Interview by Sofia Klapischak | Images by Kazu Terauchi
Celebrating 15 years of making fine leather goods, Billykirk recently opened a brick and mortar shop in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City. We paid a visit to their crisp Orchard Street space, which reignites the classic concept of work-shop with a customization bench where each of their sturdy leather goods can be personalized.
ATLAS: The shop truly has the feeling of an extension of your studio. The door in the back of the shop appears like an office door, and reminded me of the idea of shopkeepers living upstairs or in the back of their stores. When the opportunity arose to set up a brick and mortar, how did you envision the space?
BILLYKIRK: We quickly realized a few things from the start. Firstly, we knew we had to think vertically, and minimal because the space was narrow and our retail foot print was only going to be about four hundred square feet. And secondly, to make the space feel as large as possible, we needed to use light colors, negative space and it had to be void of any unnecessary decor so the product could breathe. Lastly, the furniture and fixtures had to be simple in design.
Thankfully we both prefer the “less is better” design philosophy and lean more Scandinavian in our furniture choices so those decisions went smoothly between us. I think we ultimately accomplished what we envisioned by blending white shelving, white walls, and vintage maple furniture and chairs with old cast iron machinery, reclaimed wood and colorful Kilim rugs. The same goes for the paint and fixture choices we decided on: white for the walls and ceiling with olive, navy for the doors and grey with brass accents for the lighting fixtures.The hand-paint work on the exterior and interior doors was done by artist and painter Kenji Nakayama.
We got the old doors from a contractor who has a stockpile of salvaged building materials to pull from. We replaced all of the doors with reclaimed solid maple ones from the turn of the century. The entrance door and bathroom door were both from a hundred year old funeral home in Brooklyn and the double doors with saloon hinges came out of an old building in Harlem. We added chicken wire, period hardware and custom leather push/pull plates to all the doors.
ATLAS: The custom area you have in the front of the shop is wonderful! There is something magical about seeing the separate elements that are used to create one of your pieces. How has the experience of creating something custom for your customers been thus far?
BILLYKIRK: While on summer holidays as kids we loved to see taffy or fudge being made in the shop window and that image has always sat with us so when we were thinking about our store design we wanted to add that element. It’s not only attention getting but also shows that we aren’t importing our goods but rather hand-crafting them right here. It’s great to see a passerby stop and take notice. That short interaction can have lasting affects as it did with us when we were kids.
We tested this very idea back in 2009 during the first Pop Up Flea event in NYC when we brought blank pieces of leather, waxed cording, stamping dies and other items so that the customer could select their “ingredients” and we would essentially build the item right in front of their eyes. It was a total success and quickly showed us the benefits of offering some form of customization at our store. Moreover, seeing the item being stitched up or ones initials being hammered into an item really helps connect the customer to it and ultimately gives it more meaning. This is evident each year at the Pop Up Flea show as happy customers bring back their customized card case or key fob to show us how it has worn in. That’s the sort of connection and customer service many other retailers just can’t provide.
ATLAS: I'd read that you had been searching for a location to open a store for a number of years. The Lower East Side has this exciting history of the being composed of a blend of cultures that had immigrated to the city. Is there a certain energy to the neighborhood and your street?
BILLYKIRK: Indeed, the history of the Lower East Side is well documented and quite interesting. The name Orchard Street is literally named after the Orchards that James Delancy had on his farm in the Lower East Side over two hundred years ago. Of course times have changed. Once known as the “Bargain District” this section now has world class art galleries, restaurants, a soon to be finished hotel and more and more boutiques and housewares businesses are moving in.
The energy and enthusiasm is palpable but as with any area going through shifts it does have ups and down. It’s sad to see some of these old businesses getting priced out of the market. One of my neighbors, who is in his seventies, used to do all of his clothes shopping when he was a kid at the various discount clothing shops on Orchard Street. Now there are just a few of these old garmentos left as their brand of discount fashion is not as sought after.
ATLAS: Has the brick and mortar shop brought any ideas new directions for the future?
BILLYKIRK: Yes, we’re entertaining the idea of teaching some classes in our shop on hand-stitching and leather craft.