Yesterday, I woke up around 7am, like usual. I didn’t have any meetings scheduled, because it was Saturday, and instead of turning on the coffee pot, I rolled back under the sheets and caught up on a little more much needed sleep.
When I woke up again and realized it was 2 in the afternoon, I decided that maybe I had been pushing too hard the past week, and what I needed was an evening off. I brewed myself a cup and started in on a new chapter of my small business books, but my head wasn’t in the game. I really was too exhausted, mentally and physically to progress any further. I had hit the wall, and that’s okay. Between the tireless effort I was making to get my house ready for rent in Indianapolis, travel to Mexico and then immediate, nonstop tannery tours and hunting through Zona Piel (the leather district), I had been averaging 14 hour days for almost 3 straight weeks, and loving every minute of it.
Last Monday was my first big day of really hitting the bricks and locking down suppliers and manufacturing companies that would fit my goals. To say that I was fortunate to have lucked into meeting Vanessa would be a horrible understatement. I had already researched a few of the big tanneries in town, and had a couple of leads from the last time I was here, but since she had been here for 2 weeks before I arrived, and had already done miles of research, she was able to give the heads up on all the best places to check out. I had spent the previous week sending out emails and texts and given myself a handful of appointments every day, meeting as many possible business leads as I could, and with V’s help, made so many more for the whole week.
The first couple of days went by like Goldilocks – some tanneries were too small and unreliable, some were overly produced, expensive and wrong for my style, and some were simply awful. And then there was Edwardo.
Edwardo works as the US rep for one of the biggest leather producers in the world. He’s a very heavyset man in his early 50s, and has an opinion about everything. He personified the image of a fast-talking used car salesman, and was constantly bouncing back and forth between texts and sales calls with his “good friends” and telling about all the awesome things he does. I’d equate him to a massive balloon – big, round and full of hot air.
I had planned on showing up at 10 to get a factory tour and go through samples, maybe getting through it all around noon. But after waiting for half an hour for him to show up late, then getting an earful about how poorly his other customers had acted towards him, noon came and went before I saw a single stitch of material. Inside my head, I wanted to jump ship and bail as soon as I could, but by staying quiet and taking notes of all the stuff that came pouring out of his mouth, I gained a huge amount of insight into the local leather industry. Lesson learned: Sometimes it’s better to shut up and listen, especially when it comes to machismo Mexican salesmen who love the sound of their own voice.
I played it cool all day, and he took me around to see all the ins and outs of the factory. To be honest, the leather that they make is some of the absolute best in the world, and exactly what I was looking for. It’s all 100% environmentally safe veg-tan, with some of the most amazing colors and finishes I’d ever seen. Exactly what I was looking for. Their prices weren’t too steep and availability was great! Edwardo even took a liking to me, and offered to send over 4 full sides of the sample material that they were making to my exact specs, for free. That’s about the equivalent of $300 worth of material from my supplier in Indy, and twice the quality. So, I did what I had to do, and kept my mouth shut.
Luckily, I didn’t have any other meetings scheduled for that day, so Edwardo took me to lunch at his friend’s seafood place in town. He spent the whole time on the phone, while I sat there sheepishly, enjoying the insane amount of food that he insisted on ordering for me, since gringos don’t understand Mexican cuisine. We had ceviche and smoked salmon and oysters and micheladas, and it was incredibly good. Seriously good.
After lunch, we headed over to his buddy’s shop, who produces some quality stuff for other brands like Brothers and Fittipaldi. Now, if I haven’t mentioned that nepotism is the backbone of the Mexican economy, let me stress that it’s essential, and strongly pushed on everyone – especially an easy target like a seemingly naive gringo. We spent a few hours looking at some very well-designed bags and a pretty decent working atmosphere, but there was still this greasy vibe that gave me pause.
First, Edwardo was adamant all day long that I should definitely work with his buddies and use his leather, because it was the best thing for my business. Truthfully, when he slowed his roll for long enough to see samples of my work, my designs and hear my business plan, he had a moment of honest interest and fully believed that what I had been planning was an incredibly wise niche in the market, and became vested in me as a customer, since he could see that I’d likely be a very good long-term customer. However, he then dug his claws in a little deeper, and I could definitely see the wheels turning, in that if I were to go through him and his compadres, his kickback would be significant, and after all, that’s how he made his income, so I wasn’t too surprised – just a bit irked.
Second, and this is a little iffy to circumnavigate, is that all of the terms that he and his buddy were bringing to me were in American dollars. That might not seem too strange, but I had already had a long conversation with some friends here in Leon, who had given me a lot of insight into how Mexican businesses deal with Americans, and the overcharging they try to manipulate, because more often than not, can get away with it. I didn’t insist on a price in pesos right away, since I was still playing it cool, but doing the numbers in my head, I could see just how badly I was looking to get gouged. Yet, I was getting a wealth of knowledge by keeping quiet. Lesson learned: Business is business, and even though I was gaining a vast amount of valuable knowledge for my company, I didn’t owe anybody anything.
The day ended, FINALLY, and I came back home, running into Vanessa as I entered the condo. We hung out for a little bit and had a beer, and she told me that the past week, I’d always looked so upbeat and energetic, but that evening, I looked dog tired. I was. I told her about working with Edwardo all day, and that his personality was exhausting, but all the stuff I learned was somehow worth it, and he planned on picking me up the next morning to take me over to another shop to meet a different group that might be able to help with manufacturing. I wasn’t really looking forward to it, but it was something I needed to do. I had a second beer.
Edwardo picked me up in the morning, 2 hours late, and we headed out to the next manufacturer. He told me the whole time that this group wasn’t as good of quality as the last one, but they are less expensive and good for other things than bags. The drive was only about 20 minutes, but felt like 3 hours. When we pulled up to the shop, I was already feeling defeated. But then something great happened.
I walked into the building to find a very organized, very professional shop that was so different than a lot of the ramshackle spaces I’d become used to. I was met by the owner and his son and their lead designer and showed around the place. Edwardo started in interjecting his pitch, but was soon distracted by another phone call, and I got a moment’s reprieve while the gang showed me how their production lines worked, and their incredibly cool design department where they fine-tuned all the items for production, and even their custom embroidering and screen printing facility. It was truly a great shop filled with some great folks. They were even licensed by Disney to produce all their princess backpacks.
We went up to the showroom and looked through some of their items, and the ones that they were most proud of, were the ones that they were designing in-house for their own label. We got to talking, and sure enough, the owner was a big fan of motorcycles and had a lot of the same philosophies that I did, and had even begun producing his own line of brilliant motorcycle jackets. My interest was piqued, for sure, but then the most unexpected moment came when we all sat down at the table, and they asked to see what my designs were like, what my specs were, and all of the different particulars that I was envisioning for production. They answered my questions and gave me feedback and most of all, they listened to what I had to say about my goals for the fall launch, and reciprocated appropriately in turn. I was aghast at such a pleasant change.
The icing on the cake, was when I asked them about their other supply lines for additional materials that I was interested in, such as waxed linen and herringbone worsted wool. It didn’t translate perfectly, but then we looked at some of their prototypes, and sure enough, they were using military-style felt, beautiful waxed canvas and incredibly enough, herringbone worsted wool. It couldn’t have been more perfect. We even talked about making a signature motorcycle jacket for my spring line. Yeah. These guys were perfect.
Edwardo and I headed back to his office, and the whole way there, my head was spinning with all the ideas that were flooding in, regarding the capabilities of this new shop. I might have fibbed a little bit and said that I had a 2pm meeting, just so that I could get out from under Edwardo’s weight for a while, but I did it pleasantly and with some damn grace, then hopped in my Uber and took a deep breath. I’m not sure if I’m going to work with Edwardo’s tannery just yet, but I felt that I did a good job of keeping up relations for the meantime, in case I go with them. I mean, it really is some of the best. Period.
On the other hand, I had another perfect moment earlier in the week with another tannery that I’m really hoping I can work with. They’re also one of the largest producers of leather in the world, and completely on point, except that their main production is what’s known as veg-chrome process, meaning that they do some of the tanning with natural vegetable methods, but then do finishing with toxic chromium to give it the beautiful look and feel that people seem to want. Honestly, 100% veg is harder to produce, takes a lot longer, is more expensive, and has serious limitations when it comes to options like color and finish. It is, however, stronger, more durable and environmentally sound.
Edwardo’s tannery is a big deal because not only are they one of the biggest, but they produce all 100% natural veg-tanned leather, and they have their super-secret method of creating beautiful colors and textures in full-grain, that nobody else can compete with. Part of my marketing plan, is that my items are toxin-free, and if I stick to that mindset, I was looking at having to work with him and likely get overcharged with his kickbacks and under-the-table methods. But, salvation is at hand.
The other tannery had two great employees who walked me through their place and chatted with me about my needs. The director of sales and the head of design were both very interested in my niche idea, and were very responsive about what sort of material I needed, without being pushy or unresponsive. In fact, they heard my plight for 100% veg hides, and liked my business plan so much, that they took me to their prototype department, and showed me something that they were in the middle of creating, that wasn’t yet public knowledge, but might be perfect for me. Adriana opened up the rack, and there, far from the showroom floor, were four samples of the most beautiful, 100% veg leather I’d ever seen. Not only that, but the colors they decided to experiment with, just happened to be the exact colors I envisioned for my work. They had beautiful sheen, great pull-up and perfect imperfection that only comes from the very best tanning.
The only down-side is that they were still a few weeks away from finalizing the process and running the numbers for cost, but considering my unique brand plans, were absolutely excited to let me be the first person outside the factory to see their top-secret new line. It really couldn’t have been a more perfect solution to what I was looking for, and they were even very receptive to the few things that I wanted to tweak for my stuff – things like a 20% reduction in the wax coating and a brown core and pull on the black hides. Added to finding an amazing workshop that was on par with the visions and direction that my company is leaning towards, and it’s starting to feel like I’m making some good choices at an incredibly opportune time, with a lot of like-minded folks that can make all of this work. The only thing left to consider is the cost, and that’s a doozy.
Amidst all of the excitement of the past week, I also found time to meet up with Daniel, who owns a co-op leather workshop in town, and is a big fan of my work. He’s a great craftsman and cobbler, and even teaches master-level classes. After seeing some of my stuff, he could tell that I didn’t need a whole lot of coaching, but was definitely in need of some workspace, access to machines and a great environment to work on prototypes. He’s been a bit stressed this week, moving into the new space, but has been fairly receptive, and I think that I’ve found a workshop to use. I really hope so, because that would be the cherry on top of a productive and happily exhausting week.
But for now, I’m enjoying the rain on the tin roof of the other workshop in my condo, sipping coffee and nursing the hangover from the fun evening I had last night with some of my friends and neighbors. I might even get through a couple more chapters of my business planning books this afternoon.