For four decades, Frank Clegg has fought industry uncertainty and fair-weather trends. Today, he and his two sons are setting a new benchmark for American leathermaking.
Stacks of patterns, various tools, pieces of leather and bits of brass hardware are spread out around Frank Clegg on a broad table. Eighteen thousand square feet of workshop in Fall River, Massachusetts, hard along the border with Rhode Island, is littered with machines of all shapes and marques at which a handful of workers join in his quiet craftsmanship. Beyond, Frank’s sons, Ian and Andrew, shift from station to station. The whole ensemble feels like a human solar system drawn together by the humble mantra Frank has espoused for over 40 years: Make it right, never rush.
Though the notion of well-crafted American goods feels vital today against the backdrop of upstart Slow Movement companies capitalizing on rising interest in couture goods, Frank Clegg’s approach has been, at times, radically divergent from the status quo.
Clegg got his start in 1970, a time when brand names were of lesser importance than the quality of their products. In fact, much of his early business was custom work; people wanted luggage that was well-crafted and built to their specifications. This kind of personalized work mandated expert technique and extreme attention to detail.
Clegg’s resiliency was matched only by assiduous innovation and reinterpretation of his own designs.
By the late 1980s, though, much of the American leatherworking industry — as well as many other industries across the United States — had shifted overseas, where labor and materials could be had for pennies on the dollar. This change coincided with the rise of brand-centered consumption; those who didn’t adapt were forced to close their doors. But Frank remained dedicated, and nimble.
By the mid-’90s, he had pivoted to deals with companies like Cole Haan, working as a manufacture for their leather goods while continuing to hone his own line of leather bags; his resiliency was matched only by assiduous innovation and reinterpretation of his own designs. A log carrier he made for a friend was redesigned as a midsize duffle bag, then further reimagined as a modern leather adaptation of the 19th-century carpet bag. Still, times were tough.
American tanneries had all but disappeared, and even those that remained struggled to provide quality leather. Hides suffered “rash” from insect bites and scars from barbed wire, rendering whole sections unusable. Clegg had to find other sources for leather, settling on French bull hides for the majority of his company’s goods, supplementing in English bridle leather and exotic skins such as alligator, bison and even python. Gallic bulls, he says, produce superlative hides thanks mainly to environmental factors: “There are no ticks in France, and they don’t use barbed wire. This makes for good leather without rashes or scarring.”
Today, Clegg works alongside Ian, 24, and Andrew, 27, who continue to cross the threshold of innovation with their father. Five years ago, the Cleggs integrated a CNC machine to their process — a tool, the elder Clegg says, that enables them to return to a more comprehensive way of working each hide.
“Everyone wants to make handbags, but it’s not an easy business, because of that right there,” he explains, pointing to a hide waiting to be cut. “Consistency is hard; you have to work the whole hide.”
Editor’s note: Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a love-at-first-sight sort of guy. But when Frank Clegg showed me his company’s python-skin travel duffle, my heart stopped. You can see more images of this bag here.
Click cutters, which force a sharp steel pattern through the leather, can cut only one form at time on a small workstation. This constraint, coupled with quality variance from hide to hide, can lead to wasted material or cuts into suboptimal material. The CNC machine allows the Cleggs to map out the pattern for an entire bag electronically, conserving precious leather and ensuring a better cut for the end product, and the end user.
But differentiation in the modern leather market is also a challenge. And with more and more consumers buying brand first and product second, smaller operations like Frank Clegg have to stay focused on their core offering. Andrew Clegg, the company’s special-projects and production manager, believes their goods are distinguished by the particulars incorporated at each step in the process.
Nearly every facet of a Frank Clegg product is produced by hand, from finished edges to rivets. Each item that passes through the family-run workshop is a master class in how production should be.
“How do you make something your own?” he asks. “Details. It’s identifying those details and implementing them throughout the product line. That’s what’s important to us.”
Something as simple as a zipper can make the difference between a good product and a great one. Frank was an early disciple of Riri, a Swiss-based zipper company that goes to great lengths to ensure perfection, even placing individual teeth by hand. In fact, nearly every facet of a Frank Clegg product is produced by hand, from finished edges to rivets. Each item that passes through the family-run workshop is a master class in how production should be.
“Human touches,” Andrew says, “elevate the product.”
Elevate indeed: A few minutes with a Frank Clegg bag is enough time for any attentive consumer to see the excellent craftsmanship. And at prices that are much lower than the big names from Italy and France, Clegg’s products stand easily head and shoulders above.
The market seems to have caught on, too. Frank Clegg Leatherworks now operates in 19 countries, selling bags, wallets and other accessories to more than 40 different retailers spanning the globe from Manhattan to Oslo and Kuala Lumpur. Even Barack Obama got the memo.
International acclaim, Frank, Andrew and Ian say, is great. But they continue to focus the ethos that they’ve stitched into every one of their products: attention to detail, innovation and a love for making something truly beautiful.