Nowadays when people talk about craftsmanship, few products make the cut. Furniture is cobbled together from particle board, and we peel away “made in” stickers citing countries of origin thousands of miles from the soil beneath our feet. Many of the objects we use daily are mass-produced overseas with dubious quality control, leaving us with flimsy products that last a few months at best.
Presenting a lovely exception to this rule is Fayetteville-based American Native Goods. The brains behind the brand—the very charming Chamberlain brothers—are teeming with vision, wits, enthusiasm and an unalienable desire to make leather goods to last a lifetime.
“You don’t need more things,” says Bobby. “You need better things.” And you’re in luck: He and his younger brother Clayton are chomping at the bit to craft belts, wallets, guitar straps, key chains, suspenders and denim products by hand just for you (and quite possibly, your descendants) in the former mechanic’s garage that is their shared workspace in Fayetteville.
The path leading them to create handmade leather goods is about as simple to follow as locating a needle in one of the haystacks that dot the rural family farm of their childhood. A little bit of Cherokee blood and a lot of hard work sustained their parents and grandparents through generations of cultivating dairy cattle, poultry and crops in northeastern Oklahoma. These qualities and a love of tradition were passed down to brothers Bobby and Clayton, who combined them with their degrees in design, interest in fashion and style, and exposure to industrial factories, marketing and advertising.
Clayton worked some extended gigs for a family friend in manufacturing and construction gigs in locales ranging from innovative coastal-south cities to a handful of bitterly cold, destitute hamlets peppering the Northeast. The work permitted plenty of time for deep thought, as well as a vantage point for viewing the rise and fall of American jobs and goods. His blue-collar background and design bent—“I dressed up more than most in high school,” he admits with a laugh—and inspired world view led him to experiment with denim and leather goods.
Bobby, who works by day as a graphic designer for Mitchell Communications Group, claims he was just looking for a natural leather belt in 2011. Clayton was traveling, thinking and mourning the degeneration of quality products and the evaporation of blue-collar communities. Meanwhile, meccas such as Brooklyn, Boston and Seattle were accommodating hipsters seeking selvedge denim and industrial chic.
“My brother said ‘Let’s do it!’” recalls Clayton. They found themselves with a side of leather from Tandy Leather Co. in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as a sizable investment in tools. American Native Goods was born.
Should the impression develop that they are chasing a trend, these two speak with refreshing conviction about keeping industries from dying and making small-batch goods. They talk about an inspiring trip through the American South that evoked their patriotism and entrepreneurial vision. They reminisce about the year of sewing lessons they took from a nice lady named Jean who was too polite to question their oddities, and they chuckle at the suggestion that their commitment to the craft and the origin of their product borders on obsessive.
Their tone grows reverent as they describe Shell Cordovan, the holy grail of leather, or Horween Leather from The Tannery Row in Chicago. They predominantly purchase leather from Springfield Leather Co. in Missouri, which carries the venerable Hermann Oak Leather from a tannery established near St. Louis in 1881.
“Sourcing leather has been a challenge,” explains Clayton ruefully. Today, most American tanneries have closed, so while the hide may have originated stateside, it is often tanned in Mexico. The Chamberlain brothers are unwavering in their standards: They exhaustively vet their providers, track down the right leather and take pride in hand-dyeing, cutting, punching, burnishing and stamping it.
Ultimately, the concept of buying fewer things of higher quality that last longer has influenced every facet of the business—admiring the deep indigo of their industrial-workshop selvedge-denim apron or handling the supple vegetable-tanned leather of a belt makes that clear. “We are very united about the look and feel of the company,” says Bobby. “We’re celebrating the good things about the South,” agrees his brother. Mark another notch in the belt cinching the future of American Native Goods.
American Native Goods produces handcrafted leather and denim belts and accessories ($18 – $85) available at select boutiques and their American Native shop on Etsy. Visit americannativegoods.com for more information.