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Otis James and Emil Erwin

Nashville craftsmen in Marathon Village share space and creative inspiration

Written By:  Chris Chamberlain

Photographers:  Mandy Whitley

Otis James and Emil Congdon

If you drive by Marathon Village most mornings, you’ll probably see a line of tourists waiting to get into Antique Archaeology with the hope of meeting American Pickers star Mike Wolfe and see some of his classic merchandise that he has rummaged from barns and garages around the country. What these poor shoppers don’t realize is that new American classics are being manufactured in Suite 129 of Marathon, right behind the store where they’re overpaying for souvenir t-shirts and baseball caps.

Otis James and Emil Congdon are the proprietors of Otis James: Handcrafted Neckties + Bow Ties and Emil Erwin Leather Products respectively. Both have been lauded for their unique craftsmanship, including winning accolades from Southern Living and Garden & Gun’s “Made in the South” program in 2010 and 2011.  Earlier this year, Otis contacted Emil to ask some questions about which leather to choose for the lining for his new line of newsboy and ball caps, and the two realized that there might be some valuable creative synergies if they were to move into a common creative space. Plus, it never hurts to save a little rent when you’re a small artisan operation.

James got his start making matching ties for members of Nashville wedding parties and soon began selling his custom creations in 12South at the hip clothier imogene + willie. Although his business has expanded after the acclaim heaped upon him by his customers, he still believes that “craftsmanship is the idea of having your hands on something from start to finish.” Every tie and every cap sold by James still passes through his able and nimble fingers.

Emil Congdon is brutally honest about how and why he got into the custom leather business. “I made bags for girls in college instead of mix tapes. The early ones were horrible examples, but at least I didn’t have to try to fit them to a human body.” Needless to say, the girls were charmed, and Congdon got a whole lot better at his craft.

He now spends 8-12 hours on each bag that he manufactures, always ensuring that each item is made with the highest quality leather and hardware. “If I can’t make a product that’s superior to anything else out there, then what’s the point?” Initially specializing in high-end satchels and bags in the $800-$1400 range, Congdon’s most popular product is his Erwin satchel, named after the East Tennessee town where he grew up. Recently, Emil Erwin has extended the product line to include some less expensive smaller accessories like belts, wallets, luggage tags, weekenders and ladies’ handbags.

Between the two of them, they now have distribution as far away as New York, Washington D.C. and Switzerland, but the best place to shop for their products is online at their respective websites. Their studio also now doubles as a showroom for James’ and Gongdon’s offerings whenever they are working, from 10-5 Monday through Friday and 11-2 on Saturday. Visitors can see the hip industrial environment in their studio where the magic is made and interact with James and Congdon while they work. In addition to the really cool sewing and assemblage equipment that they use every day in their creative process, James and Congdon have dressed up the old pipes and valves of the former Marathon Motor Works that pass through their workspace with found objets d'art like an old 48-star American flag, tanned hides and bolts of fabric.

Both craftsmen encourage customers to call for an appointment if they want to discuss a custom project or take a little extra time to investigate fabric or design choices since they don’t keep a lot of inventory in their small showroom. Who knows? Maybe Mike Wolfe’s grandson will be picking a vintage Otis James tie or a Emil Erwin satchel out of your hovercraft garage in fifty years.

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Otis James: Handcrafted Neckties + Bow Ties

1300 Clinton Street,
 Suite 129

Nashville, TN 37203

(615) 638-1469

Emil Erwin
1300 Clinton Street, 
Suite 129

Nashville, TN 37203

(615) 750-2735

 

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