In the Bag

Laddie Howard crafts heirloom quality leather

Jeff Amberg

For today’s population on the move, a well-designed bag has evolved from a luxury to a necessity. With all of the laptops, tablets, phones, and assorted flotsam and jetsam required to keep a plugged-in life afloat, a pair of sturdy pockets simply no longer does the trick. In virtually any metropolitan area, the dizzying array of bags put into service by business people, coffee shop patrons, shoppers, parents, students, artists, writers, dog walkers, and bike riders is enough to make one’s head spin.

Once almost the exclusive domain of women, the bag has gone unisex. Gone are the days of snickering about a “man-bag,” “man-purse,” or “murse,” as more of today’s men recognize the value of a hands-free approach to the mobile life. Many of today’s men see beyond its utilitarian benefits to also recognize the inherent satisfaction of including this stylish and practical accessory as part of their daily look.

A notable Columbia designer and craftsman who has tapped into this evolution is Laddie Howard, founder and proprietor of L. Howard, Artistry in Leather.

“One of the things that motivates me is that men now have to carry bags every day,” says Laddie. “Women have always done it, but especially in America men have had to deal with the whole sexuality question about carrying a bag. For men today, carrying a bag is just practical, and I’ve always been at the forefront of that. My brand doesn’t just focus on men — it’s a unisex brand — but men aren’t going to have 50 bags like women do. A man will own one bag, maybe two, and so it needs to be a signature piece.”

Offering classic heirloom items for both men and women, L. Howard operates from Laddie Howard’s well-appointed studio in Columbia. A former successful lawyer and lobbyist turned leather craftsman, Laddie first took to working with leather when Mason, his 10-year-old son, needed a bag for a trip. Always interested in a challenge, Laddie decided to design and create one rather than just buying one or using a bag they already owned.

“I’ve always been into leather,” says Laddie. “Whenever we’d visit my wife’s hometown of Savannah, I would check out their leather goods. In fact, anywhere we would travel, I’d go into leather stores, even before I began working with leather just like someone going to a cigar shop or a wine shop. I was just drawn to it, even before I knew I would do this work.”

Laddie created his first bag with a combination of leather and waxed canvas, which he fully crafted himself. “I’m self-taught. I’ve gained all of my knowledge about leather — including the best leather to use, how it lays down, how it works, the process of tanning leather — through the process of trial and error. And so my first bag … well, I think I tried to bury it in a landfill somewhere,” Laddie says.

Since that first attempt, Laddie has honed and perfected his techniques, designing and producing expertly handcrafted bags of almost every variety. Offering everything from large duffels to messenger bags to clutches, all L. Howard pieces are handcrafted leather featuring one-of-a-kind accents. In addition to serving a pragmatic purpose, L. Howard bags are also designed to turn heads. First showing up on runways at Columbia Fashion Week, which then led to runways at both Charlotte and Atlanta’s fashion weeks, L. Howard bags are making their mark nationally and now internationally. Laddie has even been invited to show on runways during New York’s fashion week but has opted for smaller shows that allow him an opportunity to develop more direct access to actual buyers.

This past July, Laddie and Stacy, his wife, took their two children, Satchel and Mason, plus a friend, to Italy for a month. Renting a villa in Tuscany to become fully immersed in the Italian experience, the family toured the region, each of them carrying a handcrafted L. Howard bag. As they strolled the walled city of Lucca, exploring local leather shops and taking in the ancient vistas, Howard noticed an Italian couple discussing the bag his daughter carried.

“My antennae went up because first I thought somebody was looking at my child. But then I quickly realized they were actually looking at her bag. The woman gestured towards it and whispered, ‘It says L. Howard.’ So they were trying to figure out where the bag came from, and I was thinking, ‘Whoa, they’re checking out my bag.’”

For Laddie, this interaction was just the latest affirmation of a second career that has re-awakened his innate love of making things that are both functional and unique.

“I grew up in a family of people who made things,” says Laddie. “My father and uncle both made things. My grandfather, who was born in 1914 and is deceased now, used to make me stuff all the time. It’s just where I’m from.”

Laddie still has the slingshot Robert Howard, his paternal grandfather, carved for him when he was a little boy. While he no longer uses it for its original purpose, Laddie keeps that slingshot on a shelf in his studio as a reminder of the legacy of the makers before him. In fact, before he began working with leather, Laddie tinkered with woodworking and built himself a beautifully crafted cedar chest, complete with hand-cut dovetails. “I’ve always been fairly artistic, sketching and building things, without really considering myself an artist. I think I’ve always been meant to be an entrepreneur, but the life of an entrepreneur is fairly stressful, especially in this economy.” While leaving behind the relative security of a successful law career to pursue full-time creative work was daunting, he felt continually drawn to pursue this path.

As he describes on his website: “My grandfather [maternal – Louie Rivers] was a proud and successful farmer. He wanted me to farm, too. ‘Boy, people always have to eat,’ he would say to me during those long, busy, labor intensive farm days that I would spend in Bamberg, South Carolina. And then he would ask me, ‘You sure you don’t want to farm?’ ‘No, Granddaddy, I don’t want to work where I get dust on my shoes,’ is how I vividly recall replying. I became a lawyer and for almost 20 years I worked as one of very few African-American contract lobbyists. I did what I set out to do. But do you know what I have learned — what I have finally come to grips with? I like making things.”

Laddie explains that in a time when so little is still made in America, with items seemingly engineered to fall apart within a certain time frame, the value of a handcrafted item cannot be overstated.

“If you’re going to build anything, it’s about process. The process really matters. We’re so driven by immediate gratification these days that there’s no respect for process anymore.”

As part of his Italian travels, Laddie visited the factory that makes the leather for Ferragamo.

“When I arrived at the factory, the guy there told me that he’d read the story about my grandfather. I’ve shared that story online and so, clearly, he’d done his research and read up on me. I didn’t realize my story would have that kind of impact. That story really affects people.”

He says, “When someone realizes you’re not just a designer, that you don’t just design but you also make something, you get a different kind of respect. Italy is used to designers because designers flock to that country. But when you get there and they realize you’re also a craftsman, their entire attitude changes. I got to experience that firsthand. As we went around to the factories at Santa Croce, I was offered opportunities to buy the kind of leather they wouldn’t normally sell. They respect the fact that I’ll handle their leather well.”

In addition to the leather he purchased in Italy to ship back to his studio, Laddie was also able to share the experience of his Italian travels with his loyal followers via social media such as Facebook and Instagram. By documenting and sharing his trip in real time, it allowed his followers to, in a sense, travel with him.

“That means a lot, not just to me, but to the people who support me. Instead of buying Louis Vuitton or Gucci, these people are buying from me and feeling like they’re a part of L. Howard as they see it grow. It’s really kind of magical, and the feedback I’ve been getting from them is really amazing.”

After seeking inspiration, making connections, and extracting lessons from a land with such a long history of leather craftsmanship, Laddie is excitedly looking ahead to the next phase of L. Howard. In fact, he is already planning how to use creatively the Ferragamo leather he was able to source in Italy, creating new designs and imagining the future.

For a legacy-focused brand such as L. Howard, both the past and the future are of paramount importance. Looking back to the men in his family who came before him, Laddie says he wishes that he could show his grandfather what he now makes with his own hands. Looking forward to future generations, Laddie is thinking about the legacy he is leaving his own children and grandchildren, not just in terms of crafting an heirloom quality bag, but in building a long-standing, family-owned brand in which they can all take pride.

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