Hand stitched: Artisanal wallet makers keep the ancient practice alive

Beau Tanner and Corey Paiva (phot by credit Christin Tjandrawinata, Wyre Studo)
Leather tanning is an age old craft, dating back to the beginning of human time. Today, Beau Tanner and Corey Paiva, founders of Southern Anchor, are paying their respect to the material, giving it a surf culture makeover by crafting artisanal wallets from a mixture of traditional and modern techniques.

Tanner, 32, and Paiva, 24, were destined to lead the artisanal life after growing up in two of the most innovative tech places in America, Tanner in Colorado and Corey in Boston, however it wasn’t until they moved to New Zealand and began university that the stars aligned.

Both enrolled in AUT’s creative technologies degree which they credit for giving them creative freedom and access to facilities and tools they would have otherwise not been able to get their hands on. As Tanner moved into the design field and Paiva engineering, a lecturer suggested a collaboration of their knowledge skill.

“I went up to Corey and said ‘hey I like what you do and check out what I do, do you want to work together?’ and it was sort of instantaneous, from that moment, they called us team America,” says Tanner.

During their studies the pair designed products from a number of sustainable materials including hessian coffee bags to plastic bags ironed together to form a thick reusable plastic. With such a collection of pieces, they decided to lay them all out and pick their favourite and strongest as the one they would continue with in the future. Tanner says it just so happened to be the leather wallet they made.

They have since been designing under the Southern Anchor label for two years, making leather goods available online and in selected retailers since graduating university a year ago.

In that time, they have maintained a relationship with their first leather supplier, an upholster working strictly in high-end leather goods who would pass on his offcuts. However, as the label has grown, so too has the need for leather. Not only do they use cow hide, they now have a supplier of one of the highest grades of deer skin from New Zealand, one of such quality it has been used by a number fashion houses including Prada.

With it being such a precious material, Tanner says an important part of the Southern Anchor label is sustainability, and they work hard to leave nothing to waste.

“It’s definitely one of our corner stones, sustainability and quality is just hand-in-hand with what we do. Our design process is taking something that’s sustainable and creating something that’s really high quality but with a focus in using creative technology and being innovative.”

Tanner and Paiva describe the Southern Anchor label as one which mixes technology with the age old craft of leather. Lasers and 3D printers are used during the fabrication of leather wallets, but they remain true to its legacy by hand sewing each one. It’s a process that can take anywhere from 15 minutes to upwards of 3 hours, but Tanner says the result is a product which feels well thought out and not mass produced.

“One thing that is really hard to get across to people is that everything we make is hand sewn and the only people who do it are Corey and I. We don’t have anyone behind the scenes or a team of people locked in a small room chained to a table sewing wallets, well not yet, but that’s one thing that people really buzz out on is that everything we make is sewn by hand, by either Corey’s hands or my hands, and we’re proud of that because we know every single stich has been cared for and the attention to detail is there.”

Evidence of how well thought out Southern Anchor’s product are can be seen in the blacksmiths apron which was made for the artisan knife maker, Peter Lorimer. Over two months Tanner and Paiva designed the apron, drawing it on paper to figure out how the form and function were going to play out. Rather than working on a number of designs, they dedicated time to one and allowed for changes to be made every step of the way, a process which Paiva says sees each of their pieces constantly evolving.

Once the apron’s form was finalised, the actual making of it was a few days of intensive work, measuring and cutting the waxed canvas and leather with the sewing alone taking 10 hours.

Although it was the first apron the pair designed and made, they say it is probably one of the nicest custom pieces they have made to date, and it was hard to let it go. Tanner compares it to “making a baby and sending it away”.

“Our crafts are a lot like pieces of art, they are made with such detail and attention to detail and skill that sometimes when we pass it on we are a sad to see it go because we don’t know if we are going to get to make another one.”

Like they did for the apron, Tanner an Paiva seek inspiration for the wallets from the necessity of a friend or surfer like themselves. Tanner says over the past three years, men have started using their wallets differently, forgoing cash for more plastic, so they have created a range of modern wallets better fitted to the new role.

“We sat down and decided let’s make a wallet we want and once we did that we started finding that our friends wanted a wallet like this, or they had a necessity to carry cash or maybe just a few cards, but almost every product we’ve made has come from someone saying ‘hey can you make this?’.”

By keeping an open mind, and willingness to make “whatever” people are interested in, Tanner and Paiva have also produced a lot of technology cases including iPad cases and laptop sleeves. There’s something really nice about the feel of metal and glass in leather they say.

This year they are also branching out to make a range of women’s wallets and accessories, a plan which has been in the pipeline for some time. As men they say they know what men need, but the same can’t be said for women. Instead they took time and talk to their girlfriends, girl mates and fashion designers about what women need and want saying they wanted to get it right first time.

What they found was women need more pockets in a wallet, and a range with wider variety to satisfy their need to upgrade. Tanner says women tend to buy a new wallet every year compared to men who buy one possibly every 10 years.

Supporting Southern Anchor since its beginning has been Sitka Surf Company in Ponsonby. By stocking the leather wallets and providing custom jobs, like leather bow ties for a wedding party, Tanner and Paiva refer to the store as one of their “biggest advocates”.

“From the very start in university Andrew Howson [owner of] Sitka gave us our first break. We went in there and showed them our first small range and he said very bluntly ‘get me a full range and don’t make me wait’, and from that point we worked as hard as we could to work at uni and make our first range.”

Now Tanner and Paiva have perfected the craft of working with leather, they have created a new opportunity for their skills to be put to the test this year. Leather goods will become one division of what Southern Anchor does, as it transitions to Southern Anchor Studios, which the pair hope will one day be Auckland’s, as well as New Zealand’s, premier digital fabrication studio. With their own tools, including a 3D printer and laser cutter, the pair have everything they need to control the design and manufacturing of not only their goods and others as well.

By providing a place for collaboration, everyone from architects to fashion designers will be able to come in with ideas which Southern Anchor can help turn into a reality. Also on offer will be the chance to hang out at the studio and have a drink, a culture Tanner an Paiva bring with them from the states where they grew up hanging out in surf shops. They say it’s the perfect ingredient for forming friendships and strong business relationships similar to those they already have.

“That’s how we moved forward and how we’ve gotten many of our successes, is doing good honest business with good people and they return the favour.”