in Mexico by knocking on doors, looking for people to help her sew. Now, after many years, her main artist is a master leather worker in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico. Like Kimberly, he also learned his craft from a grandparent, his grandfather, who was a master artisan shoemaker. Thankfully, this artisan traded shoes for handbags and now works with a team of eight master artisans who have worked together for more than 10 years. Kimberly says, “Alfredo (the artist) picks every piece of leather from cows locally sourced in Mexico.”  

She is constantly on the lookout for new/old woven fabrics, vintage western-style silver and decorative embossed leathers. Fringe Hill bags feel as good as they look. Like pre-washed jeans, there is no need to break them in, these items already have the soft smooth feel of a well-worn saddle.  

“We pick out the best leather. The people I work with know if it’s the best leather, that’s the one I want. They also hand wax each bag to protect it and create a textured, oily look. We like vintage too. Always creating a vintage distressed look. It’s just a style I like, not sure why. I like the smell. I also like creating art out of something that could be tossed out. My mother-in-law is a dairy farmer who raises cows and she is so happy to see what I do with her animals. Their skin is being used and made beautiful after they are gone.” 

Today, Kimberly works with a small team in her Austin shop, putting together handbags, answering customer queries, and discussing hides, designs and new ideas; all in all, what Kimberly calls bag talk, the international language of business and women’s accessories.  

Kimberly also works with textile artisans in Oaxaca, Mexico. She partners with a family-owned business that creates vibrant and intricate textiles incorporating designs steeped in centuries-old Aztec and Zapotec traditional symbolism. One of her partners in Oaxaca says it best, “We work with our hands and minds to bring alive our culture. Our goal is to work in solidarity to produce and commercialize high-quality textiles. We are supporting the use of eco-systems to produce our natural dyes. The sources we use to dye our fibers come from nature. Using these natural resources gives us great satisfaction that we are not harming our environment.” 

“They are made in small batches by very talented artisans who believe in creating good work,” Kimberly says. “I prefer quality work over lower price, and I’m willing to pay for it. Quality over quantity for sure. I could have them made for a lot less, and have had many people reach out to me offering this, but it is not worth it to me. I’d rather sell less and have a better product.”   

Thank goodness Kimberley enjoys traveling to work with her partners. “I’ve always loved traveling,” Kimberly says, and she has the stories to prove it. “I camped in a tent next to the mafia once in the Michoacan. We were surfing and they showed up. There wasn’t much we could do. Then the next morning, I taught a yoga class on the beach in Spanish while they stood 10 feet from us with their guns. I was more adventurous back then. I’d never do that now. We stay in hotels. My son gets homesick, so the trips have become shorter, but he has traveled more than most adults.”  

Every trip for Kimberly is a treasure hunt, a great way to experience a new culture from the perspective of the talented artists within that culture. She is always inspired by what she sees, what others suggest and the unexpected treasures that come along her path. She is able to keep in close touch with Mexico, and is expanding to Guatemala for her new line of woven products. Her new partners in Guatemala use high-quality, full-grain leather from locally sourced cows. They use backstrap looms and a special weaving technique in which the design is dyed before it is loaded onto the loom. 

 “I’m still very new to the country and to the textiles from there. So that is what I will explore next.”  

Is it tough working with far-flung craftspeople? “Honestly, I don’t have many problems. We get along great. Shipping can be a nightmare and expensive, but the people I work with are wonderful. I wouldn’t work with someone if it was difficult or I had any bad feelings about it.”  

Every leather craftsman knows that running a small business is incredibly stressful. How does Kimberly deal with the stress? “I am a runner and do yoga almost every day. Before sewing was my business, it was what I did in my free time. I also like to paint. My husband is a chef, so we eat a lot. I help him with his business as well.” Kimberly has always found a way to mix business with pleasure.  

The Austin style, laid back, western and a little grungy, has also had an impact on Kimberley’s creations, and Fringe Hill has developed a strong position in this quirky competitive market. Tribeza, Austin’s magazine guide to hip, gave Fringe Hill a great write-up. Austin Monthly Magazine crowned Fringe Hill Design as the provider of the Best Leather Bags in Texas’ capital city. And that reputation is growing across the country. One Fringe Hill customer in South Dakota, complimented a woman she saw in a mall on her leather handbag only to discover that it was also from Fringe Hill. Both women were surprised and gratified that Fringe Hill had made it all the way to Mt. Rushmore. 

Why are Fringe Hill handbags hitting the mainstream? “I think they are different. I think they are good quality at a good price. The mix of western with traditional Mexico is unique. I have a style and I stick with it. I think people like knowing where they come from, the story.” From South Dakota to South Texas, the Fringe Hill story goes on. 

Every year, Scotland hosts the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Does Kimberley have any plans to launch an Austin Fringe Festival, the world’s largest festival of fringed leather goods? “I can BARELY keep up with my business, social media and child,” Kimberly laughs, “so I try not to think of starting anything new, but the idea sounds intriguing!” 

Photographs Courtesy of Julie Moore 

Photographs Courtesy of Fringe Hill Bags

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