Music / Makers x Westward Leather
The first time I met Ben Fife of Westward Leather I felt I'd gone back to the time of the gold rush. A pre-prohibition style basement bar: dark, leather and velvet furnishings, a bluesy banjo playing over the speakers, and of course a cocktail list boasting whipped egg whites and custom drinks featuring rare blends of mezcal.
Ben is a genuinely kind and uniquely curious human. I remember being asked questions about my business and realizing that he was really listening; a nearly extinct virtue in our current culture. I felt seen and heard, and what's more, I felt that there was a purpose to the sharing.
I was able to learn a little about Ben's business, and I realized I had recently heard about him from a shop owner in town. Something to the effect of "Oh yes, that's a beautiful piece by a man named Ben Fife, local fellow, makes everything by hand the way they did for hundreds of years prior to mass-production and machines. He makes his own tools, too. True craftsman, Ben." (I may have inserted a bit of fabricated Old West into that exchange, but it just feels right.)
I have the pleasure of owning a piece made by Ben. That's really how I view it - it's not a purse, but a piece - made and crafted with intention that calls to mind a different time and standard.
There's something to be said for choosing quality over quantity and I respect anyone who places integrity over the bottom line. I'm excited to kick off the first H IS FOR LOVE MUSIC / MAKERS series, with Ben Fife of Westward leather. Ben is a music aficionado, and he's given us a glimpse into his work process through both photos and a playlist he put together for this series.
TELL US ABOUT WHAT YOU DO: WHAT IS YOUR BUSINESS OR CRAFT?
I work with leather, and other elements increasingly more often, to make useful everyday items and lifestyle accessories, with an heirloom approach to quality. But simply put, I get to work with my hands to create, and I feel blessed to do so. Work that is fueled by creative thinking gives me great contentment.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BEGIN?
I can’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t fabricating some little something to play a role in a game or just fill a space. But I didn’t realize until much older that I had a passion to design objects, it was always just translated onto paper for art classes. I’ve also been longingly looking at elements of the past since I was a child, and those two points kind of aligned when I was managing a mens shop back in 2009, that focused on heritage style/lifestyle product. Mercantile kinda jam, ya know. It was early in that game too, and some of the earlier leather goods companies which have grown to high regard, like BillyKirk and Tanner for example, had product in house. I was around all this product that embodied a different kind of lifestyle, mentality. Items tied to history and adventure, made with intention. They represent to me a different approach to some of the pressing issues we will always face when dealing with the vehicle of progress. It’s how we approach the table, so to speak.
All that said, I think subconsciously I wanted to throw my hat in the ring, join the party. So I just starting fiddling around on the back counter, trying my hand with relative scrap leather to make watch bands and wallets. I started there, got to the point by 2011 that I thought I could do something with this leather biz, but then began beautiful life and adventure on the road for the next few years. All that time though, it felt like the idea, the craft, was waiting for me to return.
WHAT WAS THE SCARIEST PART ABOUT STARTING YOUR BUSINESS, AND HOW DID YOU MOVE THROUGH THAT FEAR?
I gotta say I imagine that the scariest part will probably mirror the short comings of an individual's skillsets, when dealing with art as business. For me, it was/and is the financial aspect of business. If it was to be a real pursuit, could it provide? I think that's an important question to ask, because it’s not where an artist’s head usually wants to go. But there are so many elements about running a business, that if you want the answer to that question to be “yes”, there’s going to be a lot of tasks that fall outside of the joy of creating, or doing what you love. And I suppose that’s how I cope with that financial fear or threat, because it’s motivation to get serious. That kind of kick in the ass, routinely, helps me to keep my eyes forward, and hands busy.
GOOD POINT. I THINK ABOUT THIS CONSTANTLY. ON THAT NOTE, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY INSPIRES YOU MOST ON THE DAILY?
Damn, I can’t put my finger on it…it’s like each day is like looking through a personal kaleidoscope. And inside swirling around are all the memories, passions, pains, interests, joys…you get the idea. It’s a different pattern everyday, and something within it jumps out at me, like a thread asking to be pulled. Consistent themes in there seem to be history, culture, craft and design. I also just love to learn and try to do good work.
WELL PUT, AND THAT REALLY FITS WITH MY PERCEPTION OF YOU. YOUR INTEREST IN LIFE IS DIRECTLY REFLECTED IN THE PRODUCTS YOU CREATE. SO, HOW DOES MUSIC PLAY A ROLE IN YOUR WORK?
It’s pretty damn close to a pulse, I’ll tell ya. What a language, music. It’s been a companion on the trail as long as everything else I’ve already mentioned. I don’t even know what to say. It’s incredibly important, a ritual, putting on an album in the shop is a big deal.
I think, like water for chocolate, the mood and music can find it’s way into your products life. Why not, right?! ;)
AGREED. I FEEL MUSIC CAN CRADLE ME DURING HARD DAYS, INSPIRE ME DURING DROUGHT, AND MEET ME AT MY HAPPIEST. ALL THE WHILE, WE JUST KEEP MAKING, RIGHT? SO, WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR BUSINESS OR CRAFT TO LOOK LIKE IN 3 YEARS?
I don’t expect to be doing six figure profits, or pumping out huge numbers and tackling massive accounts. The work itself really draws me in and I get a lot of energy from the creative process, and getting dorky about trying to do the best work I can do. So in 3 years, I hope the evolution in product resulting from repetition and that perspective, will create product that earns a respectful place within it’s class, and continue to find it’s way into the hands of the people. But the business for me is so much more than leather goods and product. Three years could produce a lot of new direction and creative outlets. Damn, what I’d like for my business to look like in three years, is to have answered this question, in a really badass way. Ha!
HA. YEAH, ME TOO. WHAT'S A PIECE OF ADVICE YOU'D GIVE TO SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO CREATE SOMETHING - MAYBE EVEN SELL WHAT THEY CREATE -BUT THEY'RE AFRAID?
When it comes to selling something, well that’s a whole new ballgame, with advice around every corner, and not always welcomed! Ha. Be prepared to captain the ship. As much as the work or your craft can lead you, it will help to chart a course. You’ll face some hard challenges, and daunting days, but if you stop enjoying yourself and your work through all that, then it could actually be time to re-evaluate.
HOW HAVE YOU GROWN SINCE STARTING YOUR BUSINESS?
As an artistically leaning mind, being forced to tackle all the aspects of business that don’t fall into the "creative" category has been quite stretching, and empowering as soon I got the ball rolling. I’d say my confidence in my work, and Westward Leather Co. has been maturing along with the product. The more I put my two feet into all this, the more I see it get legs. I’m not even sure anymore if this question was about my business, or about me as a person! Nah, so much has changed, become more organized, more intentional and serious. As a business, I settled into the idea from the beginning that it would be a very organic style of growth. I felt like I could tell right away that such a process made the most sense with the product, and the seasons of my life. And it’s been nice and steady like that for the past 4 years. What’s exciting though, is right now as of real recently, I’ll be pressing the peddle down a little more, and increasing the pace. Pow!
AWESOME, I'M NOT AT ALL SURPRISED TO HEAR IT! OKAY, NAME ONE THING YOUR GRATEFUL FOR:
I’m grateful for being part of a creative community here in Spokane, with radical and talented individuals doing good work and following dreams. It’s a gift to have that kind of buzz around us, and it’s exciting. I’m also thankful to be asked to make a playlist…but I’m gonna call it a mixtape, or a double disc at least. ;) The task is something that keeps me up at night, joyfully as can be. So thanks Bee, for putting all this together, and providing one of those sit down, look inward, and listen kind of moments.
Now dig the tunes, mis amigos! I hope it’s a good journey, again and again. Peace.
Thank you Ben!
Below you can find direct links to Ben's playlist, his website where you can shop some truly beautiful goods, and make sure to follow him on instagram for tasty nuggets of inspiration and history!
WESTWARD LEATHER PLAYLIST (7X WESTWARD LEATHER X7)