It's hard not to be inspired by the artists and makers of the Cleveland Flea. Brilliant, talented, creative. They're tough as bleepin' nails on their ways to making their dreams come true. We're reviving last year's The Maker Series, a partnership between The Cleveland Flea/Indie Foundry and Suzuran Photography, to take a look — behind the scenes, beyond the booth — to see what drives our makers to do what they love and love what they do. All photography by Suzuran Photography.
Q + A with Wright and Rede
Wright and Rede makes durable, handmade leather goods, but leather-working wasn't proprietor Jordan Lee's first gig. He shares his hobby odyssey and behind-the-bar epiphany with market manager Sarah Wilt.
SW: When/how did you start leather-working?
W+R: In 2012 leather working was the newest of a legion of creative hobbies I was pursuing. At the time I was looking for a way to slim down my wallet, and I wanted to have something made out of real leather. I looked online, but everything I wanted was $150+. I thought I could make my own for $150. So, I bought an amateur leather-working kit and some scraps of leather and started to learn how to work with leather.
SW: What were you doing professionally before going full time with your business?
W+R: I worked in the food service industry for 14 years. I’ve held every position in a restaurant, short of owner. I’ve been a busser, expeditor, line-cook, salad-guy, beverage-girl, server, bartender, manager, and hopped back and fourth quite a bit as I moved onto different restaurants. The day I decided to quit I was bartending at one job and serving at another.
SW: How did you decide to go full time?
W+R: It was the start of a really slow night Tuesday night at the restaurant. I had just gotten back from my honeymoon (we got married in October 2012), and I was standing around bored, waiting for the dinner rush. I was having that post-vacation dysphoria, when suddenly you realize that actual-you is not as cool as vacation-you.
I was leaning on the bar, staring at my bored co-workers, who were all uniformly 10 years younger than I, and my feet hurt. I thought to myself “Man, this is really what my life looks like. Is this what I want my life to look like?” I went home that night and had a long talk with my wife. I went into work the next day and gave my notice.
SW: What are your goals for Wright and Rede this year?
W+R: The first year was all about seeing if I could actually make a living. I thought I was onto a good idea, but you never know until you try. My second year is all about growth. I’ve made my early mistakes, gained confidence from them, and I have a good idea of what direction I want to grow. This year is going to be focused more on developing my brand and refining my vision about what I make and how I sell it.
SW: You were a bit of a hobby fiend before starting Wright and Rede. What are some of the worlds you dabbled in trying to feed your hunger for making?
W+R: Hunger is the right word. Are you ready? I’ve made ice cream, butter, yogurt, pickles, bread, beer, vinegar, various forms of cheese, mustard, cured meats, mead, hard cider, ginger beer, kombucha, sour dough, sauerkraut, sour cream, doughnuts, pasta, and probably lots of other things you can make from scratch and also eat. In addition to all that, I decided to become a woodworker who uses only antique hand-tools, a fine-art photographer who specializes in antiquarian photo processes, a gardener, a hop farmer, a blogger, a writer, a poet (during my anguished youth phase), an antique furniture restorer, and an old camera collector. I’m missing a few, I’m sure. I thought about starting a business for each one.
SW: Where do you source your leather from?
W+R: 90% of my leather comes from Wicket & Craig in Curwensville, Penn., one of the last three major American tanneries. Most "American” tanneries use domestic hide, but actually do the tanning in Mexico or Chile. A small portion of the leather I use comes from other tanneries I’ll source from sporadically. I just found a little tannery in New York that tans deer hide brought in by local hunters. The rest of the time I’ll work with vintage, deadstock or salvaged leather I find at estate sales.
SW: Whom do you look to for inspiration?
W+R: As a creative, I spend a lot of time looking at other leather workers. Not so much their designs, but the way they send their message. Really good leather workers have a “look” all their own. I like to find older examples of their work and see how it changes as their message changes. I like to focus on how my goods will look as they get older, so I spend a lot of time drooling over pictures of really old leather duffel bags, sofas and the like. I also have a background in photography, so I love to look at old photographs. Light was very important in old photographs. That is something I try to translate onto my leather goods when I’m dyeing them. I also keep two inspiration boards going: one on Pinterest, one on Tumblr.
As a small business owner, I look to my parents. My father has been running businesses for as long as I can remember. I’ve picked up a lot from him. If I ever start talking business with you, and I tell you an allegory about a guy smuggling bags of sand or a lazy fisherman, I’m probably retelling something from my dad. My mother taught me how to always deal with the task at hand. I’m quite a worrier, and she’s fond of telling me “what ever is going to happen, is going to happen." Deal with today’s problems today, worry about tomorrow’s problems tomorrow. Some more generally accessible resources I tap into are: medium.com , 99u.com, and the books Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky and The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau.
SW: How has the Cleveland Flea helped your business?
W+R: The Cleveland Flea was the very first show I ever took part in. It was the first time I ever really got paid for my work. Not just a friend buying a wallet, but real strangers giving me money for what I do. The Flea is more than just a place to buy stuff. It is an event. People are there to hang out, and I spend most of my time talking with other really interesting people. Sometimes I’m learning some business tricks from other vendors. Sometimes I get great ideas from talking with my customers. I’ve been lucky enough to watch other people start their own creative ventures. It’s great to see people in the same boat as you, doing well. It makes me think, “Well, if they can do it, so can I."
SW: Have you learned anything about your business by participating in the Cleveland Flea?
W+R: I’ve learned that there is a lot of opportunity if you are willing to go out and get it. The Flea functions like a hub for people’s creative endeavors. It has developed a creative community that works as a support structure when it’s time to take risks. By being around other people who are taking risks, it’s easier to take my own.
SW: What is the one thing (other than leather goods) that you will always pay full price for?
W+R: Good service. Servers, bartenders, car mechanics, whatever. I’ll go out of my way and happily pay more for quality service. Also: bagels.
SW: What’s your biggest struggle from an artistic standpoint?
W+R: For a long time I had trouble telling people what I did for a living. I felt like I was just playing at having my own business. I’ve recently gotten over that. I still struggle with getting the goods I’m making on par with the ideas in my head. I feel like I’m always playing catch-up.
SW: What’s your biggest struggle from a business standpoint?
W+R: Learning how to be my own boss. I have to come up with my own goals, what I need to do in a day, what counts as a good job, when to stop working, and how do deal with problems as they arise. It might sound strange, but it can great tricky when you don’t have a boss or co-workers to tell you if you are on the right path.
SW: Where can we find you?
W+R: During the day: in mu workshop, listening to music or an audiobook. In the evenings, my wife and I get out and explore Cleveland. We spent years talking about places we wanted to check out, but couldn’t, because I always worked nights. The Tremont Taphouse and SOHO are two of my favorites. If I just want to grab a pint I’ll run up to the BottleHouse Brewery, which is right down the street. To us, it seems a luxury not to have anything to do on the weekends. Sometimes we’ll go down to Asian Town Center or Holden Arboretum. Mostly, you’ll find me at home with a good book.
Favorite piece of advice as it relates to food, art and/or business?
“Welcome to owning your own business. The ones that make it are the ones that keep showing up." Secondhand advice via Mason’s Creamery.
All photos are courtesy of Suzuran Photography.