The Silicon Valley of Leather

At the end of 2015, my company This Is Ground was facing a growing problem: growth. We wanted to meet the demand for our product without compromising the soul of our production.

This Is Ground has been designed and produced in downtown LA since its inception in 2013. From the beginning, we partnered with a startup factory in order to expand production. But now our customers are worldwide, and the costs and delays of international commerce — customs and duties and high shipping costs — represent significant points of friction. We recognized that there was value in expanding our production capabilities internationally, but we wanted to stay as close as possible to the people producing our goods, to have the same daily, reciprocal relationship we’ve had with our DTLA factory.

So I flew to Italy, because Italy is basically the Silicon Valley of leather goods. The mission: to find expert leatherworkers able to nail the details that we feel sets our line apart. I wanted to make a connection, not just with the factories but also with the people making the leather, to meet the craftspeople, to feel each material and to see to it that the standards of quality were the highest in the world.

This was my mission, but the journey turned out to be more of an adventure than I could ever have imagined.

Working with a contact in Italy, Mr. F, I had three factories to visit in five days. Before I left LA, I had each factory make a prototype so we could discuss the goals of This Is Ground, and I could really understand their approach to picking leather and to our products.

Factory 1 near Monza

My first stop was Milan, where I met up with Mr. F. We had two factories to visit right away near Monza. The first factory was large and gleaming, with modern facilities and a highly organized production line. The quality was amazing, but we recognized quickly that with this shop we risked becoming just another client. They did stuff for Louis Vuitton; they were very capable of making beautiful goods but they were so busy and had so many clients, that we weren’t really getting the more intimate connection we were going for.

Factory 2 near Milan

The other factory near Milan was a lot smaller. The couple who ran this factory was super enthusiastic, even greeting us with a tray of espresso and local chocolates. They really got the brand, and we loved their samples, but I was concerned about their ability to grow with the demand we’ve been experiencing. An essential part of expanding in Italy was finding a production house able to grow with us.

Our journey continued as we headed south toward Tuscany. We rented a car, and I was driving for the first time in Europe, and it started raining. At 21 I lived in Italy for seven months and even had a girlfriend in Florence, so I’m clearly still super fluent today. On the way south to Tuscany we stopped at every Autogrill and drank an estimated gazillion espressos.

Tuscany is the center of the vegetable tanned leather universe, and it’s why we were headed there. Tuscany and leather, this is the motherland. I was already a big fan: vegetable tanned leather is dyed utilizing tannins instead of synthetic colors. Common tannins used come from chestnut, quebracho wood, mimosa bark, and other natural wood and plant sources. The tannins from these actually provide the color for the leather. On an ecological and environmental level, it’s a much friendlier process.

Peeling bark for the tannery in Prattsville, New York, during the 1840s, when it was the largest in the world

Vegetable Tannage: “A generic term to cover the process of making leather by the use of tannins obtained from barks, woods or other parts of plants and trees, as distinguished from “mineral tannages.”

Drum preparing our leather

I was excited to meet people who are born into the heritage of vegetable tanning, who are raised with the inherited knowledge of a precise, thousand-year-old industry in Tuscany. Ultimately, it would be these people who would handpick the hides that our products would be cut from. This amounts to hundreds of decisions about which tanning method to choose, how to wash the leather, how long and how to dry, what kind of finish is used to create a unique hand and a unique patina. The net result of all of those decisions is a signature leather that is truly custom: you can have your own color and your own texture and all of that is very custom, that should be on-brand for you.

Vampire bats own the skies in Italy

On our way to Tuscany, Mr. F and I almost died, twice. First we got lost in the mountains, driving on wet, twisting roads for hours before arriving at a dead-end cabin that looked like a set from the Walking Dead (COD: zombies). I slammed the rental in reverse and gunned it back down the mountain. Hours later, in the early dark morning we finally reached our hotel. I parked under an olive tree that turned out to be full of bats who flew into a flurry around our heads when we got out of the car (COD: vampire bats). All of these fears were probably intensified because it was two in the morning and by this point we were exhausted. We checked into the hotel and ended the night with a whiskey and a cigarette.

Factory 3 near Civitanova Marche, a small town on the Adriatic Coast

The next morning we were at our third factory, a medium-sized shop near Civitanova Marche, a small town on the Adriatic Coast. This day was basically 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. of just geeking out on all of their capabilities. Connecting with all the factories involved a lot of geeking out, a lot of espresso, big lunches of meat trays and wine and cheese, and talking, when that was possible. In Civitanova Marche though, we needed a translator. An Italian designer who now resides in London flew in for the meeting. His impressive design resume happened to include working on Madonna’s cone bra in the 90's!

When we left Civitanova Marche that night, we were still undecided. All three factories were amazing, and there was no clear answer for us. Each one had things that they did that were special. Part of what was hard to convey to everyone I met in Italy was that our customers genuinely like what some consider less-perfect leather. Our community loves the organic look of distressed leather. The edges don’t necessarily have to be extremely polished, and they tend to prefer a mix of stiffer and more supple hands. The folks in Italy were looking at leathers and telling me why they would have sent those leathers back, and I was telling them why our customers would have loved those leathers.

On the long drive back to Milan and Monza, we made some decisions. The Civitanova Marche factory captured my heart for a lot of reasons, including the fact that I am a dad. Basically, the majority of the people that worked there were mothers living in that small town. They would drop their kids off at school, come in and work until they were ready to go pick the children up, and that would be it for the day. The practical schedule of a craft built around parenting really appealed to me. Plus they were big enough to where they could accommodate our needs for at least the next three years, and were prepared to grow if they needed to.

me and “mum”

The other two factories will still be part of the This Is Ground family. They’ll be given some projects, but the majority of orders will be produced near Civitanova Marche. We’ve been exploring a new iPhone case in partnership with the larger factory, and we’re moving ahead with that. Meanwhile, the mom-and-pop place that loved the brand but wouldn’t be able to scale is going to become the European home of our R&D. We are constantly experimenting, and constantly have new products that need to be developed, so we’ll work with them to develop those and do smaller runs. They were really, really happy about that.

I like to call this the halo effect of the growth of this business — the corresponding growth of the supply-chain businesses we work with. Each factory that This Is Ground works with will be scaling with the company. The expansion to development in Italy in no way means the factory that we helped build in Los Angeles will be getting less work: they’re expanding as well. It’s important to me that consumers understand how we feel about all the leather factories and the people that build our products: We’re honored to work with them.

Our LA factory will still be tasked with a majority of our production — This is Ground will never be produced entirely overseas. It matters to me that the factory in LA is still growing and happy. The reality is simply that we need more people making our goods to keep up with global demand.

I feel like, whatever goes into making a product — there’s an energy there, and if people that are designing and building it aren’t happy and don’t have a connection with the brand, then there’s a bit of missed soul that doesn’t go into the product. It’s a priority of ours to make sure there’s healthy connections with anyone working on the products.

Beginning in April 2016, we’re excited to share that we’ll be bringing the soul of Italy’s long history of leatherwork to thisisground.com.