The Brothers Bray: Taking Fashion Back to Basics

Photos: Mark Townsend

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2008/09 issue of NEW. You can download the entire issue here.

When Kirk and Chris Bray hit the beach on Martha’s Vineyard in mid-July, they weren’t able to fully relax.

“I did stitch some belts on the beach, and in the car on the way there and back,” Kirk admits, sitting in his downtown Jersey City loft on a Thursday afternoon later that month. A musky scent of leather permeates the room, which has oversized windows that look out at the former Manischewitz factory. He was recalling how work had intruded on the recent family vacation. “I did one card case on the ferry but it kind of made me sick.”

The seaside getaway came at a tough time for the brothers and business partners behind the leather accessories brand Billykirk. They were scrambling to finish up preparations for men’s market week in New York, where the buyers who stock high-end retailers from boutiques and department stores would be browsing Billykirk’s latest designs looking for items to stock for the spring 2009 season.

Men’s market week, which happens twice a year, may be a linchpin event of the modern fashion marketplace, but for the Brays, it’s the culmination of a process that’s uniquely old-world. The leather wallets, belts and bags they design are hand-assembled by Amish leather workers using age-old techniques and tools — shears, mallets, rivets, needles and thread — that seem out of place in this century.

The results, Kirk says, are well-made, understated accessories that transcend trendiness: “It’s not mass market stuff. There’s only so much you can do with a belt without having it look gaudy. But if you can do it in a way that’s subtly different, with quality hardware, so that it looks handmade, people appreciate it.”

Christopher Frye, the men’s fashion director at Bloomingdale’s, which is stocking Billykirk items for the first time this fall, agrees. “I think our customers will gravitate towards the collection, as it will be something new and interesting,” he says, noting that very few of the leather products Bloomingdale’s typically stocks are handmade.

Indeed, in an age so driven by mass production that even many luxury brands now contract labor out overseas, Billykirk’s quality-over-quantity approach has a certain appeal to shoppers who value the craftsmanship of a bygone era. As sexy as a Prada bag may be, consumers are finding that a designer label these days may be just that — a name. And those who value investing in truly unique, high-quality, long-lasting items are starting to look beyond labels.

“The designs are understated, focusing more on the functionality of the item as opposed to the brand name,” says Frye. “[They] offer a different take on the traditional wallets our customers are used to seeing.”

“I remember the first day Kirk walked in and showed me a wallet and explained to me the process behind it, I knew it was something I had to have in the store,” says Clifford Rullow, owner of the Paulus Hook boutique LIFE, (and also the husband of NEW’s creative director), which has been carrying Billykirk items since 2005. “They’ll take an item, like a belt, and interpret it in a completely new way and give it an interesting new twist.”

Kirk, 35, and Chris, 38, grew up in Minnesota, and founded Billykirk almost ten years ago while they were living in Los Angeles. “We knew we always wanted to own our own company,” Kirk says. “Chris had made business cards for me in high school. We had the name, we just didn’t know what we were going to make or sell.”

Inspiration came in the form of a 1970s-era wide leather watchband they picked up in a pawnshop in 1998. Kirk, who’d earned a degree in fashion design from the University of Wisconsin but was working in a coffee shop, found he was getting a lot of compliments on it. In the late ‘90s — an age of Swatch and digital watches — there wasn’t much like it available. “We thought maybe there’s a market here,” says Chris, who has a business degree and was working in real estate at the time. “So we basically learned how to make these watches.”

They opened the phone book and began tracking down the necessary leather and hardware. Then, they had to figure out how to put it all together. Turns out learning such an old-world trade required an equally quaint process: a three-year apprenticeship.

Turning again to the Yellow Pages, they met the man who would become their mentor, Arnold Arons, a third-generation leather worker with a shop in downtown L.A. “He had kids about our age, but his daughter was a vegan and his son was in law school,” Chris says. “So for us to come in and work with him—he got a kick out of it. He liked to help us.”

After perfecting the watchband, they began experimenting with other items, like wallets and belts. When Billykirk eventually outgrew Arons’ space, the Brays bought some of his machinery and set up their own shop a few miles away. Among other things they acquired his cutting table—a heavy antique with a blade like a paper cutter used for slicing leather—which Arons’ grandfather had purchased in the 1940s. In 2005, when they packed up both of their households and the business for the move to New York City, the cutting table went with them.

The Brays intended to settle in Brooklyn, but deterred by the astronomical prices, they decided to check out the other side of the Hudson. “It is sort of funny how we moved 3,000 miles to come to Manhattan and fell a river short,” says Kirk. “But as soon as we stepped foot off the PATH we were like ‘Wow, it’s a cool city!’” Chris remembers.

They appreciated Jersey City for its art scene and reasonable real estate, and eventually Kirk landed an artist-designated affordable live-work unit on Bay Street that they now use as company headquarters. Keeping the work area tidy and organized gives Kirk room to paint in his spare time — he does realist and surrealist oil paintings, and recently had a show at 58 Gallery. There’s also workspace for Chris, who lives in Bergen-Lafayette with his wife and two-year-old daughter, to manage the company’s finances, media relations, sales and graphic design.

Kirk (who’s full name, William Kirkland, inspired the company’s name) does most of the designing, with input from Chris. While he does sketch now and then, he says, “A lot of times I’m using my hands, just cutting and trying out things.” Often, the brothers find inspiration in found antiques—equestrian gear like reins and bridles, or high-quality, high-function vintage leather military items. Among their current favorites are a concealed-buckle belt modeled after one designed for mechanics in the 1930s—the buckle was layered under leather to prevent scratching a car—and a unisex pouch inspired by a WWII-era Belgian military map case.

After the brothers finalize a prototype, the bulk of the leatherwork is outsourced to Amish County in Pennsylvania, where a leather worker who specializes in horse equipment oversees the hand-production of the line. “We have to mail him the order, we can’t use email or fax, but that’s how it goes,” Chris says. “They’re really incredible people to work with. Once you get in with them, they treat you like family, to a degree. We go down there and we’re able to work with them in their shop. It’s a lot of fun.”

Eventually, Chris and Kirk would like to share some of that fun with their customers. They hope to one day open an interactive storefront, which, though it may sound high-tech, would actually be quite old-fashioned. Visitors would be able to watch leather workers in action and customers could choose colors and styles to customize their purchases. “I used to love watching taffy being made as a kid,” Kirk says. “I like to know stuff about what I’m buying, especially if I’m spending money on it. I like to know the story behind it.”

Check out this slideshow of Billkirk’s work:

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a Jersey City–based editor and writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Radar, Playgirl, Time Out New York and The New York Observer.