Today, on the Perspectives podcast, we’re talking with Clay and Tyler, the craftsmen, founders and owners of Clayton & Crume. The former fraternity brothers turned business partners joined us to share their story and how they got started in the business of hand crafting fine leather goods to sell throughout the Louisville community.

The two knowledgeable craftsman share tips for our listeners on what you should look for when purchasing quality leather products and explain why “genuine leather” isn’t as genuine as you may think. They also explain why they chose the Louisville Highlands as their storefront home and how they get inspired for new product ideas.

“It’s not about our hands. It’s about what goes into making the product, how it’s made, how long it lasts, how you use it, and the story it tells.” – Clay

In This Episode of Perspectives:

  • The artistic view of what Clay and Tyler want to offer to their customers.
  • What qualities consumers should look for and appreciate from handmade, custom products.
  • The difference between “genuine leather” and full-grain leather.
  • How to identify high-quality leather products.
  • How Clayton and Tyler came up with their storefront’s name.

Connect with Clayton & Crume:

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Clayton & Crume founders, Clay and Tyler

In this week’s episode of Perspectives, brought to you by Louisville’s luxury real estate brokerage, Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty. I’m speaking with Clay and Tyler, both the founders, designers, and makers here at Clayton & Crume. Guys, thanks for having me over to your shop today. How are you?

subscribe-via-itunesClay: Not too bad. How are you?

Greg: Doing well.

Tyler: Doing well myself. Thanks for having us.

Greg: It’s my pleasure. I always enjoy being around hand-made goods, not that I was ever any good with leather, but it’s nice to be in a working shop. Why don’t we start with where you are? Where’s the location?

Tyler: We’re located at 1908 Bardstown Road in the Highlands here in Louisville, Kentucky.

Greg: I guess there are two stores, but there’s only one that we want people to know about right now?

Tyler: We operate and manufacture everything out of 1908 Bardstown Road, and then we have a little small storefront right across the street, pretty little brick building with our name on it in brass. That’s at 1901 Bardstown. If you’re in the area, they’re right next to each other, easy to locate and find.

Greg: How’d this get started? Do you have a little story for the origins?

Clay: It’s kind of funny. The whole thing was really an accident, nothing that we ever intended to create from the get-go. It started as a hobby really, down at WKU. Tyler and I were fraternity brothers at Western and wanted some tail-gating belts so we can get out and represent the Tops. They just didn’t have anything in the bookstore that we liked, so we bought a dog leash from the bookstore, turned it into a belt, and people went nuts over it.

Greg: So this was just for you. You started off beginning, “I want this,” there wasn’t, “I think I can sell a few while I’m tail-gaiting.”

Clay: Exactly. We wanted it for us, and that’s why I said the whole thing started by accident. It wasn’t deliberate. It was just us making goods that we like that we felt like the market needed. There really wasn’t a deliberate attempt to sell. It was just us wearing products around and people saw them and they liked them, and they placed their orders without us asking for them.

Greg: What year in college were you guys?

Clay: We were juniors.

Greg: I guess it must have picked up pretty quickly if you had an idea … That would’ve been fall of junior year. I guess you had an idea pretty quickly that you were onto something?

Clay: It was kind of funny. We transitioned in the fraternity market after that and started making belts for our fraternity. We were both brothers of Phi Gamma Delta down at Western. From there, we had already had the practice making belts. It became, “What else can we make? What else can we customize?” It’s been a mission since then to wrap as much of our lives in leather as possible and to figure out, of all the products that we use and that we own and that we go through, what can be made better out of leather? What can be more durable? What can be sexier, if you will, if we make it out of leather?

It’s been kind of a fun approach to business, not necessary thinking about what people are going to buy, but thinking about what we need in our own lives. We hope that people who appreciate and follow our business are enough like us that if we like it, they like it, and so far it’s worked out pretty well.

Greg: Why don’t we go from there to … you’re talking about hand-making something. You’re talking about someone appreciating quality. What is it about something that’s handmade that should be should be appreciated? What does that mean to a person’s life? It’s sort of the highbrow, artistic view of what you guys are trying to do, right? Why should I care that I have a handcrafted wallet that, I’m going to guess, is probably a little bit more expensive than something I could walk into a department store and pick up, made in wherever, not here, right? What’s it mean to me as a consumer? Why should it mean something?

Clay: That can be incredibly difficult to get across. At that point, you’re talking about value. If the only thing that we can offer is that we are making these items with our hands instead of with machines in China, then I don’t think we’re doing a very good job, quite honestly. What we would like to bring to the marketplace is a product that is going to not only look better from the get-go than something that you might buy at a store, mass-produced overseas, but something that lasts longer and that does a little better job of telling a story about the person who uses it.

You see time and time again, hey, this little start-up company was making these boots here in America back in the 50’s, and now they’re overseas in China, and they fall apart after two years, whereas my grandpa still has the first pair he bought. It’s kind of bringing back that tradition of American craftsmanship where you have someone who is dedicated in the company, who is dedicated to truly creating the best quality product that they are able to make. I feel like a lot of that is lost now in the name of profit.

Again, it’s not about our hands. It’s about what goes into the product and how it’s made and how it lasts and how you use it and the story that it tells. We really hope that most, if not all, of the items that leave our workshop will be passed down to a son, a grandson, whoever, and we really shoot to have a lasting impression on our customers.

Clayton & Crume 102

Tyler: That was awesome right there, and one thing I’ll kind of chime in, too, is when you’re speaking to the quality of our product and, like you said, in the marketplace, it may command a higher price point than what you might find at a department store or somewhere that brings stuff in and imports it from overseas. What you see is a difference between what you find on the shelves at a Macy’s or a J.Crew is something that is nothing more than a marketing term when they label things as genuine leather. That’s something that, I think, is a term that’s used to fool consumers. It is real leather, if you will. It’s got dye on it. It’s got paint.

It looks pretty on the shelves but, when you buy a product that is genuine leather, I think any guy out there can attest to this. You spend your 40 to 60 bucks on a wallet. It looks beautiful the day that you have it, but that’s the best it ever looks. Every day that you use that, every day that you wear on it, that product starts to deteriorate, and that’s because genuine leather is nothing more than a plywood of leather, if you will. It’s a material that’s an aggregate of a lot of ground-up leather, and it tears apart easily, whereas Clay and I have always stood by using full-grain leather. That’s something that’s better thickness. The fibers within the leather are stronger. They’re more durable.

They create something that has that better longevity, and that’s what we’ve made a backbone of what we do, using leather that really speaks for itself and can stand the test of time. That’s something that allows us to have a product that we can say, “This is going to last you a decade.”

Greg: Is that something that would be labeled on a product? I know the little sign that you’re talking about that’s says genuine leather, can you give us a couple of tips of what to look for when we’re trying to look for quality? How would I know what I’m looking at, the lay consumer?

Clay: I would first tell someone to avoid products that say genuine leather at all costs. Like Tyler said, it’s a marketing term. Like anything else, they’re trying to sell a product that, in my opinion and a lot of people’s opinion, is inferior. It’s not what you’re looking to buy if you want a product that’s going to last. Full grain is the term that you want. Full grain means that it comes from the hide, and you’re not cutting a bunch of leather apart and gluing it back together like plywood and calling it a product. You’re taking the skin as it is from the animal.

With a full grain product, there might be a scratch in it. There might be a mosquito bite. There might be part of a brand. Some people consider that unappealing but, to me, that’s beautiful. It’s a testament to, “Hey, this was an animal. My wallet used to walk around and eat grass.” I just think that’s really cool. There’s a romance in seeing a little piece of a brand on your bag. I like to accentuate those pieces when I make products. I’ll put the brand right on front just to say, “Hey, we’re not lying to you. This is what it is.” If you’re looking for leather, search for full grain. Genuine leather is not worth buying.

Tyler: And you’re probably not going to find that in mainstream department stores that are focused on certain markups and profits and those types of things, so the best way to do that is to find your local leather shop or to do some searching around on the internet and to find companies that embrace full grain leather with their production.

Greg: What about stitching or components or other things that you put into your products? Is there some little checklist that I can have in my mind that says if I want … Let’s say I’m going to give a gift to … You guys say that you want this to get handed down, so I have a son who’s headed off to college. Let’s say I want to give him something nice for college. What should I be looking for, besides the grain?

Tyler: Full grain leather. That’s number one on my list. Number two is quality hardware, and that could take form in a lot of different ways, depending on whether you’re looking for something that’s more like nickel or chrome colored or brass colored. Clay and I personally prefer a lot of brown leathers with brass components. You can get things that are nickel that are plated in brass, but we make sure we use only solid brass on all our hardware in every product that we make, and that’s something that’s important to us. No matter where you’re going, the leather you’re using, the hardware that’s on there, a lot of that can be felt with your hand. If you actually take and hold a product, you can feel the stability of a good quality piece of hardware, and you want solid components that aren’t going to rust.

The first couple of belts we ever made had some rivets in them that were brass-plated, and we noticed after six months that the brass finish had worn off of them and you had more of a traditional metal color under there, almost silver colored. That was something we weren’t proud of, and we replaced those belts for our customers because we wanted them to have something that continued to look better each and every day that they had it because it was built with something that was solid and durable.

Greg: How long have you guys been in business?

Clay: Officially since 2012. The hobby started back in school probably 2010 or so, but we’ve been at it for about four years as a business, as two guys with a space making things and reporting the revenue.

Greg: When you were looking for a space, why the Highlands?

Clay: Why not the Highlands?

Greg: Did you start here? I grew up in the Highlands, so that’s right in my wheelhouse.

Tyler: I live right down the street. Selfishly, I wanted a place where I could walk to work. Before this, we were operating out of his house. He knew that, if we were going to have a space in another area, he needed a living spot. Ironically enough, 1901 Bardstown here is a little two-story brick building with 315 square feet on the bottom and 315 square feet on top, and it’s a live/work situation. It made it convenient for Clay there to just walk down the steps and come into our workspace and for me to be three blocks down the road, so that’s where we started.

Greg: Was there any kind of business or commerce decision-making to your location here? Was it much more the convenience or did it just happen to be, “This works on all fronts, so let’s set up shop in the Highlands?”

Clay: It was both. The Highlands is great. If you’re young, you want to be here. It’s just the nature of the space. It’s cool. There’s shops. There’s bars. There’s everything you want within a half mile in either direction, so that to us was really cool. We love having the park nearby and all the people but, also, Bardstown Road, if you look at traffic outside of Shelbyville, is the second busiest street in Louisville. Just to get exposure, we’ve had an incredible amount of people reaching out and just saying, “Hey, we saw your sign on the road. We didn’t know what it was. We thought it was a law firm. You’re Clayton & Crume. What’s going on?”

We get a lot of reaction just to our tiny little space with the signage on front. That’s just as important because, obviously, we’re a small business. We’re trying to get the word out. Just having the exposure to the street is huge. There’s tons of space throughout Louisville. You can find a warehouse in 20 different spots, but the question is, do a hundred thousand cars come by every day? There’s really only two places where you can say that, and Bardstown’s one of them.

Clayton & Crume in the Louisville Mall

Tyler: On top of that, like Clay is saying, there’s brand recognition with that. We don’t operate a retail space, if you will. We manufacture all of our goods, and we have odd schedules at times throughout the year when we’re traveling for different shows and conferences and things that we do to sell our product outside of Louisville, or even sometimes around the city, so we didn’t want to be committed to open hours nine to five, but being right here on Bardstown Road, it’s allowed us a great opportunity to interact with our customers, allow people to pick up orders.

We’ve had people walk in off the street, even during some of these festivals up and down Bardstown Road, just opening our door and showing people what we do and having the windows up and letting them see. You talked about quality and how you’d know, but it’s funny, we put some of our products in our windows or up on the door, and people that walk by can tell that there’s something special going on here because of what they see when they come nearby.

Greg: If you don’t have a retail space, do you sell most of your products online, wholesale them to other …?

Tyler: If I were to split our business up for you, I’d say about a quarter of it is online, and that’s continuing to grow. About a quarter of it is wholesale. We have 50 to 60 retail accounts throughout the Southeast in about 10 to 12 different states. About half of our business involves Clay and I traveling around the country. We go to fraternity shows in the summer. During the fall and the holidays, we go to a lot of fall festivals. We go to Christmas shows. We set up at Oxmoor Mall throughout November and December and are continuing to expand those markets, so we get out and put ourselves in front of consumers as much as possible so that we can showcase our work and bring them quality goods for gifting during the times of the year where that’s in demand.

Greg: If someone’s listening and they want to get a peek at some of this stuff, what’s the best way to find you guys and your work?

Clay: Obviously, we’re here at 1908 Bardstown Road, and that’s most days, most business hours, you can find us. There’s not really a formal presentation of goods here at the shop, but we would be happy to walk you across the street or show you what we have. Our website is actually a great way, as well, www.claytonandcrume.com or our Instagram @clayton&crume. There are a lot of quality photos that we’ve taken the time to prepare, just as a way to showcase our goods. Like Tyler said, throughout the holiday season, we are everywhere in town. If there’s selling going on, we try to be there. We’re at the mall. We’re at different shows. Reach out, schedule an appointment. Come on by.

Greg: Bardstown Road, right? I don’t know if people heard that.

Clay: Every day, there’s sirens and everything else. Online, Instagram, give us a call. Come on by.

Greg: One last question before I let you guys go, and I don’t know if I’m supposed to know the answer to this. Where did the name come from, Clayton & Crume?

Clay: My name’s Clay, so that was kind of obvious.

Greg: I got the first part right.

Clay: We get the first part.

Tyler: Then my name’s Tyler and, to be quite honest, Clayton & Tyler didn’t sound like the nicest leather good company I’d ever heard of, so we kind of had to dig deep. We looked at other companies for inspiration. When we dug back into my family, Crume is my grandfather’s middle name. My grandfather is a farmer. He worked with his hands and had a dairy farm forever. My dad’s an electrician, and it’s also his middle name. He’s a Jr. so, on my side of the family, that’s kind of a heritage of hand-producing and hand-making and working with your hands to earn your keep.

subscribe-via-stitcherGreg: It’s kind of like the leather goods you were talking about, right? It’s nice to hand something down to the next generation.

Tyler: Exactly.

Greg: Well guys, thanks for having me in to your studio, and best of luck.

Clay: Thank you.

Tyler: Thank you very much.

Thank you for joining Perspectives this week, presented by Lenihan Sotheby’s International Realty. If you have an idea for a future episode or think you might like to participate, please contact us at podcast@lsir.com for more information. Please, if you like this series, make sure to subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher the latest review and share and like on all your favorite social media channels. You can find more episodes like this one, as well as all available homes for sale in the Louisville market, at our website, lsir.com.