Nik Palmer is the UK-raised leatherworker at the helm of Palmer and Sons, a Vancouver-based artisanal leather company. As many fashion companies turn to automated production, heavily relying on outsourcing and cheap materials, Palmer and Sons literally does everything by hand.
Working with full grain leather - the full thickness of the hide - is time intensive and physically taxing, however, hand tools remain the tricks of Palmer's trade - an approach that harkens back to classic artisanal leatherworking of the early 19th century.
With a mother who worked as a seamstress and sewed her children's clothing, Palmer has always been immersed in fashion and garment construction. Beginning with leather cuffs and other small pieces, Palmer and Sons has appeared in international fashion publications such as Man of the World, Playboy (when they called, Palmer thought it was a joke), Interview Magazine, Seventh Man, Fiasco and Corduroy. The company has also made a mark on New York Fashion Week, doing set dressing for the Marlon Gobel F/W 2011 runway show and providing leather accessories for Bespoken's S/S 2012 show.
The Genteel's David Walmsley recently sat down with Palmer over a pint in Vancouver's Gastown district to discuss the past and future of his namesake company.
David Walmsley: What inspired you to get into leatherworking?
Nik Palmer: The focal point came from our art studio; a guy used to come in to carve abstract leather pieces. A lot of work went into them. It's a very traditional North American skillset. I asked where to get a piece of leather, not having a clue what I was really planning on doing with it. That's how it started really; I got that piece of leather and made a suitcase. We still have it and it still works.
DW: You're quite open about the sources of your materials and even the companies that make your tools and hardware, as opposed to being more secretive about it which seems to be the industry standard. Was this a conscious decision?
NP: It stems from my games background [and my] understanding of intellectual property. Most people's IP is their idea and people are protective about it. I wanted to come at it from a different point of view. I want to develop an IP that can't be copied. [...] What I use to build and design my bags harkens back to around the 1820s. It can't be your IP since, theoretically, anyone should be able to do it, if they have the wherewithal. The company is about the method of doing it ourselves and it's really a different way of doing things, nowadays.
DW: Given the hands-on, time intensive approach of Palmer and Sons, how does bespoke design fit into the business?
NP: I really have two lives - a digital and an analog one. I began with the idea that Palmer and Sons was going to be all bespoke; it's how we started out. At the time, I didn't consider myself to be a designer or an artist but I quickly noticed that I really only appreciated making the things that I personally appreciate most.
When you're younger, it's good to spend your time making things for other people. However, your hands are only going to last so long. Over time, you really need to start creating for yourself - things that resonate with your appreciation for design. We'll still do bespoke but it's people coming to us with a basic idea and we handle the real design aspects.
DW: The Palmer and Sons brand evokes an artisanal and vintage feel. Have you found that your customers share in the same ideals?
NP: They come from a couple of different groups - an affluent side and a design side. It's kind of like Saab cars. Saabs sold mostly to architects and people in design, being something unusual. Similarly, I sell to a lot of people at design, architectural and fashion companies. Web designers, widget designers and architects have become my regular customers. They're people looking for something different.
DW: Has working in the videogame and digital industries impacted the way you work or design at Palmer and Sons?
NP: We just made a cover for a Nexus, similar to our iPad one. We prototyped it the same way as the design: all in leather. Instead of even drawing it out, I just took the knife and leather and figured it out physically.
I can model digitally but it goes against the grain for what I'm trying to do. I have a digital life and I have an analog life and I try to keep both pure. There is something to be said for keeping the two separate and it's how I try to live my life and it's also how I work in both the digital and analog leatherworking fields.
DW: You've mentioned the importance of avoiding certain fantasy components when it comes to leatherwork. Which elements do you think need to be avoided and does it affect a brand?
NP: There are certain leather looks that come from different areas in the world. Genres have the same aspect as geography does, in that fantasy and steampunk go somewhere different than others. Some people have stereotyped leather to a certain thing like The Matrix look. People still aren't really wearing long leather coats on the street because of it. Leather has ebbed and flowed of how people have looked at it culturally and I try to avoid that by not producing things on a trend. It starts with the leather selection, the mix of the leather types and avoiding that flowing, soft Lord of the Rings-type leather and the super hard Western aesthetic. You need to locate the middle ground.
DW: Having a relatively small number of products available, how do you decide which designs to continue throughout the years, add, retire, etc.?
NP: The suitcase is sort of canon but we aren't making them right now. I'm thinking of how to change them to make them more functional.
One of the cuffs has become that way, because of where it came from four or five years ago. It amalgamated leather with ship hardware and has a mixed ideology that people find unique. Why is leather with something from a ship?
DW: Are there any plans to eventually expand into other leather goods, besides bags and accessories?
NP: We've designed some leather menus, I've tried some furniture that I might like to explore. We've actually noticed that is difficult to locate wool jackets, dress trousers and that sort of thing. 18 Waits (Toronto) does beautiful work that's shipped to you with a handwritten note. You pay for what you get. My son brought up the idea of making suits: it reminded me of listening to my mother sew. I could remember the sound of her sewing machine, when she paused, when she went backwards. Listening to it helped me understand how to sew. I played with everything as a kid, and would change the tension and everything. I know what I like in men's clothing and I could imagine Gastown becoming the Savile Row of Vancouver. I love businesses like Dominion Barbers where it's a place to go and hang out. I think that's perfect for fashion - coming in and choosing cloth, talking, and coming back again a week later. We've made some one-offs but I don't know if we'll actually pursue it.
DW: Are there any accessories or menswear designers of late that you've come to really appreciate or admire?
NP: The worst designers in games are the ones that amalgamate all the best ideas from other people's work to mishmash something together. I did a lecture last year called 30 Ideas with my Eyes Open. Works that you find to be fantastic link back to key places, historically. I don't realise who I might harken back to, I try to blend aesthetics with functionality while purposely not examining other people's work.
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