Larry Olmstead: Master Craftsman

Master Craftsman: Larry Olmstead of Entermodal talks form, function and what it takes to achieve perfection. 

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tepping into Larry Olmstead’s world feels like stepping back in time to an old world atelier. His workshop, tucked inside Halo Shoes’s new digs on NW Everett, is piled floor to ceiling with leather hides, rolls of canvas and all manner of medieval-looking tools and implements, all waiting to build the latest creation of Entermodal, Olmstead’s inimitable line of bespoke bags and leather goods. One of the few true master leather craftsmen in the world, Olmstead crafts each and every piece in his shop—cutting, sewing and finishing each stitch by hand, often starting over from scratch when a bag feels any less than perfect to his hyper-discerning eye. The result is a collection of one-of-a-kind bags that seamlessly meld form and function. In the end, Olmstead’s work feels more like art than craft. These bags are meant to last a lifetime, and anything less than perfection won’t do.

Tell me a little bit about you got started with designing bags.

It’s kind of funny because a lot of times people will say, I always wanted to be a fashion designer or I always wanted to make this specific thing. Growing up, I don’t know if I had that. It was more a sense of inquisitiveness, I suppose. I really wanted to learn how to sew. I tried to teach myself at home and that didn’t really work well.

Why not?

I was making things inside out and just couldn’t get my head around the construction. I reached a point where I realized if I really wanted to learn how to sew, I would have to rely on it for food. And so, I got a job in sewing production and it just happened to be with a bag company. When you sew production, you have vast amounts of time to just think. Your body kind of memorizes what to do. So I would think to myself, “If this corner were a little bit rounder, I could sew it in one motion.” Eventually, I started saying those things to the owner, which turned into a design apprenticeship. That’s where I originally learned to design bags.

Where did you study design?

At the University of Derby [in the UK]. There is a degree there for performance sportswear design. After I finished school, I went to work with Karrimor, a sportswear brand based in the UK.

So, you went from designing active, sport-inspired bags, to much more luxurious, lifestyle pieces—that’s a huge shift. How did you decide to make that change?

It’s funny—it’s the same as when I started to sew. It wasn’t that I went into it with a set formula. It really came down to, if you are going to make something domestically, it’s going to be more expensive. So, in my mind the quality needs to be higher. I had dismissed leather. Actually, I was doing a lot with canvas and wool. But someone brought me a few antique leather bags to recycle, and I realized, “Oh, this can last a long time.” I realized I was about to take something that’s 100 years old and cut it apart to capture the value that was still there—that material still had value. So, why was I not using that?

That’s an interesting bent on sustainability.

Yes, especially because leather is not the first thing that you think of when you think about sustainability—you know, cattle farming and all of the impacts it can have on the environment. But I thought a lot in the beginning about whether there was a way that I could encourage or push companies to change, to adopt different practices. That goal took us to England, to Italy, meeting with very small, sustainably minded farmers doing really interesting stuff. The idea was, and still is, that you should be able to go to where the cow was raised, and have a picnic.

I like that guideline. So I know how important the sustainability and longevity of your designs are to you, but can you tell me a little about your design aesthetic?

My aesthetic comes from two perspectives. First, most everything that I make is out of a single piece of leather. So, it’s about, how could I fold this, how could I make this into an interesting shape or a functional shape, but use one piece primarily?

Why is using a single piece of leather important?

If you look at these old, antique bags, you can see most of the abrasion points are where the seams are. Where it’s a single piece, the leather is still pretty clean, even still usable. To make a seam, you have to thin the leather down. So it’s a point of potential weakness. If you have a piece that’s all one, there are fewer weak spots. My technique all comes from the idea of making a bag that will last decades. To me, that’s the first point in sustainability—if you use something for 50 years, that means that you are consuming less. The second part of the aesthetic is really directed from that as well. I push myself not to be too trendy, because this bag is going to be around decades.

The focus of your brand is really on custom, or bespoke bags, but you do also have all of these beautiful bags on your shelves. Are there bags people can just come in and buy, or is everything made to order?

I have only ever sold two pieces off the shelf, which is kind of scary. When someone comes in to look, they see the quality, and it’s something different than anything else they’ve seen. So, we start talking and they realize, “Oh, I could have that an inch taller,” or, “I could have this flap shorter by two inches.” And when you have a dialogue with the customer about how they want to use the bag, they realize there is no reason not to make it a custom piece.

You seem to really like that aspect of it—making the bag personal to the customer.

Exactly, yeah. Once I found that I really was able to make a bag that could last 50 years, it dawned on me that that was only half the equation. The other half is how you get someone to use the bag for 50 years. If it just comes from a retailer, that relationship isn’t there. When someone’s involved in the creation of their bag, they welcome it into their life like an old friend. It’s something that they are using from the beginning as a comfortable piece.

Could you explain the process of designing a bespoke bag? When someone comes to you and says they want a bag, how do you begin?

There are two directions we could go. The first is what I’d call “custom,” when the customer is asking for an existing style with a certain color of leather, some small changes, but nothing really fundamentally unique. That’s really fun because the person is combining different colors, and you get to see what people like.

The second way to go is bespoke. Bespoke bags are the same concept, but to the next degree. Those conversations tend to start with the customer saying, “I’ve had this design of a bag stuck in my head for eight years. Can you make it for me?” So, the first challenge is getting that idea out of their head and onto paper. And then there is a lot of discussion about how they are interacting with the bag, what they are looking for that bag to do. Once that’s all clarified, we start talking about leathers, linings and colors.

For the bespoke projects, I make a prototype bag, and they use it for about six months. Then we have a second conversation: what worked, what didn’t work, what changes should we make? And then, from there, I make the final piece. So, bespoke tends to be a lot more expensive, since it’s a much more intensive process. But the client is basically going through the design process with me.

You spend so much time thinking about what makes a design work, and how to improve on a piece. What qualities do you admire in good design? What makes you really appreciate a design?

I’ve found that over time, I’m drawn to design that feels like second nature, is maybe the best way to say it. The quality has to be there first. The aesthetic can add to that, but for me, it’s about functionality.

How do you balance that tension between form and function in your work? You are really striving for function, but obviously the piece needs to be beautiful as well.

That can be tricky. There is a lot of subtlety, because people that buy a messenger bag don’t want it to look like a hiking backpack. Part of it’s the construction—how you get it to go together. But a big part of it is the fit—how it hangs from the shoulder, how it molds to the body. And so the form informs the aesthetic.

Who is your typical customer?

I have a really wide customer base. Because there are not many places in the world that do this, I get a lot of people that fly to Portland from overseas to work with me on a piece. They tend to be people that understand the quality and the luxury of my work on a really deep level and are looking for something very specific.

Then, there’s a second group I sometimes refer to as “recovering” luxury customers—people that have purchased luxury items before and found that the quality didn’t stand up to their expectations.

So most of these people come to you knowing exactly what they want?

Yep. And it’s really cool to meet those people, because they’re all super interesting. That’s one of the lucky things about where am I at right now—I get to meet a lot of interesting people.

What made you decide to open Entermodal here versus somewhere on the East Coast, where luxury is more of a mainstay?

Well, when my wife and I moved back from England, we were lucky enough that we could choose to move anywhere. We chose Portland because the energy is really good here. There is so much inspiration around, and people doing things that are so cool. The ocean is near, the mountains are near. It’s kind of a magic town in a lot of ways.

So, who should be coming to you for a custom bag or a bespoke bag?

I think people who are looking for a different experience than they’ve had, or people who are looking to replace something special, maybe something that their grandfather gave to them. Those are people that I always find really rewarding personally because, again, it comes down to them having that special kind of piece they’ll use forever. With those sentimental items, we often work to incorporate some aspect of the original piece.

Is there a project that you’ve done that’s a personal favorite?

There was one bag I made from the same leather that they use for the Queen of England’s saddle. The leather comes from a tannery in Belgium. It was for a customer who is from London, and I was only able to get two pieces of this leather, so it seemed fitting to use it for him. That was a really magic bag for me because I had finished it and was getting ready to stamp [my logo on] it—and when I stamp, sometimes I mark on the card with pencil to check placement—but I didn’t realize that some of the pencil mark had gotten from the card onto the leather, and, since it was natural leather, the mark was permanent. So, I had to make it over. That was the first time I had ever rejected something on aesthetic alone. But now I’m way more careful than I was before, so I learned from it. I gave that bag to a really good friend, so every time I see him, I know what the customer in London’s bag looks like today.

And can you still see the pencil mark?

Yeah. It will be there forever.

Tell me a little bit more about the construction details in a piece. From what I’ve seen, you do almost all the sewing completely by hand.

Yep.

Do you use a machine ever?

I do use a machine for my canvas and wool bags, but I still use hand-stitching for all the details. That’s a price point issue more than anything. In terms of durability, the machine stitch versus hand stitch is probably pretty even in the beginning. The difference is going to be four to six years down the road, where you start to have enough abrasion that a stitch is going to break. And so it begins to unravel if it’s machine sewn; whereas when it’s hand sewn, there are two independent threads that lock together with knots on every stitch.

Oh, so if that stitch comes undone, it’s just that stitch.

Exactly. The knot is what actually forms the stitch.

This process is extraordinary to watch. How long does it take to learn?

Well, there are different philosophies, different techniques. I say to people that are apprentices, “The first two years are body memory, the second two years are replication, and then the final two to four years is the fun part because you finally get to design your ideas.”

So that’s six to eight years to be able to do this.

Yeah. Originally, the apprentice wouldn’t touch leather for the first three years. They’d be making threads, making brewers pitch, sharpening knives, and just learning by observing.

What bag do you carry on a daily basis?

I switch a lot. Usually I’m testing different bags out. With a new design, I go through a process of testing it myself before I put it out. I was using [the last bag I designed] for about seven months before I made one for a customer.

Is there anything else you can imagine doing other than this? If you couldn’t design bags, what would you be doing?

Maybe teaching people to sew somewhere, to create things by hand, things that incorporate their heritage. One of the things I really want to do is to open up a school where people that are in transition or are homeless could learn a trade, something that they can do with their hands.

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About The Author: Becki Singer


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