Starting With A Clean Sheet
Embrazio co-founders, Stephanie Boyles and Scott Schaefer, came from the tech/telecom industry and the only knowledge they had regarding leather belts when they founded their leather accessories and jewelry company came from their own experience wearing and using this natural material. What they did have was tremendous knowledge and experience developing and testing new products and services. Both had been deeply involved in the conversion to digital that is still transforming nearly every industry on the planet. This knowledge would prove pivotal as they set out to create new leather products that would capture the attention and demand of very discerning retail customers.
Since they didn’t come from the fashion industry, they didn’t have preconceived notions of “how it’s always been done” or what is or is not “acceptable design.” Instead, they started with a clean slate and set out to design the most amazing belt they could imagine. Stephanie, an avid equestrian, was keenly interested in the feel and comfort of the belt … especially when on horseback. With a Phd. In Topology, she’s always been fascinated by shapes and spatial relationships. Given this background, she quickly recognized a key contradiction; “if our bodies are curved, why would our belts be straight?”
Stephanie began playing with a wide assortment of curves trying to discover one that would fit closely with the natural contours of the human body. As with the software-based products they’d worked with before, this experimentation quickly led to prototypes that could be tested by real potential customers. Many prototypes later, and thanks to the help of a local shoe repair shop that produced the prototypes, the patented Embrazio curved shape was born.
There’s a Big Step Getting from Design to Production of a Handmade Leather Belt
With the design and prototype in hand, the couple turned to all the many questions regarding where and how to do a production run. They knew they wanted to produce a premium leather belt that could retail for under $100. They had no idea where to get the leather or hardware, what was involved in creating a finished product, or what the final cost of production and shipping might be.
Scott sought to source and manufacture in the US but quickly learned the options for doing so, before even considering cost, were very limited. US based leather is produced primarily by Amish firms in the Midwest. The problem is you can have any color you want as long as it’s black or brown!
An internet search revealed most finished leather goods in the US come out of Mexico. In fact, they mostly come from a town in Mexico that neither Stephanie or Scott had ever heard of, Leon. After more digging around, Scott connected with a factory in Leon that proved to be the first stop in a soon to be web of international partners and relationships that would carry Embrazio forward. This first factory was in Leon, owned by an American, managed by a Dutchman, staffed by Mexicans, and Embrazio’s contact to the factory was an Irishman! Scott and Stephanie had a chuckle and then booked a flight to Leon to get things started on a production run.
Lessons In Leather
Once in Leon, Scott and Stephanie quickly started learning the ins and outs of leather. There is a wide variety of thicknesses, density, and textures of leather that are each used in different applications. For example, very thin goat or sheep leather is used for things like golf gloves whereas thicker and more dense cowhides are used for belts and straps. Much care must be taken in choosing the right leather for the desired application and then one must examine each hide to ensure the grade and quality is appropriate and consistent across the production run.
After determining the specification for the leather, finding a tannery that will produce the leather in the volume and at the cost desired becomes the next piece of the puzzle. Many of the tanneries in Leon are huge and have high volume minimums that cannot be met by a start-up like Embrazio. Fortunately, there is also a cadre of smaller tanneries that will produce runs as small as a single hide. The challenge is that there exists no online or offline directory to find these places. They must all be found via word of mouth which is a time-consuming hit or miss proposition, especially for out of towners!
In addition to leather, finding the right buckles to pair with a leather belt is essential. In Leon, one can find several hardware manufacturers to choose from but the quality and durability of the buckles produced can vary widely. Embrazio initially used off the shelf buckles from a producer in Leon but then quickly moved to custom made Embrazio buckles from a large hardware producer in Mexico City.
Handmade Curved Leather Belts Cost More To Produce
The next challenge was finding each penny of cost savings possible across the supply channel as there are several factors making curved leather belts more expensive to produce than straight belts. First, the curve itself creates less utilization of the hide than cutting straight belts. Second, the belts must be cut using a mold made of steel instead of simply being fed through a bandsaw like cutting device. Finally, many of the finishing machines just won’t work with a curved belt causing a much higher labor expense component.As an example, the edges of straight belts are fed through a “painting machine” to color the edges while curved belts must be painted and waxed by hand. The same is true for cutting the holes for buckle attachment and even for cutting and painting the holes where the tongue of the buckle will go through. All of this adds significant cost in production.
Taxes and Shipping Were A ShockerMexico adds a 16% tax on most products. This came as quite a shock to us as we’d built our cost spreadsheet assuming a rate much closer to half that based on US taxes. In addition, shipping finished goods to the US is quite expensive. We searched international shipping options which are basically DHL and FedEx and we also looked at private shipping companies. Our lower volumes and episodic and unpredictable production schedules quickly eliminated the private company options. We were able to create a discounted business shipping account with DHL that was much cheaper than FedEx but still expensive due again to our lower volumes.
The Hard Work And Creativity Pays Off
In the end, we got our first run of belts into Boulder about 5 months after our initial visit to Leon. We immediately started selling to friends and family and made our first cold calls on retail boutiques. The reception from customers was and remains phenomenal! We love it when someone tries on our handmade curved leather belt and feels the difference from straight belts instantly. “Ah, it does feel better” is something we often hear and it always puts a smile on our faces.
Since our initial run, we’ve expanded into dozens of styles and colors, and we’ve added new buckle shapes and colors as well. Our belts are sold online and in hundreds of stores nationwide and in Canada, Australia, and Bonaire (we sold while on a diving vacation to this beautiful Caribbean Island). We continue to do all our selling to boutiques directly ourselves or via an online industry marketplace called Faire.
Looking forward, we’re planning to introduce new textures like alligator and ostrich (these patterns are created by embossing or pressing the leather) and more colors and embellishments. We’d love to find more influencers to wear our belts and believe celebrities would love our belts just as much as everyday people do. We also hope those who read this article and haven’t tried a handmade curved leather belt will do so soon so they too can “feel the embrace” of Embrazio.
About the author:
The above article was written by Scott Schaefer, co-founder – Embrazio. Embrazio is a leather and jewelry accessories company based in Boulder, CO. Scott and his wife, Stephanie Boyles, started Embrazio in 2012 and their line is now carried by over 300 retail boutiques primarily in the US.