Founder of Brave Leather on Why He Keeps Factory in Toronto
It takes guts to keep manufacturing in North America, but Scott Irvine says it also gives him flexibility
Scott Irvine is a ball of energy. As he loops around Brave Leather, the company he founded 25 years ago, his excitement is palpable. Located in an industrial area in north Toronto, the 7,000 square foot factory is a comparatively calm environment, with workers seated at different stations while they carefully go about their tasks. One oversees big sheets of leather as they’re carved up with a laser. Another worker burnishes the edges of a bag, removing hairy ends. Shelves heave with rainbow-hued piles of leather and endless finishings. Buckles alone are numbered at 400,000, not to mention rivets, which likely run in the millions.
Irvine bounces from station to station with his dog Bellsy in tow as he nimbly transforms a piece of leather into a handsome two-buckled belt. The process begins with a large piece of vegetable-tanned leather that’s been tumbled in a wooden drum to soften up the fibres. After selecting a rustic portion of the skin, the laser cutter is set up and a strip emerges. Irvine bevels the crisp edges of the just-cut piece. For a belt with a more vintage vibe, the process stops here; for more modern styles, the edges might be polished and dyed.
Next Irvine skives the belt: Its four-millimetre thickness is halved where the buckle will go to make sure the belt will lay flat once worn. Irvine then hands off the belt to his sewer, who runs it under a sewing machine, adding the buckles. She makes sure that the backtack – the line of stitching formed by sewing forwards and then backwards – hits the exact same holes as the original line. The loose ends of thread are burned off before the belt’s Western-style ends are secured at a kick press; force is exerted onto rivets, which hold the pieces in place. Finally, the belt is given a hot stamp logo and it’s ready to wear.
So that’s one belt, on one day. Billy spoke with Irvine to learn more about his quarter century in the leather business.
Q: How many belts is the factory able to produce in a day?
A: It depends on the style; one of the bestsellers is an obi sash-style belt. If we’re making it we can make 500 a day. If we’re making a plain strap belt we could make 800 in a day.
What was the first belt you ever made?
When I was a kid my uncle was a saddle maker in Nashville, Tennessee, so he taught me about working with leather. I initially started fixing hockey equipment and then I saw Thelma & Louise. Brad Pitt was wearing this really cool three-piece belt and I didn’t know where to buy one, so I bought the parts and I made it.
Karolyne Ellacott / Billy
How did you transition belt making from a personal project into a business?
I had people say to me, “That’s a cool belt.” I sold 10 or 12 of them near the end of university. I started selling stuff on the street in the gay village and it was really good for business. I had all my belts on this rack and by the end of the weekend I would always have no 32s and 34s left and lots of size 28s and 40s. So I came up with this idea to just attach the buckle and leave everything else long. I would finish it there – it would be a custom made piece. Then in January ’92 I started selling to stores.
How has the company evolved over the 25 years you’ve been in business?
I did everything by hand. Now we’re using lots of those same hand production techniques as well as computerized digital laser cutting. Formerly when we made something really complicated we’d have to do an equation. Yes, it’d be beautiful but can we sell enough to afford to make the cutting dyes? Now if we have an idea, we do it because it’s all done digitally.
How many styles of belts do you have?
I think we’re up there in about style 3,000. We usually do a collection of about 100 per season – so that’s twice a year.
Do you still make the original belt?
We’ve been making the same item – style 001 – since 1992. It’s a heavy bridle leather belt with a solid stainless steel buckle made by the Mennonites in Wallenstein [Ontario]. And occasionally I get one back after 20 years which is awesome because I always get a letter with it.
Karolyne Ellacott / Billy
Has Brad Pitt worn the belt?
I can’t make that claim!
Where do you source your leather?
Most of the leather is from Italy. Why Italy? Because they have a culture that’s very steeped in vegetable tanning. It’s their thing – that’s the way they did it in the 1800s. We use almost exclusively vegetable tanned leather, which is the environmentally safe tanning method. The other type of tannage is called chrome-tanned leather and it’s done with some nasty chemicals and chromium salts. It takes about a week to turn the raw material into leather with chrome. Vegetable takes about a month; it’s more expensive and it ages far better. A product made from vegetable tanned leather is typically more beautiful 10 years from now than the day you buy it.
The other thing that’s important is that all the leather we use is a byproduct of the food industry. People that object to leather – frankly I think that notion is somewhat misguided. If you’re vegan then we respect that but people do eat meat and if we don’t turn it into leather it’s going to go in the garbage. Conversely I read these brands that are cruelty free vegan leather – it’s toxic crap and somehow some marketing people have made people think that’s better for the planet.
Karolyne Ellacott / Billy
Was it always your goal to keep production in Canada?
There’s no fake in our “made in Canada” – sometimes you get “finished” or “designed in Canada.” We make our stuff from start to finish here. I’m a really tactile guy. If I have a product in mind when I get here at 8 o’clock, we can have a sample by 10. I find that really gratifying. If I have to draw a picture and send it to China and wait for three months – how do you find inspiration in that? It’s a small shop – we’re 14 people. By keeping it here, we can control all aspects of it and react to trends very quickly. Outside Italy it’s very, very uncommon to have small shops like this. We’re very proud of it. It’s fun; it’s really fun. I’ve been doing this every day for almost 25 years and I still get excited to come here in the morning.
And what about that name – why Brave?
I was the first member of my family to graduate university. When I told my dad I was going to be a street vendor, my buddies who knew my dad said, “Dude, you’re very brave.” So it became Brave Leather!