O.N.S X Slightly Alabama: An Uncommon Collaboration
What sets Slightly Alabama apart from other small handcrafted leather goods brands in the USA?
I’d say that there are probably three key elements that distinguish us from many brands, relating to design, technique and operation.
First is our design aesthetic, which is obviously what distinguishes any brand from another. For me, design is the most important. Sure, we have a great American made “story” and we handcrafted everything ourselves. But if your designs can’t be judged independently of where and how they’re made, then I think you’re providing a slightly inferior experience to the customer. Of course our design aesthetic isn’t for everyone, but it is something we put at the forefront. If I don’t feel that we’re providing something of value to the design discourse that is happening by offering a fresh perspective on a current product category or inventing a new product, we try to stay away from doing it. On a more granular level, I enjoy playing with symmetry and balance in design, working with curves and angles, and combining elements of minimalism with functional embellishments, which for me just means design that is self-evident where if you see something that appears to be a unique design feature you should easily be able to discover that it was designed that way primarily for its function.
Second for us is our approach, which is to use really traditional techniques of leather working and hone the craft. I always tell my team, that if a single piece left our workshop and was to be the basis upon which our entire brand was judged, would it represent us as the best of the best. That goes true for our technique as well. If we were to be judged in our workshop by a master craftsman from a century ago, would he watch us work and evaluate us as being worthy of the craft.
Third, is our operation itself, which is built on an apprenticeship model. My goal is to pass the craft of leather making and product design on. I don’t hire people who already “know” what they’re doing. I want people who have a passion for this stuff, but don’t know where to start and then I train them in everything from studio management to customer service to design and, of course, in the craftsmanship itself. In this way, everyone on my team has a sense of ownership over every aspect of the brand and is able to respond to customer’s needs much more efficiently.
There’s definitely a rustic southern feel to your products. How has the South influenced your design process?
I’d say more than anything, the South has influenced my approach to running the business and the vision I have for my brand. Growing up in a small town in a family of “do-it-yourselfers.” I have this underlying drive to figure everything out on my own. I’m a designer first and foremost, but I’ll also never outsource our production. The goal is to always “keep it in the family.” In this, we’re happy staying small and growing at our own pace, which I think is a very Southern thing.
As it relates to the designs themselves, I do think the idea of practicality is infused into our designs. We’re not seeking embellishments for the sake of it or designing something that feels on trend. The South is about utility and practical functionality, and that’s something I bring to every piece we design. And we also want the craftsmanship itself to be on display and I think that’s where the “rustic southern feel” comes from.
When you say “Made in America,” where specifically are you making the line and how big is the team behind the production?
About six years ago, my wife and I moved to Manhattan (she’s also in the fashion industry and, of course, the city is one of the most important fashion capitals to be in). So we live in Manhattan, but I have a studio in Ridgewood, Queens on the Brooklyn/Queens divide. I operate out of an 8,000 square foot garment factory that’s been around for about sixty years. It’s a collective of like-minded brands that share the space and many of use have become good friends sharing customers and insights on the industry and craftsmanship. Currently, I have two other guys on my team full time building all of our inventory, but we ramp up and down based on demands and seasons.
Your team handsews leather goods instead of using a sewing machine. Can you briefly take us through the process?
The majority of our products are hand sewn, though we do use two vintage walking foot sewing machines for our larger bags, which would be completely unaffordable if we did them by hand. However, the design process for even our largest bags always starts with a hand sewn prototype.
The handsewing process includes clicking out the pattern with a knife from a side of leather and usually doing some prepping to the patterns (dyeing edges, gluing, branding, beveling, skiving, etc…). The actual stitching process is three steps. First, we mark a line parallel to the edge of the leather with a wing divider, which scores a straight line where we’ll set our stitching marks. Secondly, we follow along that line with a tool called a pricking iron, which looks like a fork with 10 or 12 prongs on it and hammer little stitch holes. Finally, we use an awl in one hand to pierce the holes while passing a single thread with needles on either end back and forth through each stitching hole. The whole leather piece we’re working on is held between a stitching clam that sits between our legs so that our hands are free.
How does the design process start for you – Is it very abstract at first or do you already have the finished product in mind when you start?
I’m constantly in a mode of observation and research, so that by the time I start working on an actual product, I’ve been sort of designing in my head for a while. I work out about 80% of the designs in my head before ever sketching or assembling anything. For me it always starts with identifying a need or problem I’m trying to address, then envisioning what the final product might look like. Then I start to explore the model in my head and reverse engineer the manufacturing process. Once I think I’m onto something, I’ll usually grab some leather and start cutting and assembling to test the idea out. From that point, it’s an iterative process of refining by making, sketching, and making some more. Once I’ve dialed in all of the details. I turn to the computer to refine the dimensions and create a full tech pack. Then we start making oak tag patterns, having the die made, and refining the manufacturing process. The whole process often takes several months just to get one piece right.
About how long does it take to finish one bag – for example the weekender duffle in the O.N.S collaboration capsule?
The weekender is a big one. This piece has about 20 hours of work going into each one.
You source your leather from Chicago and Pennsylvania. Can you tell us more about the kind of leathers and methods used in making your bags?
We source our leather from all over based on the type of piece we’re trying to make, but our primary tanneries are Horween tannery in Chicago, Herman Oak in Missouri, and Wickett & Craig in Pennsylvania. Each of these tanneries are known for their quality of leathers and processes and have been operating for more than 100 years. They also adhere to EPA guidelines on tanning processes and ensure to keep up with best environmentally friendly practices while continuing to innovate on the tanning methods and products they produce. We use both chrome tanned and vegetable tanned leathers and the process to tanning a hide is extensive. Many people don’t realize how different and actual animal hide looks like from the final product and people often confuse an animal hide for “leather”. Leather is actually the product of tanning an animal hide, which gives it it’s durability, flexibility, hand feel, color, etc… All of the things we love about leather.
We buy leather by the side, which is essentially a half of a cow hide. All of our products are made from blemish free leather, though we use top grain, which means you’ll sometimes get a piece where we’ve cut the cattle branding marks into the piece. If the cow was branded, the scar from that will still show through after the tanning process and so you could get a piece that has the scar from the brand itself still visible, which makes it a truly unique piece.
How will the bags in this collaboration age with use, and what would be your advice be for caring for these leather products?
One of the key features with the leather we use in this collection is its “pull-up”, which is a term that defines how the leather will get lighter and the color richer when you bend or pull on the leather. So the more you use the leather, the more the color will show variation. It creates a beautiful piece that is unique to each person’s use of the product. I like to think of it as “marbling” on a steak, which might not be the best comparison but it gets the idea across. The other thing is that this leather will scratch fairly easily and then the oils and waxes in the leather and in your hands will start to blend the scratches back into the surface, which helps to age the piece. I always tell customers that the scratching is one of the features of the leather and the more, the better. It’s also a really soft leather that should never dry out or crack due to it being “stuffed” with oils and waxes.
Can you talk briefly about the different items in the O.N.S capsule. Also what’s your favorite item in the collection and why?
The key design signature of this collection is what we call the “chevron.” You’ll see this angle in the front flap of every piece we made. We tried to carry a single theme throughout the collection while also discovering unique design elements in each one that set it apart while serving the functional needs of that piece. For example, in the duffle bag we have these cinches on either side that whelp to compact the bag, seal it up, and also define its design silhouette, which was inspired by vintage doctor bags. In the tote bag and the duffle, you’ll also see these d-ring caps we designed that are a unique way of attaching the shoulder strap while incorporating the d-rings into the design themselves. It looks like they’re a part of the design rather than being haphazardly attached because we just need to make sure you had a shoulder strap. Our backpack and our briefcase might be two of my favorite pieces. They’re both a unique take on this product type, offering just a hint of minimalism with enough of design to make them stand out. I’ve personally never been a backpack guy before, but this one will be my go-to piece from the collection.
What are some ways in which the design process for the O.N.S collaboration was different from designing your own core line?
First and foremost, it was the most collaborative process I’ve ever gone through. It was important to me to understand the O.N.S. ethos and design principles, to research the customer types extensively, and then understand the vision of the O.N.S. team and be able to bring everything together into a design system that brought to life the vision that O.N.S. had for their brand rather than just doing what I wanted. It was a very satisfying process and in many ways allowed me to produce some of my favorite designs I’ve ever done.
Secondly, it was a continuous process of designing, prototyping and presenting to the team. Then we would all sit around the table with the team from NYC and Hong Kong and refine every detail while always keeping the larger picture in mind. I rarely get such ongoing feedback from my designs and have the opportunity to think through an entire collection as we did with this process. I think this ultimately allowed us to create a collection that is truly unique and stands with its own voice.
Lastly, any exciting plans or projects dropping soon you can tell us about?
Well, this collection is really the most exciting thing we have going on right now. But, we’re also slated to release a collaboration with Gola later this year. We designed our own Slightly Alabama x Gola leather tennis shoe and hand-stitched the uppers in our studio using our traditional techniques, which took about 4 hours per pair. These will then be sent to the Gola factory in the UK where they’ll finish assembly and last them before sending back to us. We only made 18 pairs, so I’m excited to see these come together.
Continue following the journey of Dana Glaeser’s Slightly Alabama here.