Since their humble, basement beginnings in 1999, Lee and Kent Begnaud have worked hard to keep Leather Works alive and fighting the good fight, and all the while, have stayed true to their initial goal of inspiring a return American manufacturing. Every quality item is designed, sewn in house, and inspected by the sagacious, skilled Leather Works team. Their work is minimal, clean, and most of all, functional and well made. This is a two-part interview. In the first part, we talked with Lee Begnaud, half of the husband-wife founding duo behind Leather Works Minnesota. And in the second, we caught up with her son, Nathan O’Malley, who contributes through his sewing, photography, and website design skills.
Part I: Lee Begnaud What inspired you begin this endeavor? My husband, Kent, has been making leather goods since 1976, so he’s been around the leather world for a long time. Leather Works began in 1999 when he was a plant manager at a Leather promotional company in Woodbury that was sold and went to China. About 55 people were out of work for no reason. It was a frustrating time and Kent half jokingly said, “let’s bring American manufacturing back to America.” So we decided then to start our own mini version of that corporation, which turned into Leather Works Minnesota.
How has Leather Works Minnesota evolved since the beginning? Because we were small, we had to be open-minded. We were a leather shop that had a line of wallets, keyfobs, and purses, and also did repairs. And it was different every day. We had a guy that called who played the bagpipes and he needed a bagpipe purse—and we’re like, “heck yeah we make those!” Lucky for us, Kent can make anything.
Interestingly enough, our wallets have pretty much remained the same. We’ve added some new wallets, like our No. 9 Bilfold. The Dad’s Bilfold and the Money Clip are the classic wallets we’ve had from the beginning.
What is your role at Leather Works? I run the front end of the company and do the shipping on the back end. All the magic happens in the middle! I talk with all of the buyers and storeowners that request to sell our products. We want our products to be special and not something that everyone has, so I visit the store and determine what would fit best. We’re in a lot of stores in the North Loop, but none of them carry the same thing. Askov Finlayson probably has the biggest selection, the Foundry has a couple items, Wilson & Willy’s has different items as well as Shinola; we’re sprinkled all over, but it’s all different.
How has living in Minnesota influenced your creative work, specifically through your business? It was a big moment for us when Northern Grade invited us to be apart of the American Made Pop-Up and put us alongside well established brands such as Red Wing Boots, Faribault Woolen Mills, Filson, and Duluth Pack—that definitely shot us up to be more recognized as a brand. Additionally, most of our leather comes from Red Wing’s S.B. Foot tannery. Who buys Leather Works Minnesota goods? We’re privileged to work in the Lowertown Arts District and get a wonderful, diverse group of customers who come visit our studio—from the starving artist to the bank president to the Instagram follower from Russia. We feel that our prices seem to fall somewhere in the middle where everyone can afford a Leather Works MN piece. We try to measure pricing by “what can we afford and feel good about buying?”
We are in the Northern Warehouse Artists’ Co-op, which is apart of Artspace. Artspace loves to bring people from around the country who are considering turning their building into an “artspace for artists”, for tours through our shop to show folks how their space at home could potentially be used.
What are your most popular items? I would say that our wallets are very popular. We have slim styles for those who don’t want too much bulk in their pocket and we have, for example, the No 9. Wallet that has several slots for those who have a lot of cards to carry.
We sell a lot of belts. Our belting leather comes from Weaver Leather in Ohio. We use the double shoulder of the cow, the strongest part of the hide. We always tell people: “you’ll pass it down to your grandkids or you’ll pull your friends out of the ditch with it.” Same classic belt—our style has not ever changed since the beginning. Guys just want something well made.
Our least expensive product is our toothpick holder, which is $6.00. I thought it was the goofiest product ever when Kent decided to make one up. We generate a ton of scrap leather and this was a good way to use up almost every inch of that. He made 100 of them for a show and sold every one! To date, we’ve sold 70,000 of them. It’s our highest selling product in numbers and recently, the Northern Grade store in New York, where a few of our items are sold, just called us saying, “you’ll never guess who was just in our store and bought your toothpick holder—Leo DiCaprio!”