During a discussion on fast-fashion, my professor recently asked the class whether we thought there remained a market for high quality fashion goods that are produced locally and target the mainstream consumer. To my surprise, the general consensus among my peers was that fast-fashion had indeed eclipsed the viability of such a market. Although questions of quality remained, nothing could beat the price and – most importantly – the sheer scope of fast-fashion and its offerings.
Obviously, I disagree – otherwise, I wouldn't be writing this post. Fundamentally, nothing – and I mean, nothing – can really ever come to replace the idea of buying local. Yes, it's often more expensive, and sometimes requires going out of your way to seek out those local brands, but man is it worth it. Although I literally could write an entire essay on the advantages of buying local, here's a succinct, 3-point rundown:
- Pieces manufactured locally are generally of far higher quality than anything you could buy at a mass retailer, which means they'll last longer and will provide you with more "bang for your buck";
- Buying local means you're supporting a local entrepreneur who may have decided to take the risk of turning down better paid employment to instead dedicate themself to something more fulfilling;
- Capitalism means that those cheap, fast-fashion prices you benefit from can only come to the detriment of the quality of life of someone across the world.
By sheer coincidence, just before that class, I had interviewed a local entrepreneur who did exactly as described above: he left a well-paid job in finance to instead devote his time and labour to the art of creating hand-made leather accessories.
Meet Jordan Lajoie, of the Montreal-based, hand-stitched leather accessories brand Lajoie.
In his own words, Lajoie is fundamentally about "fus[ing] the best of both worlds by creating something that is made extremely well, but also looks beautiful." To back up this lofty yet laudable ideal, all of the pieces produced in his leather workshop are hand-stitched. Yup, you read right: every single Lajoie leather good is hand-stitched. This critical manufacturing detail serves to differentiate his brand from other leather goods brands in Montreal, and places the quality of his goods at a level comparable to a very select number of designer fashion houses on the planet – with Hermès being chief among them. For Jordan, quality is paramount when it comes to the products that bear his name.
"I've spent days working on one piece, and I'll scratch the leather by accident and I can't use it anymore. I can't live with it going out to somebody if there's a scratch on it or a stitch that's crooked. I feel like it wouldn't represent what I'm all about."
Indeed, hand stitching is at the core of the vision behind Lajoie. Despite the fact that this method of manufacturing leather goods may be far more labour-intensive than machine stitching, the fact remains that there is no "machine that [can] produce a stitch as strong as a hand stitch." Full stop. When I first heard him say that, I certainly was confused, considering that pretty much all leather goods are stitched by machine. I mean, there must be a reason beyond lower costs, right? One can only expect that the kind of stiff leather used to make a sturdy briefcase would be much more strenuous to stitch than any light cotton used to make a shirt.
Well, to my surprise, I was totally wrong. Even though "most brands use machines to try to keep up with demand" and benefit from higher margins, nothing really beats the finishing of a hand-stitch, especially for something that is intended to last a long time. As Jordan explained, when something is machine-stitched, "at some point, if a thread breaks, the rest will just unravel because they're all intertwined." So, in essence, when it comes to leather goods, the manufacturing process is sacred: if you're looking for longevity and durability, hand-assembly is the best way to go. Indeed, if you're trying to create something akin to a work of art that ages beautifully with time, hand stitching is the only way to go.
"Consistency in standards is key. I can't compromise on the hand stitching, even if it's to increase production capacity. I might as well just change the name of the brand as well, because that's just what I stand for."
To really understand the essence of the Lajoie brand and the man behind it, we have to start from the very beginning. I mean, maybe it's just me, but it's not everyday that you hear of someone who decided to quit a job in finance to instead spent their days hand stitching leather to make wallets and bags! Anyway, the Lajoie brand was born in 2014 while Jordan was living in Australia. After having run his own financial practice starting at the – oh so – tender age of 21 and working an average of 80 hours a week, he decided that, after a few years, it was high time for him to experience something else in life. So, he sold the company, packed his bags, and relocated to Australia, where he traveled around and found himself a more laid-back job at a local bank. Back to working a more manageable 40 hours/week, Jordan unsurprisingly found himself restless.
"[Having found] I had so much free time on my hands, naturally, I started getting ideas: I made a short film for family; I made a painting; I was just looking for a new medium, something really challenging that I could sink my teeth into." So, naturally, he decided to start working with leather? Makes total sense right?
Luckily, Jordan had a friend in Toronto who had started a leather goods company in Toronto and was interested in launching an Australian chapter of his brand. After a few months of mixed results in his sales pitches to Aussie retailers, "I realized that, to continue doing this, I'm going to need to start making it. So, I just said, 'What do I need to start? Leather."
From there, Jordan first started out manufacturing his friend's designs, but adding his own twist to it. With that experience, he later ventured into designing and crafting his own products, something that he was doing everyday, to the point that he just "fell in love with it." A year into this new rewarding pursuit, his visa in Australia came to end. In coming back to Canada, this Sault Ste. Marie native had to choose where to relocate in order to pursue his newfound creative craft. He could settle in Toronto and reach out to the friend with the leather business, but "I just thought Toronto would be too easy. I wanted something brand new, somewhere I didn't know anybody. I wanted to be inspired, I wanted to be surrounded by a new network."
And, with that, Montreal became his next home.
Living in Montreal, Jordan has found his expectations of the city being "a cool spot [where] there is a lot going on creatively" fully met – even surpassed. In fact, for him, Montreal is as much a city for creativity as it is for community. "I feel like the community in Montreal is like a big family. For every other leather brand I've met at pop-up shops, nobody is fighting each for business, everyone is supporting each other." He adds, "even the consumers, just the type of people living in Montreal are really open to experiencing new brands. It's an artistic community [that] makes Montreal an exception among all of North America."
In having chosen this city, Jordan believes he's lucky to live in a place where there is a "movement of supporting local businesses that are doing something unique." From chats with Montrealers who've purchased Lajoie products, it seems his brand is thankfully recognized as such a local initiative. "They can really tell that, not just the design, but the entire construction and the way that I put everything together is very different." He explains, "When people see the stuff, feel the quality, pick it up, they can tell right away that it's something that's going to last a long time. Once they've go it in their hands, most people are impressed by it. When I point out everything that's gone into the product, if they don't [personally] need it, they're thinking of people they can get it for." In those rare occasions when individuals weren't convinced by the quality of the leather, they've simply had to smell the product to be definitively assured.
When it comes to the leather used for all of Lajoie's products, consistency is again key. After all, his goal is to "make the best leather accessories out there." When selecting a leather tannery to source all his materials from, the primary consideration was that the leather had to not only do justice, but also elevate the quality of the design and hand-stitching craftsmanship of each Lajoie leather good. So, after days spent scouring the Web for the best leather makers across the globe, every site he landed on kept referring him to the same source: the Chicago-based Horween Leather. After 110 years of business, Horween has certainly established itself as one of the most respected tanneries in the world, with its leather being used to make professional-grade basketballs and footballs. Supplying customers like Roots and Timberland and relying on a tanning process that may take up to six months, Horween leathers are the best of the best. And, for Jordan, using only the best leather is an essential element of what makes a Lajoie wallet a Lajoie wallet. "I just wanted to bring everything 100% to fruition."
Another crucial element that serves to differentiate Lajoie's leather goods is the entire process behind their production. As a brand whose main values rest on "the artistic process [being] sacred when it comes to the craftsmanship," Jordan's approach to making each bag and wallet is a long and grueling one. Typically, it starts with designing the product from scratch, free from "any preconceived idea of what [the product] should look like." With functionality as the sole guiding notion, "I want the product design to be really bold, but really simple and graceful and the same time." After sketching comes pattern drawing, which is essentially taking apart the sketch and recreating it in 2D. From there, he picks the kind of leather – sturdy or supple – then plots and cuts out all the pieces. After poking each threading-hole by hand, the edging process transforms each piece of leather into individuals works of art – and products of hours of labour. From sanding, to painting, to burnishing, to painting again, then waxing with locally-sourced beeswax from the Mile End's own Alvéole urban hive, the edging process is a lengthy one. Then comes the hand-stitching of each and every single piece, which is followed by a final edging.
In developing the entire manufacturing process – from designing to pattern-drawing to edging to hand-stitching – Jordan is fully self-taught. "I'm running a business, so really there's no reason why I can't do it; I just have to figure out how." After all, what really brought him to fall in love with this challenging craft was "just working at it and trying new things." In describing the need for small entrepreneurs to be able to do everything for their business, "if you don't know how to do something, just teach yourself. [The Internet] is a tool that we have access to, and there's no reason we shouldn't be using it. You learn, and it turns out beautiful." Indeed, Jordan is currently in the process of learning how to make his leather goods all the more polished and elegant. "The process for the edging was iterative, and even now I want to bring it to the next level. I'm looking at different kinds of finishes, glosses, and paints that can still make [the products] look better."
As difficult as the entire process may have been, from his days in finance, Jordan learned that, truly, anything is possible when you put your mind to it. Running your own business may seem like a disheartening – and seemingly never-ending – amount of work, but in working 80 hours a week, he realized just "how much you can do in one day." For him, the key is being able to prioritize your day: Working smarter is about "look[ing] at your schedule differently, and allot[ing] time according to when it's most appropriate [to do something]." So, a word of advice for anyone looking to become an entrepreneur: "If you schedule your day properly, you can smash tons of things in a day!"
To end our interview, I had to ask Jordan Lajoie the same question my professor asked me: Is there a market for high quality goods that are manufactured locally? Is there an alternative to fast-fashion that doesn't require dropping hundreds for a brand name leather good that is machine-stitched and may end up falling apart?
His answer? An unequivocal and confident "Definitely." From Jordan's experience interacting with people at various pop-up shops across Montreal and trade shows in New York, "I feel like a lot of those high-end brands are starting to wear on people. [They're] paying like $400-500 for a simple wallet, and it's falling apart, [so they're] starting to feel like they're getting ripped off, and realizing that they just paid for the brand name."
"I want to challenge every other leather brand out there to push [the envelope]. I'm doing my own thing, and [hopefully] people will recognize it. It's going to take some time, but I'm out here working hard. I'm just pushing it creatively, and making something that's going to be around for a long time."
"If I were to meet someone who purchased a Lajoie wallet and it has come apart, I'd be really embarrassed about that [and having] put my name on it." Instead, "I want people to be able to experience the aging process of leather. [The patina] definitely adds character. After a few years of use, the same wallet sold to two different people will look completely different for each user; each wallet is "going to get richer with age, [so] the sentimental value is massive. It becomes like a true work of art, something that's just going to appreciate with time"
The key to ensuring that each Lajoie leather good can last as long as their owner? "It all goes back to the hand stitching and the best leather."
If you've managed to make it through this entire post and are eager to find out how you can support this nascent local entrepreneur, check out the Kickstarter Jordan launched to fund the expansion of his brand. On launching this crowdfunding campaign, he elaborated, "I'm at a point right now where people are starting to hear about my brand, and I need to move out of [my apartment-cum-workshop] to work properly." As much as working from home can be fun, it can get inconvenient when you have roommates and are making leather goods in a small bedroom in your apartment.
Another benefit of this campaign is that "it's really cool for the exposure." In fact, "after a year's worth of social media marketing, there were still people I knew very well that didn't know [about the brand]. I knew Kickstarter would be a good way to start those conversations with people, and tell them about Lajoie."
A third goal of the crowdfunder is to elevate the quality of the packaging of each Lajoie leather good, so that it''s on the same level of the design and hand-stitched craftsmanship. Fundamentally, "the packaging should match the quality [of the product]. It should be an experience when you open something that you've bought online. The consistency needs to echo out of the product into the website, the packaging, and everything. It's so much better: you feel you got your money's worth, you feel like you're part of something now."
When I think of it, just the fact that YouTube unboxing videos are an actual thing serves as a testament to how important packaging is for the customer experience. I mean, it goes without saying that first impressions are determinant when it comes to something you're going to be spending the rest of your life with!
If you needed any further proof that Jordan is onto something, with three days left in the crowdfunding campaign, Lajoie has already surpassed the $10,000 goal! Luckily, there's still time to contribute, and possibly receive an exclusive product from the capsule collection created just for the campaign. The pieces is the capsule collection are "all-black [because] it is the most sought-after colour. Black leather on the exterior, black suede on the interior, and all-black stitching." All-black everything? I'm sold.
With all that said, I'd like to end this post by congratulating Jordan on his hard work, perseverance, and continued dedication to his craft and the utmost quality his brand stands for. Truly, it's all about that consistency!
For more information on Lajoie, you can also find them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
If you'd like to purchase Lajoie leather goods, they're available online at Lajoie, and Gentlement 1st, and in-store at Art Gang (Montreal), Craft and Caro (Boston), and Harpers (Pennsylvania).
You can contribute to the Kickstarter campaign here.
You can also check out two Lajoie products currently displayed at the Contemporary Fine Leather Craftsmanship exhibition, which is running until April 23, 2016, at the Canadian Guild of Crafts.
1460-B Sherbrooke West, Montreal
Unless otherwise stated, images are courtesy of Lajoie.
Videos are courtesy of Felix Bacalley.