The Scout Video | The Craftsmen of Billykirk | A Continuous Lean.

The Scout Video | The Craftsmen of Billykirk

Nov 5th, 2009 | Categories: Video | by Michael Williams

The Billykirk offices are in a converted warehouse on Bay Street in Jersey City, NJ. The space is filled with all sorts of old industrial equipment (that actually gets used in making their products) and tons of Billykirk gear that is either on its way to the Amish folks that make the goods or to some of America’s best stores. Another thing you will notice in the office is all of the great looking artwork that Kirk Bray creates in his free time. If you go by the studio on a normal workday (much like I did yesterday), the brothers Chris and Kirk Bray will kindly welcome you and then proceed to talk your ear off. It is a good thing though, always interesting and inspiring and they will never let you leave empty handed. With its new video series The Scout shares some of the magic that makes the Billykirk guys great artisans and equally great people. The video is an enjoyable watch and it sets a high standard. Congrats to the Billykirk fellas and also to Tom Ran and the folks behind The Scout. Well played indeed.

Comments: 46

46 Comments to “The Scout Video | The Craftsmen of Billykirk”

  1. Theodor
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 10:16 AM

    Looking forward to the Victoria’s Secret video (after they pay for ad space on your blog)

  2. Mark
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 10:21 AM

    I LOVE the Scout blog!!! Those guys post the coolest stuff that most blogs don’t. The video was rad.

  3. Jon Gaffney
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 10:34 AM

    Billykirk is awesome. Great product, great guys. Excellent video.

  4. Mark Frazer
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 10:49 AM

    ahh craftsmanship. Another stellar feed. This is the reason you were voted #1. Thanks.

  5. Zack
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 12:11 PM

    Anyone know what kind of glasses the guy in blue is wearing?

  6. kyle
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 12:29 PM

    Great short film. I appreciate the amount of craft in it’s production as there is in Billykirk’s product. I love a little inspiration during lunch!

    Thanks for the post.

  7. youhavebeenheresometime
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 12:47 PM

    nice film there…

  8. Derek
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 2:04 PM

    They do have nice offerings, but can we be clear about why handmade goods in the past were so well made? It’s not because handmade in itself has any inherent value. It’s because we used to have craft guilds that passed on construction techniques from person to person, and this long tradition meant that a lot of skill was passed on, and each person built on their master’s teachings. Who taught these guys? What social/ guild web were they embedded in? I really dislike it when people lose sight of the reason why handmade goods are good, what social institutions allowed for craftsmanship to emerge, and why that’s better than machines. Sure, maybe Billykirk stuff was last 30-50 years, maybe even 100. But there’s no reason to believe that two guys who didn’t come from craftsman families, nor went to a craft guild to learn the trade, are going to build quality stuff. Consumers need to stop having a fetish for the word “handmade” and go learn about manufacturing and craftsman history in American and Western Europe.

  9. Derek
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 2:06 PM

    Point being: just because you have the superficialities of the past – old tyme music, thick glasses, old leather in your workshop, and classic designs – doesn’t mean it has the quality of the past. Let’s get past the superficiality already of this hip trend, and let’s get serious about what quality means. Read some history about manufacturing.

  10. Michael Williams
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 2:09 PM

    Derek — the Billykirk stuff is made by the Amish. Do you know anything about the Amish? No, seriously I’m asking you. —ACL

  11. Chris
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 2:46 PM

    I’m an engineer and my brother is a tattoo artist so I admire that these two brothers are able to spend their days, side by side, doing what they (seem to) love.

  12. Bill
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 2:55 PM

    Then they shouldve made a film about the Amish! –LMACLAO!

  13. Michael Williams
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 2:59 PM

    http://www.holycrosslivonia.org/amish/amishfaq.htm#pix

  14. zissou
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 3:02 PM

    Fair points, Derek, but there’s no reason to believe that two guys who didn’t come from craftsman families, nor went to a craft guild to learn the trade, are NOT going to build quality stuff.

    The idea of ‘quality’ is very subjective. I aspire to hand-make my own goods for myself, including wallets, belts, and canvas and leather bags. Am I somehow supposed to give up on the idea that my stuff won’t be ‘quality’ just because I don’t have the training or family heritage?? How elitist.

  15. zissou
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 3:03 PM

    Great video, by the way….

  16. AB
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 3:35 PM

    I have one of their bags and i have to say, although i thought it looked very sturdy at first, i got called back to my senses pretty fast. It is well manufactured but does not really have more longevity than something you’d buy at HM. The bag’s strap broke after 6 months of normal use and holes were starting to show in the structure after a few weeks (again normal use, i took it as a gym bag, no heavy loads, no throwing around).

    Now that being said it is true that there was at no point any substantial damage made to the bag, ie it is still very usable and very used. But it is true that for a company who pride themselves on quality and durability, i was fairly disappointed.

    On a final note, I was also wondering if anyone knew what’s the brand of both of their glasses? I really like them both.

  17. susan
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 4:19 PM

    Hmmm. interesting comments gentlemen!

    I was wondering why the amish were not even mentioned in the manufacturing of their goods because that is such a focus on their website. I have wanted a billykirk bag for a while (ended up recently buying a chloe edith, (I’m a gal) with the thought that I would by the BK laptop bag soon) .. moving on… I totally agree with the notion that craftsmen type guilds can yield some tips and techniques that would take years to discern just working on your own- but these guys seem to be pretty smart- smart enough that their own hands on experience and some ol’ fashioned book learnin’ might overcome the dearth of a “master”

    Sidenote- I have tried several times in the past few years to gain apprenticeships in different areas that I am interested in- wishing to find a craftsman like skill to devote myself to full time (from bootmaking here in Houston from a fourth generation boot maker to approaching a textile designer in Denmark if I could come camp on her property to learn from her ) largely to no avail. Is the art of apprenticeship seems to be gone as well?

    AB- sad to hear that your BK bag has gotten trashed so fast. Now I’m double thinkin’ my next bag purchase. But on the other hand- I like it when some of my stuff stays pristine, and some of it looks worn in. I wouldn’t trade in my F-ed up 15 year old red wing ropers for the world, but I am gonna be sad when my brand new Zeha Berlin boots get their first scrape and ding.

  18. emj
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 4:56 PM

    I live in Ohio near plenty of Amish. They sell “fresh baked pies” using canned filling, Wal-Mart bought spices that they put into baggies with handwritten labels (seriously, I’m supposed to believe the Hungarian paprika and curry powder are homemade?), and Home Depot nails in their furniture. My law firm has represented Amish construction companies, and I’ve learned about how they skirt their own rules – the generator is in the workshop, but the pipes run underground to the house, where they power the hot tub. The reason we have represented the contractors is because they’ve regularly violated codes, and frequently built sub-par structures. Amish-made, from pies to houses, does not mean better-made.

  19. Michael Williams
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 5:11 PM

    EMJ — interesting comments, thanks for sharing. This is also the same argument of China vs USA quality. ACL is the Groundhog Day of comment conversations. Generally, where I lived in Ohio (Northeast), the Amish (mennonites) were some pretty amazing craftsmen. In fact they built my parent’s garage by hand, no power tools. Watched it with my own eyes. Perhaps you have a jaded view of their workmanship because you seem to deal with the worst of the worst. Or perhaps we just got lucky with our builder?

  20. emj
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 5:23 PM

    I’m sure that there’s a mix of good and bad, but the blanket notion that Amish is better doesn’t hold for me. I’m also NE OH, starting out on the west side of Cleveland, and now in Akron. I am jaded on Amish, but it’s not because of construction; it’s because of those damn awful pies.

    For an interesting view of the Amish, check out Devil’s Playground.
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0293088/

  21. AB
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 5:38 PM

    Susan – I hear you on this one, but there is a fine line between worn out and damaged, which i found they blurred a bit too much. I am very eager to see my bag’s leather get that unique touch of the “i stole this from my grandad”, but it would have to hold in one piece for a while to get there, a feat i am not quite sure it will achieve in a usable state. I still think their stuff looks great, specifically on their website.. But for the price they’re selling I think you could go for something a bit sturdier if you want the “worn in” look. Props for the craftsmanship nonetheless.

    Still no one on those glasses?

  22. don weir
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 5:41 PM

    Ah, the drivel.

    Damn fine short film.

  23. Chris
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 6:40 PM

    AB,

    Sorry to hear about your bag. Send it back and we will repair it or replace it.

    Email me at chrisbray@billykirk.com

    Glasses:

    Kirk – Selima Optique NYC
    Chris – Sol Moscot NYC

  24. Anthony Creek
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 9:45 PM

    Maybe this will satisfy, to some degree, the critiques above. From their website:

    “Kirk – We worked under a 3rd generation leather maker in Los Angeles for 3 years. We eventually bought some of his antique machinery and opened our own studio a couple of miles away.”

  25. FileUnder
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 9:48 PM

    I have a Billykirk belt and I love it. I can’t wait till 30 years go by and I can pass it on to kin.

  26. Chris
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 10:39 PM

    Just to expand on what Anthony Creek said…..Our mentor taught us everything from how to put a rivet on a belt to what machinery and tools to use. All the skills and techniques that we soaked in we owe entirely to him. His unwavering patience with us during the beginning stages, while he was running his business, is something that we won’t soon forget. When we did outgrow his space we ended up buying a number of his tools and machines (some that his grandfather bought in the early 40′s) and set up our own shop a few miles from him. We now had 2000ft/2 to make our product. At one point we had 6 employees producing our collection. In 2004, when we started planning our move to the East Coast, we knew that finding a 2000ft/2 live/work space near NYC for a decent price would be impossible so we had to look at other means for producing our goods. Luckily, I had a vendor friend who dealt with the Amish and he essentially arranged the meeting and the rest is history.

    Today, we use our design space for running the business, sampling, some finish work and for making a few pieces that we still produce in house. Sure, there are days when I wish we still had belt strippers, splitters and hydraulic clicker presses to freely use but the trade-off is worth it and having our Amish manufacturers just a few hours away gives us an excuse to get out to the country side.

  27. Paul Cunningham
    on Nov 5th, 2009
    @ 11:49 PM

    Sam Maloof, America’s most widely admired contemporary furniture craftsman had this to say about apprentices.
    “If a young man is intent on learning, he will have eyes in the back of his head.”

    In learning their craft, I venture to say that Chris and Kirk can relate to this quote in a way that only a passionate craftsmen/artisans can. To acquire the depth of knowledge needed to do what they do requires and honest mix of passion, patience, and skill.

    Chris and Kirk are a source of inspiration. They are helping to rekindle an appreciation for artisanal products.

  28. HMT
    on Nov 6th, 2009
    @ 1:58 AM

    As usual, the video was visually attractive. In addition to companies like BillyKirk, I’d like to see ACL promote someone like the 3rd generation leathersmith that Chris and Kirk worked under. I suspect that there are many such individuals in most major US cities.

  29. A Treasury of
    on Nov 6th, 2009
    @ 9:58 AM

    I thought I read that the Billykirk boys did find some old guy in California maybe who had a leather workshop and he let them use the equipment for years and sorta mentored and apprenticed and “guilded” them, so to speak.

    I got a BK steamer bag this September and although in person the waxed cotton seemed way darker than it did online, I’ve since learned to love it.

    I see points on both side of the Handcrafted vs Poser debate, but if nothing else I think it is to be respected and commended that the BK team is attempting to make things that will last a long time and that are made with such thought and passion.

    Disposable design is just toxic to our planet and selfish and greedy.

  30. Derek
    on Nov 6th, 2009
    @ 12:13 PM

    Michael, I just came back and saw this entire conversation. Yes, I know about the Amish. First, I didn’t see that BK had their work manufactured by the Amish; for that I apologize for not researching more. The video made it seem like it was just two guys, who I suspected were never part of a craft tradition or guild, making stuff in some shop, and that we were automatically supposed to believe this is better than machine-made bags, which I argued was wrongheaded. Second, I would have responded with the obvious, and seems to have already been addressed here: Amish is a poor proxy variable for skill. Just because you’re Amish doesn’t mean you don’t cut corners or you have real skill in what you do. This is exactly why guilds are so important, because they used to regular entry into the trade and, when they held monopolistic power, also determine who could work or not, thus quality could either be inferred. Nowadays, we don’t have craftsman guilds like we used to, and a lot of people do handmade things just because its a trend, or because it gets them a premium. So the only proxy we have to quality is how long the company has been around and word of mouth reputation. So for example, Rolex, even not being made through a guild, and largely made through machines, has been around forever and has a great reputation. I have my father’s Rolex, which he bought in the sixties, and it’s been through the Vietnam War, but it still works great. Me passing on their reputation when I talk to others is the only way we can discern quality anymore, and it has nothing to do with handmade. That’s why I had a problem with the video, because it carries forth this false idea that handmade = better. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t, but we don’t know because guilds and apprenticeships in America have died. I have no idea what the specific Amish collective BK uses is like, nor do I know anything about the leathermaker Kirk learned from. My point was, as I stated, let’s get past the superficiality of things and be serious when we talk about what determines quality. If it is the type of quality that will last generations, then great, tell me why . . . and just saying it’s handmade isn’t enough. What I had issue with was how superficial the video came across. It was all style and no substance, which is fine with me since I enjoy style; just don’t start making claims about how your products are going to last generations unless you can discuss why.

  31. Makaga
    on Nov 6th, 2009
    @ 4:15 PM

    Very interesting comments thread.
    I’ve enjoyed reading all of your insights, thoughts, and opinions.
    Thanks, Michael, for prompting such discussions.

  32. AB
    on Nov 6th, 2009
    @ 4:43 PM

    Allow me to correct my insights, thoughts and opinions though. I feel like I might have come out as casually coarse and borderline bitter. The bag i bought still is functional. It is true that i was originally disappointed with the quality of the finishing, but i assume that it is a work in progress and there are things you cannot fix until you know about them (which may take a few years, an asset long standing brands can boast about, which is less true of newer companies).

    If i were to comment on overall appearance and functionality, the bag still looks great and performs well (ie. it still carries my things from point A to point B). I fixed the strap question myself and the holes are in no way endangering the content of the bag when carried. To offer a full on review I would/should wait for a few years, these were merely half a year first impressions. I am still eager to see it get worn in and as i said, the bag still is in use and very usable.

    Chris, thank you very much for your offer, I am prevented from doing so by objectionably high shipping cost but am very appreciative of the customer service and follow up you offer (incidentally, thank you for the glasses brands, you guys rock them well).

    I hope i did not come out as offensive towards what you create (and you do create, this video makes it quite clear, at least to the layman), i was merely trying to offer my own perception of the product(s) and what you do (I still crave for that one buckle hidden belt and might indulge some time soon).

    Hopefully this helps clarify my previous statements, thank you The Scout/ACL for this very well done video/discussion. Chris, please do keep up the good work, there are no angry customers out there (to my knowledge), merely a few providing feedback in equivocal manners at time.

  33. gary
    on Nov 6th, 2009
    @ 7:52 PM

    Derek:
    What’s superficial about a couple guys finding their passion and going for it? Also, what’s superficial about trying to make products that last generations? And in the United States? I understand your point that handmade doesn’t always equal better, but I don’t think anyone was trying to make that point. If anything, the video shows entrepreneurs who love what they do, and I think its ok (maybe even better than ok) for consumers to respond to that. I think its a bigger mistake to think that longevity and quality are synonymous.

    In the guilds you speak of, they say it takes 10 years or 20,000 hours to master a skill. So even by that measure, it seems the BK boys have paid their dues.

  34. Derek
    on Nov 7th, 2009
    @ 3:45 AM

    Gary,

    If you think 10 years of work is sufficient condition to say someone has mastered a skill, you’ll have to explain to me why we see dramatic skill levels between apprentice tailors with 10 years of training in India & China and apprentice tailors with 10 years of training in Italy.

    The answer lies in the number of guilds the place has, the tradition that has been built, the tacit knowledge that has been accumulated, and the formal and informal social institutions that allow for that accumulation of skill to be passed on.

    Saying you’ve been at it for ten years doesn’t itself mean you can be compared to those with ten years of training, but through the right institutions.

  35. Derek
    on Nov 7th, 2009
    @ 3:46 AM

    * I meant dramatic differences in skill levels between apprentice tailors in China/ India vs. Italy.

  36. gary
    on Nov 7th, 2009
    @ 1:08 PM

    “you’ll have to explain to me why we see dramatic skill levels between apprentice tailors with 10 years of training in India & China and apprentice tailors with 10 years of training in Italy.”

    I think its because we are racist.

  37. Michael
    on Nov 7th, 2009
    @ 6:43 PM

    I have a crush on both of them….and their bags.

  38. susan
    on Nov 7th, 2009
    @ 7:43 PM

    If you guys hung out at any of the more lady- centric sites that I do- I have read through this argument well before.

    First off- mastery of almost anything from ice hockey to the viola can be yours for the bargain price of 10,000 hours of practice. There has been a lot more research and discussion about it since Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in his last book “The Outliers”.

    Second, I agree with Gary- it’s more than a little racist to assume that Italian tailors with 10 or 20 years of experience are inherently more masterful than their Indian, or Chinese counterparts with the same materials and experience.

    Third- I also hang out on more lady-centric sites (such as The Purse Forum) and there are lots and LOTS of debates about quality (down to the size of RiRi zipper selected and minute differences between leather finishes and stitch count per inch on high end leather goods.) And in this day in age; “Made in Italy” does not necessarily denote hand made by guilded master craftsmen with 20,000 hours of experience- it might just mean “made in Italy” by cheaper imported foreign contract laborers. Sometimes the much heralded “quality” of some brands is really just excellent “quality control”- ie not releasing goods to market that have even the *slightest* imperfection.

    AB- thanks for the clarification- I am still in love with their bags. And I love a good inspiration story.

    ACL- Groundhog day what?

  39. twoShay
    on Nov 8th, 2009
    @ 1:47 AM

    Derek, you are seriously mistaken about guilds in the U.S. One of the things that made America different from the “Old World” is that craftsmen here were always largely free of the oppressive guild structures that stifled ingenuity back home. The trade union we do have here, like painters unions in New York that limit maximum brushes sizes are anything but a guarantee of quality. Their main reason for existence is to make sure their members get maximum pay and that non member get no work.

    Skilled immigrants from Europe that had some initiative were able to run with ideas here that they never would have been able to get anywhere with in Europe. Many of them would never have been able to open their own shops back home because of strict guild rules, but thrived here.

    I’m glad that we have a system where a pair of smart brothers can find a trade that excites them, set about learning it and then dive in and start making some things. Look at the Wright brothers for another example. They didn’t come up through a bicycle guild and certainly not an airplane guild, nor did they keep their discoveries secret like an airplane guild would have if they had begun one.

    Levi Strauss is another great example. Think you’d be wearing blue jeans if there had been a tailors guild in San Francisco back in the 1870′s? Do something with your own hands for a while and then tell it like it is about handmade things.

  40. himelator
    on Nov 8th, 2009
    @ 11:06 PM

    there is a multiple confusion it seems going on here. There are traditions and craft in every country…Indonesians master batik..leather from Mexico or Morocco, and Navajo rugs from Arizona. I think the real issue is about learning how to manufacture slowly, using ethical components as much as possible and paying fair wages. The goal is to product long lasting products with the best materials possible for a fair price while paying fair wages. Chinas failure is not lack of skill, it is mass production of crap that is toxic to both the Chinese and their environment and everybody else, while indifferent crap producers become insanely wealthy passing on zero savings to the consumer. Learning old techniques is a two part process. Having a fetish for old things teaches you about construction techniques…recreating old things teachings real methods to make designs work. The more you make with the proper ethos the more you learn about your product. I suspect these young men have a passion and working with Amish craftsmen they will learn to master their trade. It is an inevitability…it is strange that there would be hostility toward that goal.

  41. David
    on Nov 9th, 2009
    @ 3:43 PM

    Love the video man it is good to see that some designers still do realize the aspect of remaining true to their roots. The video gave a real big insight into how the Billykirk company/brand is run. Ultimately it seems like family is first, well at least to me that is the feeling I get from the band of brothers behind the idea of the the Billykirk machine.

  42. Craig
    on Nov 9th, 2009
    @ 3:47 PM

    Great short film, I am new to Billy Kirk products and it’s always nice to see or hear about a brands production, inspiration etc..

  43. PAN
    on Nov 11th, 2009
    @ 8:24 PM

    a little more detail about Billykirk’s roots in craftsmanship from GQ
    http://www.gq.com/style/blogs/the-gq-eye/2009/11/dropping-in-on-the-billykirk-brothers-at-work.html

  44. PAN
    on Nov 11th, 2009
    @ 8:26 PM

    funny, a good friend of mine lives in that building, directly above the Billykirk space…maybe i’ll pass through for a meet’n'greet soon

  45. andrew
    on Nov 15th, 2009
    @ 9:29 PM

    How can i become an apprentice at BK? I would love to learn the timeless process of crafting leather goods. BK seems like perfect place for me to learn this invaluable craft.

  46. lee
    on Dec 19th, 2009
    @ 6:00 PM

    wow, great video and discussion. i realize i’m really late to the conversation, but this
    is something i think about a lot. i have studied and apprenticed in two different
    areas of craft for a combined total of 12 years and have been working on my own for the last 6. when i first began my own line i too was suspect and slightly resentful
    of the seemingly trendiness/superficiality of the renewed interest in craft and handmade, but i have grown to really embrace it. craft has been so undervalued and ignored for so many years that it is almost impossible to find an apprenticeship or proper schooling for those who do have a genuine interest. i don’t know that guilds
    are the answer but i do agree that having a solid community and organizations
    to support artisans in their craft is really important to keeping them thriving and alive.
    and my hope is that with this new handmade “revival” that can become possible.

    i am familiar with BK’s work and i believe it is very well built. and as someone
    familiar with the craft world i have to say that i really appreciate their sense of
    design as well. because something can be very well made, but it doesn’t mean
    its well designed….and that really matters.
    i think sometimes there can also be suspicion when the story turns into these
    two guys, or so and so company have rediscovered the lost art of leathercraft or
    whatever it may be. when really there have always been people keeping the tradition alive but with little notice. in leather work for instance, barbara shaum and
    jutta neumann have been doing it for decades now in nyc, they are not very pr savvy so not so popular in the blogosphere.
    a good story is just as important as a good product i guess.