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Designing Sustainable Leather Goods with Saddlery Techniques

A conversation about the identity of an artist versus a business owner, how small businesses build meaningful connections with customers, and what it means to run a business that champions sustainability.

Published on Nov 5, 2021 by JANE ZHANG

Founder Stories is a series that features creative entrepreneurs who run product-based businesses. The conversations will explore their story, their business, and show the little, hidden moments that happen behind the scenes.

Becca Meadows is the founder of Sadelmager Design House , a Canadian leather company based in Toronto and Alliston Ontario. All of Becca's creations "start in a sketchbook before they are designed and patterned by hand". Becca creates beautiful leather bags, belts, wallets, and accessories using saddlery techniques. We had an amazing conversation about the identity of an artist versus a business owner, how small businesses build meaningful connections with customers, and what it means to run a business that champions sustainability.

If you prefer to listen or watch this interview, you watch view it here .

Hi, Becca, could you please introduce yourself and your business?

Hi, my name is Becca Meadows. I'm the owner and designer of Sadelmager Design House. Sadelmager is a business that is dedicated to making long lasting, durable, sustainably made leather products. This is something that's very different than what we're used to in the industry, because what I do is I make something that's guaranteed for life, it’s as stylish as it is durable.

"I don't know if I necessarily identify as a fashion designer, but more so as someone who's creating a piece of art that you can use every single day."

You mentioned in one of your blog posts that: “I thought only the rich and famous could start their own fashion brands". So now that you are a fashion designer, was it what you thought it would be?

Yes and no. To be very frank, I really hate the fashion industry. I think that's why I love doing what I do is because I find fashion very fickle. It’s not permeating throughout the decades as it once was. We have so many things that we wear on a day-to-day basis that are staples of the wardrobe. Pieces that Audrey Hepburn could wear, and Joan Jett could wear, you could still wear it today, and it could still be stylish. But I find that there are so many things that are fleeting, and we've become so consumed with fast fashion. What we wear now will be considered obsolete in three months. What's the cost of that? It's not only your wallet, but it's also the ethics, the pollution, the people that are exploited from every single step of the way. I don't know if I necessarily identify as a fashion designer, but more so as someone who's creating a piece of art that you can use every single day. It's a functional work of art, as opposed to just a bag.

That's really interesting. So, you don't really feel like you're part of that world. So, it's still sort of an “other” to you, right?

It feels like it. I've done lots of mentorship and I've spent quite a bit of time in the fashion industry. I suppose there is a feeling of otherness, I don't do things like seasonal releases. I don't create something and say this is for fall, or this is for spring, I say ‘this is forever’. I was happened to be inspired, and this is what I created. This is the leather that I have and these are the resources that I could put into it. It's not about building hype and creating this big launch and creating a huge amount of product and putting it out there and seeing what sells. It's very, very slow. It's very small. It's very conscious and intentional. In that way, I don't feel like I fit the typical fashion brand. Fashion is all about seasons. It's all about what colors are in, it's all about trends, and I never look at what the trends are. Sometimes I'll be inspired by a certain shape or style or color. Most of my inspiration comes from just the hide of leather itself. Just the way that an artist can sometimes stare at a blank canvas and you might be feeling something a certain day, you might be going through something, you might have seen a recent movie or listen to a song and you feel inspired and in that sense, I identify more as an artist as opposed to a fashion designer.

Do you identify more as an artist as compared to a business owner?

Yes. I've been told that I have a good business sense. But at the same time, I hate it. I would easily hand over the reins of the business side, especially my social media. I am definitely a bit of a luddite, I would love to just not have any social media whatsoever. The only reason why I have it is for my business.

"I have a very strong willingness to learn, especially if it is a weak spot. I want to learn to do it myself or identify when I need help with it."

When you say you have good business sense, what does that mean?

Becca: For instance, being able to analyze the data, being able to analyze your target consumer, being able to build a brand strategy. I'm not saying I'm perfect at it by, but I do have a sense and an understanding of it. I also have a very strong willingness to learn, especially if it is a weak spot. I want to learn to do it myself or identify when I need help with it. Hence pursuing a lot of mentorship. I just completed an incubator program and it helped me identify what my weaknesses are and it helped me find mentors who can help me with those weaknesses. In that sense, I do have a strong business sense, but it's just as much as having strengths as it is identifying your own weaknesses.

Jane: What's this mentorship program that you took part of?

Becca: I just finished the Ryerson Fashion Zone . It's an incubator program for fashion start-up businesses.

Jane: Is that a paid mentorship? How did you find out?

Becca: You apply to become a part of it, there are three or four months which are covered. And then after that you pay a membership fee on a monthly basis to continue.

Jane: Oh, wow! Okay, so you had to go through some education to learn about business?

Becca: So, for this, you didn't have to go through education to know your business. But what you have to do is you have to submit where you're at in your business. There are businesses who enter at different points of the business, whether its ideation, getting ready to launch in the market, already in the market, but are looking to scale. Where I was, I've been in the market already, I was already selling, I was already generating revenue, but I wanted to grow my business. I think originally, I wanted to say scale my business. But I've completely abandoned that term for my own business, because I don't think it really applies to the model that I run.

Jane: Interesting. I asked about artists versus business owner, because I go through that too. I know what that's like, the idea of “I want to be creative, I want to express, but then I also need to cater to customer's needs, what they're interested in, think about their perspective”. I think that's the difference between a hobby and a business. A hobby is much about satisfying yourself, exploring, experimenting, having fun, taking risk. When you're doing a business, it’s completely the opposite, the dynamic changes, because it's no longer you at the centre, a lot of the focus is on the customer.

Becca: In the creative business, I think there is a bit of an allowance for selfishness. I was listening to this conversation between the two partners of Hackwith Design House , her business inspired me to start my own brand. She has a slow intentional fashion brand, where she has staples for the wardrobe. Everything is consciously made, everything is intentionally made. Going back to catering to the client's needs, she would sometimes create a piece that she felt her clients would want. If it was something that was popular, but her heart wasn't in it, she said that it would be the darnest thing because objectively, she knew that it should be a best seller, but it wouldn't perform well. So, I think it's about balancing what you're passionate about and have that drive behind and lining that up with a client's needs. I think that's the hardest part is when you're inspired by something, you're like “no one's going to like this”. You have to find the cross between being passionate and the consumer at the same time and mesh it together. And I think that's the challenging part that I think you can probably relate to is. (Laughs)

You mentioned the model of your business. A business depends on having sales, and there’s this idea of some products designed with planned obsolescence. So, does this idea conflict with the sustainability of your own business, in the sense of you're not really focused on creating things that are seasonal and so you're not focused on creating more products. Do you have a way to balance that?

I think that's something I'm just figuring out. I just finished my first year full-time in September 2020. I'm trying to figure out this model and it's something I'm probably going to be working with for years trying to figure out that right balance. Typically, you generate more sales, you increase your level of production. Once you exceed your own personal capability of production, you start hiring people, whether it's people on a sales or production. I think that's where I really struggled with some of my mentorship, and the way that people wanted to talk about my business was: “At what point do you want to outsource to a factory? What point are you going to find a contractor to make things for you?” And I was like: "well, then why would I do it?". I know that my carrying capacity is my ability to produce, that's my limitation. I'm going to hit that point where I can't grow my business any further. But I'm not looking to be a monolith, I'm looking to be self-sufficient, to have consistency and stability. I'm not looking to grow and grow and grow. I'm not saying I would never be, but I'm not looking to be the next Mark Zuckerberg. My goal is to reach a certain point where people say: "I really want this bag, when are you making it again?", and I'll say: "I'm forming a waitlist". I've had clients who have waited to save up for two years to have one of my bags. I know my clients are very dedicated for that level of artistry, attention, and the customer service behind it.

red messenger bag Oldenburg by Sadelmager

Oldenburg messenger bag Becca made for her client last Christmas.
Image source: Sadelmager

I made a bag last Christmas for someone , he ordered it for his girlfriend. She had first discovered the bag five years beforehand, and they were living in two different countries. They weren't even in Canada. He was looking for ways to source a bag to bring it out to her. It was very, very challenging. It wasn't until they both moved to Canada that he bought the bag for her. It was five years of waiting for this bag to come to them. But it had a lot of meaning and had a history of their relationship because they had been together for so long.

"I think the thing that I'm really trying to form is my client’s story. It's about the relationship that they have, and that's what I'm really focusing on."

One of the challenges I think all brands have is building brand loyalty. But it seems like your clients spend a lot of time with your brand before they even make a purchase. I think that's really interesting because it's a little bit of opposite, right? People usually don’t spend too much time with a product at lower price points before their purchase, they purchase it and they're out. But with your products, people have spent time with it, they're thinking about it, there's memories formed, there are conversations about it. It's really interesting how that's played out for you in that way.

I think the thing that I'm really trying to form is my client’s story. It's about the relationship that they have, and that's what I'm really focusing on. This is an emblem of the life that my clients build with. I've had clients who have proposed to their now wives or partners with these bags with an engraved plate that says "Will you marry me?" and have scoured the internet trying to locate me. They saved up and they bought the ring. Now they're getting the bag as a way to propose to their partner. For me, that's just far more important than just selling an item. Because then, it becomes a story 50 years from now because it is so durable. And I do truly mean 50 years from now, when you're still using the bag, and it's more beautiful than the day you have it because it's going to patina and the brass is going to work in and everything about it is going to be 100% yours. You are going to be looking at it thinking, “Wow, I still have this bag”, and we're celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary. "This is a bag that my partner proposed to me with", and it's just beautiful to be a part of that. It's not just a story of what went into the bag, but how you continue to use it over time.

My mind has been blown. When I talk to people with ecommerce sites, that's the thing that's always missing, it's the story. People think they're selling product. I always like to push people and I say: “what do you sell beyond the product?”. There's so much more to it. And for you, it's that story that they can create with their life. I feel you understand the idea of how to build a brand, but without saying the terms that marketers like to use. It seems very natural for you.

Becca: I think it's harder for bigger businesses to have that story. I think creatives like you and me are lucky because our story, our brand story, we're not creating it. It's already there. It's just about describing it properly. I think that's the hardest part about being a creative and being a part of a business model, organizing those thoughts and those feelings and your inspiration and saying: "Am I saying it properly?". My problem is that I drag things on way too long, condensing anything into one sentence, or to one message is the hardest part. I think it's something that every marketing agency struggles with, but I feel as creatives, we just get very lost in our own heads and our own inspiration. That's why you have painters who will paint over a canvas of a painting that they had already finished, and they're like: "okay, I don't like this anymore, that was absolute crap". I think it's very much the same way. And I'm sure with you too. So, your creativity, is it creative writing? What's your creative backstory?

Jane: In my previous career I was an information designer. It's actually a very specific niche where we design PowerPoint reports, or bar charts, and get really creative with data. People do experimental stuff. It's really neat. So that's the kind of the field I'm coming in from. And it was a challenge, because when you try to pitch client work, you want to pitch them really creative work. That's kind of stuff you want to do. But for them, they want standard work, because they've seen it before. It's safer. They know it works. They don't want any risks. So that's a challenge I've always had.

Becca: But I also think when you're working on someone else's work, you have a unique perspective, because you have a fresh set of eyes. So, I imagine you're on the flip side now, where you're looking at your own business and you're like, I just want someone else to look at this. I wish I could look at it at a with a fresh set of eyes.

"I see that there is a growing industry of independent leather workers. And I think it’s something that is coming in big part from Gen X and the millennial generation that are experimenting with it, whether it’s from a hobby perspective, or from a business perspective."

You mentioned a couple times throughout your videos and your blog posts that the work you do is quite unforgiving. It requires a lot of patience. What do you think about the future of this craft? Do you think there's people interested in learning it or continuing it? What do you see?

Becca: I see that there is a growing industry of independent leather workers. I think it's something that is coming in big part from Gen X and the millennial generation that are experimenting with it, whether it's from a hobby or business perspective. There are more leather crafters now, which is the reason why I'm able to source my hides. There are stores like Tandy Leather that are dedicated to leather crafters. I think we have a bit of a revival of craft. There are more and more people who are sewing their own clothes, I imagine it would be higher than maybe 30 years ago. We went so far one way, and now we're starting to push back a little.

Jane: It's like a pendulum. It swings one way and then goes the other way. It's kind of how there's a rise of subscription services right now, I also see a rise of one-time purchase products right now coming back, because some people are tired of subscriptions.

Becca: It's very counterculture. I think that Gen Xers definitely started it, but we get to reap a lot of the benefits from the hard work they put in. We're seeing it in social justice movements, which are so important. So it should have happened from the very start, but we're starting to see where it's even picked up by mainstream media in a way that it was never before. We get to see more and more of these benefits. Even what we're wearing every single day is now becoming counterculture. We're starting to wake up and we're starting to hate fast fashion. We're buying from slow intentional brands, and we're starting to see the value. If you actually invest in your pieces, they can last a very long time. We became so accustomed to buying a $20 shirt, and it doesn't last a season. So, when we think “why would I spend $80, it's not going to last very long?” And then it’s: “well, actually, it can last me the rest of my life, my kids could end up wearing it if I just spend that money on it just the one time”, and this used to be very common. In fact, we spent most of our history in terms of wearing clothing, it would be you going to the tailor to have something made, it would be a simple button up shirt, and it would be fitted to you. You'd have two or three shirts in rotation and that's all you owned, but they lasted a really long time and then you would pass it on to your kids and they'd be like: “oh great, I got Pa’s old shirt because he got a new one made”. It used to be an investment. You used to have to pay a lot of money in proportion to your income, and we just became so accustomed to “I want what I want and I get to have it whenever I want to”. In my household growing up, I was not allowed that. Basically, you had to want something for two or three years, then you save up, and then you can buy it. Or, you hope that it ended up in your cousin's hand-me-downs. Like the flair fitted low rise denim I got from my cousin, that was big in the early 2000’s. When I saw that come in from my cousin's hand-me-down to me, I was like: "oh my gosh, this is so exciting!" I used to hope for those things. I'm noticing a lot of my clients actually think the same way, a lot of them have been looking for a bag but never saw something that met all of their key points, whether it's sustainability, durability, style, color, hardware, pocket, size, etc. It just didn't meet all those things. I'm noticing my clients are very, very discerning in the same sense I was, where they will wait two or three years to make a purchase, just in the same way I was growing up, I would have to save up for two or three years to buy a certain pair of jeans.

It's interesting to me that you’re using the term clients, but you don't use the term customer, is there a difference for you?

I feel clients has a service element to it and it feels a bit more intimate. A lot of my clients and I do have a relationship, and they will reach out to me. They probably discovered me through my website and may have a lot of questions about my products, such as "what colours are available?" or "what would you recommend?". I had a client who is a lawyer, and she wanted a recommendation of something that subtly stands out so she could wear casually, and it’s a bit rugged. But, she also wanted to be able to wear it to the courthouse because she was a lawyer. She wanted a bunch of customizations with it. We formed a relationship over that process. She ended up moving to England and she is attending Oxford right now. She sent me a message saying: “Hey, I just wanted to let you know, I'm getting compliments on my bag all the time, I'm handing out your business cards, greetings from England”. I feel with a lot of fashion brands, I wouldn't reach out to Aritzia or H&M and be like: “Hey, I bought this shirt. I wore it to my first day of school”. You know what I mean? It's a more intimate relationship that I have with my clients. A lot of times, clients buy more than one item. For that reason, it really follows a story. I have clients who will reach out to me years later and tell me: “I want to surprise my girlfriend. She bought one of your bags four years ago, I want to buy another one and surprise her, what do you recommend?”. So, it's an ongoing relationship that I form with clients.

Who are your clients?

Becca: I would say my clients, in terms of age, are generally 35-45, and 45-55. A lot of the people who follow me on social media are 25-35, but I think a lot of that is because people are building their wealth. My products are not a fast fashion buy, they aren't a $20 item that you can just throw down, it is an investment piece. A lot of times for younger people who do have my bags, it's their parents who buy it for them as a graduation gift, whether high school or college graduation. They wanted something that follows them along their career. So, it's a very important and a very sentimental piece for them. I would say most identify as female, but in terms of who actually purchases the bags, that's slowly changing as there's more interest in the larger satchels and belts. In terms of the psyche, a lot of them are very discerning, have a lot of questions, they want to make sure that they're making the right choice, they have a list of things that they want to satisfy. I really appreciate this because they are similar to me, and they have a lot of things that they want to make sure that they're getting out of it. There's also a focus on being sustainably made, being very durable, looking a certain way. They're interested in the way it ages. So, it's very much how is this purchase going to have long standing effects and there's a big focus on that longevity, not only from a sustainable side, but as well from how you're going to use it. I know that when we think of materialism, we think of wanting to buy lots of things. And that's how we create an identity. But I think materialism can also have a side where we grow a sentimental attachment to our objects, and something that you use every single day. Whether it's a belt that you wore on your wedding day, and are wearing the exact same one on your 50th wedding anniversary, or the bag that you get when you graduate college is the same bag you use on your retirement party. These are pieces that you still have a collection of memories and experiences with, and it really does become a part of your story and not materialism in a negative aspect. But instead, this is something sturdy, that's been by my side for all these memories. We have obvious attachment to things like our engagement rings, and that's not seen as negatively we think of it, it's an emblem of like that love in that relationship. Why can't you have an emblem for yourself that has been with you by your side through thick and thin. For that reason, that's why I love creating what I create. And my clients really do hold on to those values. I think they really love that sentimental attachment and make those purchase decisions based off of those thought processes, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Jane: I asked that question because one thing that a lot of people have challenges when starting a business is, they don't know who they're targeting, or who they're selling to. And it's a hard thing to try to help people with, because I usually say, maybe try to focus down, you know, don't try to target everyone because that's not going to help you. The other term people like to use is niching. Focus your target a little bit more and use that to start, it doesn't mean you stay in that niche, it’s just a way to guide you on how to move forward. And for you, it seems that the people that tend to come to you have a mindset of buying an investment piece, this emblem. And as you say, they recommend you, I think that's one of the best ways to do marketing is referral. Because they have this relationship with you, they're more likely to do that. It seems you really understand who your clients are, that you know who you want to work with. And I'm sure you've probably turned down people as well, right?

"When I first started, my prices were actually a lot lower. On many pieces, I was actually losing money."

Becca: When I first started, my prices were actually a lot lower. On many pieces, I was actually losing money. One of my first Oldenburg messenger bags, which now sell for close to $900, I used to sell for about $180. I didn't even cover the cost of my materials, let alone pay myself, or cover all the administration fees that come with running a business. When I sold that bag, that person very much valued it. But before that right client saw it, there were so many people who were saying, “that's way too much money”. And I was thinking, I haven't even covered the cost of my materials or my hardware, I'm losing money on this. I was just thinking: "how am I going to make this work?". I had to realize those just aren't my clients. If I was charging $40, they would still say that's too much money, and that goes back to that notion of I want what I want, and I want it now and it has to be cheap and fast, and why wasn't here yesterday. Now I realize people invest that money, which you had mentioned as a key word, it's not spending money on a bag, you're investing in it, because it's going to be with you. In the same way that in an engagement ring you're going to have the rest of your life, right? And a lot of it too is because we go to the store, we buy a bag, it falls apart within a year. So, people have that idea in their heads like: “oh, well”, you know, that's how much you pay for it and they don't understand that. It is a long-standing item, and it really does come with experience. And then I have other clients who have bought from other leather workers, they have 100% genuine leather belt that they bought 50 years ago. And they're like: “I want one in another color”, and there's no explanation needed. They know how much it costs. They know why it is a higher price point, and they're happy to spend it and get exactly what they want.

"The repair model is something I wish we saw more of because it reduces waste, and where that all starts is quality materials"

What do you think makes you different from your peers? Why do people come to you versus competitors?

Becca: In terms of any other fashion brand, let's say like leather bag maker, whether it's Roots, or Rudsak, which are higher quality items in the mid-price point range, I would say a lot of people gravitate towards the fact that I really like doing custom orders, I value where my leather comes from. All my leather is North American sourced and it’s predominantly from Wickett and Craig. They have environmental certifications and they source from local abattoirs, so the full cow is getting used. They are very conscious, it's supporting a local economy and this is all very, very important. I'm not shipping it overseas, there's a reduced carbon footprint because of it. In addition, it's the fact that I use a leather that's going to withstand the test of time. So, my experience comes from being a saddler. My dad trained with Schleese and Pégase Saddlery. He focuses on the equestrian side of the business where our business actually set its roots. When you're working with a horse, which is a 1,500-pound animal, everything needs to be very strong, very sturdy, it needs to be able to withstand all weather, it needs to withstand tugging, and strapping and all of these things that if it doesn't, it's dangerous, and you can't sell it to a person. It's just a standard in the industry, that it has to be a very high-quality piece because of the safety element. This doesn't apply to fashion. My idea was very much taking these traditional saddlery techniques and applying them into the fashion industry, knowing very well that the same leather that I use is the leather that is used on saddles, that have been refurbished and brought back to life that were left in moldy barns that are 100-150 years old, and we refurbish them, we reflock them, we shine them up, we do repairs as needed, and then they're able to be used again. The repair aspect is also very environmentally conscious. A lot of pieces nowadays, they're just not worth repairing. We used to do a lot of tack repairs, people would bring their old bags, and they would say: “Can you fix this’. And I'm like: "There is nothing holding this together". It's not genuine leather. It's not a 100% leather bag. It would be a little piece of leather that was laminated with cardboard and plastic which were stitched together. It was sold to them as a genuine leather bag and I couldn't repair it. But our saddles were 100% genuine leather so we could fix them. The repair model is something I wish we saw more of because it reduces waste, and where that all starts is quality materials. Another thing is that I source all my hardware, it's all stainless steel or solid brass. It comes from local small businesses. All my hardware comes from Wallenstein, Ontario, it's a small family-owned business and I'm on a first name basis with the owner as opposed to ordering from a large factory that may not have the ethics behind it that I want to see in my own business.

Jane: All the benefits you less listed are the things that only a small business can do (Laughs). And that's the thing, you could build these relationships with the suppliers. And there's the local aspect, the quality comes from craft and the transparency. I see that very clearly in your brand, and I think you communicate this quite well on your website as well.

Becca: Thank you.

"...when it comes to investing your hard-earned money in something, I don’t want my clients to have to settle for anything less than extraordinary."

Why do you do what you do?

Because I don't like people settling for less than extraordinary. I'm a very, very picky person. I'm an only child, in case I haven't come across as such (Laughs). I'm an only child, and I'm used to getting what I want. I know that sounds awful, but it's true. When it comes to investing your hard-earned money in something, I don't want my clients to have to settle for anything less than extraordinary. They get to hit all those pain points and find something that satisfies exactly what they're looking for. I also get to inject my passion into everything that I make. It's not a soulless empty product. It's something that has a story when you buy it, and that story is just the beginning for when you get it. That's why I love doing what I do. I'm excited that I get to be hopefully not a starving artist, maybe a lean artist, but hopefully not starving. I think it's just so amazing when you get to be creative and actually be passionate about what you do. I realize it is such a privilege to be able to do that, and I take it very seriously every single day. So that's why I do what I do.

Jane: Great! Thank you so much for your time. This was a wonderful interview.

Becca: Thank you. I'm happy to hear that.


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About the author

Jane is an E-commerce Strategist specializing in the stationery space. She is from Toronto, Canada and previously worked as a data designer and social media strategist. She combines her strengths in business strategy with her customer-centric to help small creative businesses thrive.

Learn more about Jane

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