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Artisan Spotlight: H. & Clark Leather Goods

At H. & Clark Leather Goods, one designer continues her family’s six-generation leather legacy.

Written By:  Megan O’Neill

Photographers:  Supplied

Fifty-six miles north of Music City, in Auburn, Kentucky, a leather manufacturing facility operates in the same building it has for more than 150 years. Since 1863, five generations of the Howlett family have run Auburn Leather, and, today, it’s the only female-owned-and-operated tannery in the world.

The company produces leather lacing for well-known brands, such as Sperry and Timberland. But, for Rachel Clark, owner and designer of H. & Clark Leather Goods, Auburn is much more than a leather source for her bags—it’s family. A sixth-generation Howlett (her mother-in-law’s family), Clark set out to create a leather bag that was simple in design and production but incredibly functional.

“I wanted a tote that: A. wouldn’t break the bank, and B. didn’t have any frills,” Clark says. “Something solid but with minimal production that was going to last forever. I wanted something that would feel purposeful, and I’m not a very tall person, so it had to be a short girl’s big bag.”

The seed for H. & Clark—the ‘H’ standing for Howlett—blossomed as she and her husband, Andrew, took the idea to Auburn. In January 2015, after moving from Los Angeles to Nashville, the couple, with their baby, Holden, and dog, Neville, launched the company. Today, Clark produces a tote, horizontal wallet, clutch, fold-over clutch, and card case in four color-ways, most recently a gray suede.

>>> Local Leather Goods Makers

With air-compressed sewing machines and piles of leather lining the rows of Auburn’s plant, Clark walks through the building to source her materials—typically from the scrap pile.

“First of all, I’m from Southern California. Nothing out there is that old,” Clark laughs about her trips to the tannery. She and Andrew, a native of Bowling Green, Kentucky, met in California during college. “But this building, for me, it’s homey, it’s warm, it’s old and vintage.”

After the leather is tanned and cut, each bag is constructed with just one piece blind-stitched together. The final product is thick and beautifully tumbled, and it showcases the timeless tanning and fabrication practices Auburn still uses.

With a promise of minimal fabrication, the long straps and interior pocket are riveted to the bag at the plant for a utilitarian look. And, in keeping with Clark’s family tradition, the interior pockets are a canvas that’s hand-shibori dyed with fiber-reactive dyes—her aunt’s textile company in California creates them. Seamstresses in both Kentucky and Tennessee have sewn the pockets, and all finishes, including hand-stamping the copper tags, are done in Clark’s home studio.

“I love that it’s all still family, and I know where everything is coming from,” Clark says. The leather, fabrics, tags, and the rest are entirely American made. “I can control everything but still give everyone free rein and say, ‘Let’s go for it together.’”

Photos courtesy Maura Chamness, H. & Clark, Storefront Studios.

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