LEATHER OBSESSIONS: LITTLE KING GOODS
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘Let me get this straight,’ I exclaim to Ryan James over americanos in the small hamlet of Morriston, at The Folklore Barber & Company – Nathaniel Shields’ booming business offering classic men’s grooming services fueled by coffee and conversation. I continue: ‘You’re telling me that just over three years ago you’d never even worked with leather?’ Ryan picks up the steaming baby blue mug set in front of him, rolls it back and forth in the palms of his hands and, after a few seconds of pondering my query, nods affirmatively. ‘And,’ I add – my tone revealing my incredulity – ‘today you’ve got over one hundred and fifty seven thousand YouTube subscribers who watch you craft leather wallets, and bags, and computer cases?’
Ryan nods again – hints of pride spreading across his face. ‘And you’ve gone from trying to attract your first customers to a nine-week waiting list for your products?’ He puts the mug down and meets my gaze. ‘What can I say?,’ he says. ‘I’m obsessed with leather.’
And I, in turn, am obsessed with Ryan’s leather goods. Little King Goods. (It’s an eponymous name, reflecting a popular belief that the name Ryan is derived from an Old Irish term denoting ‘a little king’.)
Duffels. Wallets. Tote bags. Ipad cases. And other leather items leave me swooning. Like the dark chocolate-coloured satchel that Ryan’s brought along with him for our chat. He hoists the solid bag onto the barbershop’s poured concrete bar, placing it neatly between our americanos. And I’m mesmerized. ‘Can I hold it?,’ I ask him – referring to the bag like it’s some sort of museum piece. ‘Of course,’ replies Ryan. ‘Spend some time with it.’ I lift the satchel to my nose, close my eyes, and inhale. Deeply. Satisfying aromas of rich leather transport me to another place and time – a world filled with dapper-dressed folk, stately stone hearths, and pipe smoke.
My hands – clutching the bag near my face – caress its supple hide and pronounced seams. The tips of my fingers skim across its perfect stitching. I open my eyes and examine the weighty carryall. A thing of beauty, to be sure. Its clean design. Dark umber hue. Solid metal buckles and hand- hammered brass rivets. I unbuckle the satchel’s straps, fold back its heavy front flap, and peer inside. ‘What do you think?’ asks Ryan. It seems I’ve been silent – reverent – for far too long. I look up from the hand-crafted artifact in my hands. Blink. Blink again. And murmur: ‘I just want to crawl into it. Be enveloped by it. And take a nap.’ Ryan laughs. I laugh, too.
Fast forward an hour or so, and Ryan and I are in his basement studio – a short walk from Nathaniel’s barbershop. Leatherworking tools – everything from hand-held utensils to industrial sewing machines and embossers – fill the place. Leather bits, too. Unfinished projects and prototypes and scraps and whole hides lie in piles and boxes around the room. An imposing worktable sits in the middle of the space. I note its smooth white top and the professional lighting set-up that’s been positioned all around it. And I recognize almost right away what it is I’m looking at: Ryan’s Little King Goods stage. The one he uses for his wildly-popular YouTube videos, in which he takes his ever-growing audience through the process of creating one of his exquisite creations.
‘YouTube,’ Ryan notes, ‘and, to a lesser extent, Instagram, have proven invaluable tools for me to spread the message of my craft.’ He continues: ‘To be honest, I spend almost as much time thinking creatively about the production of my social media posts as I do about the bags I make.’ And it shows. Ryan’s YouTube video featuring him making an ipad case from scratch, for instance, is a wonderfully satisfying cinematic event that captures the imagination fromthe first shot. The fact that it has garnered over one million views is clear evidence of its success as a creative achievement that stands alone – outside of Ryan’s leatherwork. ‘Before I got into working with leather,’ Ryan remarks, ‘I was a professional photographer – working weddings and other events. When I got into leather, I never abandoned my passion for photography. Instead, I effectively amplified my leather business by showcasing it through my lens for social media audiences.’ Ryan pauses before adding: ‘It’s the perfect marriage, really.’
It’s not lost on me how ironic this all seems; that is, the fact that new technologies like YouTube and Instagram are making relevant the (seemingly near-distant) raw crafts of yesteryear. Ryan can’t help but agree. He remarks: ‘My work was getting almost no traction at all before I began posting videos of my process and products to YouTube. Now I can’t even keep up with the orders – and it’s all being driven by social media.’ Ryan points to a digital counter positioned on top of a shelving unit in the corner of his studio. As I look at it, the numeral readout keeps growing. One hundred and fifty seven thousand four hundred and six. One hundred and fifty seven thousand four hundred and seven. One hundred and fifty seven thousand four hundred and eight. Onward and upward. ‘It tracks my YouTube subscribers in real time,’ Ryan says matter-of-factly. ‘To let me know how I’m doing.’
I pick up a near-finished wallet lying on the table in front of me. Lift it to my nose, close my eyes, and inhale. Deeply. I feel the supple leather between my fingers. I open my eyes and inspect the perfect stitching. Admire it. Lust after it. And respond: ‘You’re doing just fine.’