Welcome to our new series, Factory Tour, in which we're taking you inside the manufacturing facilities of some of our favorite brands to find out how the clothes we buy are actually made. Next up: Providence, Rhode Island-based leather goods company Lotuff Leather.
Quality is a word that gets bandied about a lot in the fashion industry, but that doesn't mean it's actually a common feature amongst the goods on offer at your local department store. On the lower end of the totem pole, the proliferation of fast fashion has made clothing cheaper and more disposable than ever, and according to Dana Thomas's 2007 bestseller "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster," many of the priciest luxury brands have cut corners when it comes to material and construction, too.
While some may be too distracted by sparkly advertising, popularity among Instagram influencers and celebrity endorsements to notice, others — like Lindy McDonough, creative director of Lotuff Leather — are determined to quietly combat the decline in genuinely high-caliber goods.
"Our goal is to make the best bag you'll ever have," she says in an interview at Lotuff's light-filled studio in Providence, Rhode Island. "And the last bag you'll ever have."
McDonough and her colleagues at Lotuff are so attuned to the makings of a quality bag that they're the kind of people who walk into Prada's Milan showroom and find themselves critiquing stitches or edge-painting techniques. It's not that they want to bring other brands down, it's just that they've logged countless hours training themselves to notice the little things.
"We're maybe a little bit on the controlling side," McDonough laughs, "but I think if you care about a great bag, that's probably a good thing."
Founded in 2012 by Joe and Rick Lotuff, a pair of brothers with years of experience in American manufacturing, the brand makes an array of men's and women's leather goods that prize quality of design, materials and construction above everything else. After initially launching in partnership with a Connecticut leather workshop headed by men who have been in the business for decades, Lotuff has since invested in its own studio and brought about 70 percent of its production in-house.
"I've seen bags that one of the Connecticut leatherworkers made that are 40 or 50 years old," McDonough explains. "He's an important part of that process in terms of how things are going to age, how they're going to perform [over time]."
But the leadership at Lotuff is just as proud of the younger talent on the team, which is culled from prestigious art schools like RISD in Providence and the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Lotuff offers a 30-hour workweek and full benefits, making it easy for employees to maintain an art practice outside of work, and the employees in turn offer Lotuff the precision and skill of trained artists. The outcome is a workshop that is full of the wackiness, camaraderie and intensity found in an art school shared studio space the weekend before portfolio critiques.
"It allows for the quality to be just insane," McDonough explains of the employee demographic. "It's a quality that you wouldn't be able to get anywhere else."
The skill of the craftspeople is just one element that contributes to the caliber of Lotuff's pieces, however. Another comes from the way the tight-knit team works together on every detail. Rather than designing on a computer, sending an image to have patterns made on the other side of the world and then sending that pattern to another factory to have bags constructed, Lotuff does it all in one large room. Designers can and do construct their own patterns, and they're just feet away as other Lotuff employees select what parts of a leather hide to cut or begin to stitch edges. Each bag is individually numbered as a way to keep tabs on who worked on each product.
"As we grow, we're trying to develop a true house," McDonough says. "That's the only way to really maintain quality. You're in charge of all the different levers that could be an issue... If we could be the American Hermès a hundred years from now, that'd be pretty cool."
Another set of carefully controlled variables in Lotuff's formula for excellence involves the materials used. From Japanese zippers to American thread to solid brass hardware ("you could put it on a sanding wheel and it's brass, that finish, all the way to the core," says McDonough), each element of a Lotuff bag is carefully vetted.
Most significant, of course, is the leather that makes up such a large percentage of any Lotuff product. On this point, the brand is particularly proud: Lotuff uses vegetable tanned leathers developed exclusively for its use by a tannery in South America that's been working the same way for three generations.
The benefits to this partnership are twofold. First, the environmental footprint of the leather tanning process is greatly reduced. Without the chromium or formaldehyde used in non-vegetable tanning, the water that comes out of the tannery can be used again and again. And the sediment in the runoff water, which is comprised of leather particles and bits of natural dye, is so pure that the tannery actually bakes it into clay-like bricks that are then planted as fertilizer. The fertilizer nourishes the nearby eucalyptus grove that provides the tannins and other raw materials the tannery uses.
"What's interesting is that they're not necessarily doing things to be eco-friendly," McDonough says. "They're doing it so there can be multiple generations of them making leather. That's how you can be around for a hundred years doing anything. Every time I’m down there I'm very inspired by the lack of waste."
The second upside is that vegetable-tanned leathers aren't prone to the same degradation over time that chrome-tanned leathers are. Though chrome tanning is significantly quicker — a mere two to three days to veg tanning's minimum of 21 — the tradeoff is worth it, in McDonough's view.
"Have you ever had a shoe or a bag where the face kind of comes off and peels over time? What happens there is that the chromium inside the leather essentially rusts from the elements, causing it to break down," explains McDonough. "A fully vegetable-tanned leather is going to get better and better as you use it."
The extra time it takes to tan leather this way isn't the only thing that requires patience. There's the building of the bags, some of which take as many as 190 operations to make, from cutting leather hides to stitching seams to attaching hardware. There's the design process, which may involve laboring over a single bag for years at a time to ensure it's just right. There's wholesaling relationships, in which the brand is likely to wait for retailers that feel like a perfect fit rather than springing for the first store that will take them in a given city.
"It's a lot, but I actually couldn't imagine doing it any other way at this point," McDonough says. "We're not busting out tons and tons of styles every year, but when we do put something into the world, we feel very very strongly about it."
The result is a small, highly curated collection of pieces that are well-made and timelessly designed. No leather bag can be perfectly sustainable or so perfectly constructed that it's invincible, of course, but Lotuff edges closer to those standards than most. Given enough time, they may become an American luxury brand worth mentioning in the same breath as the likes of Hermès, after all.