Monday, June 24, 2024
HomeLIFESTYLEBEAUTY & FASHIONIt's In the Bag - An Interview with Laddie Howard

It’s In the Bag – An Interview with Laddie Howard

It used to be said that every woman loves a nice bag. Well, men are included in that saying now  without being questioned about their manhood. From an everyday necessity to a luxury item.  What does the style of bag you carry say about you….your personality?  

Today, I’m speaking with local designer and leather craftsman, Laddie Howard. He is the founder of L. Howard Artistry in Leather in Columbia, S.C.  

Janet: Laddie, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me. How are you?  

Laddie: I’m good. Thank you for giving me the opportunity 

Janet: Let’s jump right in. What is your swag? What makes Laddie who he is? 

Laddie: My swag comes from the way I live my life and the way I pursue things. My swag comes from the real experience of me- my experience with wines, cigars, being a lawyer, my travels, the way that I’ve done things throughout my life that’s authentic and quiet; not things that I’ve done for public consumption because I want to create an image, but because those are things I really enjoy. I started L. Howard with the concept that it would be a place for women to shop for their men. You don’t really sell to men a whole lot. Women are the ones that do a lot of the shopping. It was really done more because there’s a lack of options for women and men to have classic bags that don’t fit into the same old category. I wanted to offer something different. I feel that I communicate with women very naturally, intimately, and very deeply, so I’ve been able to translate those things that I interact with them on. I think that comes through the energy of my brand and the way that I do my pieces, so that’s my swag.  

Janet: Tell me about where you came from? Your humble beginnings, as they say. 

Laddie: I grew up in Sumter, South Carolina. I was and I still am a country boy with a little class.  Some of the great things about our country come from the country, our music, our food. People always go to New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, and Japan, wanting to make millions and billions of dollars, so they can do what? So, they can buy all the shit that comes from the country. LOL!  They want to eat the best food and where does the best food come from? The people who lived in the country. LOL! Where does the art come from? The art comes from basically the country: the landscapes, the ocean. You know, the everyday people. It’s not people in three-piece suits and sitting down at fine dining or in a boardroom. The best art imitates life. The things that are the most moving and impactful in life are the emotions and the experiences of people. That comes from the heart of life. When it comes to music, what do people sing about? What do people want to listen to? They want to listen to my dog died, my woman left me, and my man cheated on me with my best friend. LOL! It’s all about life. All of that stuff comes from the basics of life. In the end, that’s what everybody is relating to. When they seek to use their wealth to own things, they’re trying to own a piece of something that brings them beauty and identity, meaning to what their existence is, what their energy is, what their origin is. That all comes from the country…..so to speak. One of the things that has always motivated me is my mother. My parents are from rural South Carolina, from a period when Jim Crow and segregation were real. My mother is not very articulate or well-traveled. She grew up in a  farming family with seven kids. They didn’t get to do a lot of things that kids take for granted now, but she raised my sister and me with a real push to read and travel. We didn’t travel abroad,  but anytime we got a chance to go somewhere (my parents were always doing that stuff), my mother made sure that I dressed a certain way, even when I went off to college. My father was a  preacher growing up, so I had to dress a certain way going to church. I developed a style and an appreciation for how to dress early on. I went to an all-Black elementary school and high school, and I did well in high school. I was pushed to do more and more things. 

When I went to college, I stayed in South Carolina and went to S.C. State University. Once I stepped on that campus, I met people who were hellbent on taking the best and brightest of us and placing us in all of these settings that afforded me great opportunities. I got the benefit of all of that while at S.C. State. I was student body president; I was in the artist program; I was sophomore class president, and I was one of the first Thurgood Marshall scholars in the country. I got to have dinner with Nancy Wilson. I got to go to California and meet Art Shell (the first black head coach in the  NFL). We did a whole photo shoot for Ebony and Jet Magazines for the Thurgood Marshall scholarship. I was one of the students that they really focused on. Early on, I developed a real appreciation for simple elegance. I developed a taste for being a classic man through that whole experience. That’s what my brand is about.  

Janet: You were a successful lawyer and lobbyist previously, right? How long did you practice?  

Laddie: I am a lawyer. I don’t go to court or take on cases. I do governmental affairs for people who need representation at the statehouse or in Washington to pass or to stop laws. That’s what I do. I’m on the implementation side of law versus the interpretation side.  

Janet: What made you decide to become a leather craftsman?  

Laddie: I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 20 years;  working for myself for over 22 years. I was doodling (drawing) to kind of release the tension.  I’m an avid wine drinker, but I can’t allow alcohol to become the pacifier when I’m feeling stressed, so I started sketching. One day my son needed a bag. He didn’t have one and my wife didn’t have one that was masculine enough to carry, so I decided to make him one. That’s really how it started. 

 

Janet: You design and produce these beautifully handcrafted bags. I actually purchased one of your clutches a few years ago myself and I love it! What other handcrafted pieces do you design? 

Laddie: Well, the collection goes from cuffs and collars that people of certain lifestyles  gravitate towards to clutches and belts for men and women to the bags (crossbodies,  backpacks, weekenders, and purses) 

Janet: I understand that your custom designs have been a part of both Charlotte and Atlanta  Fashion Weeks. Have your designs made it to New York’s Fashion Week yet? If not, they’re certainly missing out.  

Laddie: I’ve done Columbia Fashion Week as well. I’ve been invited to New York’s Fashion  Week, but I’ve declined that.  

Janet: You declined New York’s Fashion Week? Why is that?  

Laddie: You have to understand the history and purpose of Fashion Week. To be blunt about it, Fashion Week is no longer what it used to be. It used to be the place where people came to see what their options were and introduced something new to their sellers. All the retailers would go to Fashion Week and that’s where they would discover the new designs or designers.  That’s not the way it is anymore. There’s so much online stuff, where you don’t even have to sell through the major retailers. Fashion Week is where people go; just to take pictures to say they went to Fashion Week. LOL! 

Janet: You’ve had opportunities to travel extensively. What has been one of your most memorable trips for your designs?  

Laddie: My purpose is to travel. My most memorable trip was Italy. I’ve spent over a month in  Italy. Talk about fashion and leather- Italy is all of that.  

Janet: Just in case people don’t know, you’re a successful African American designer. With our society being the way it is, have you experienced racism? Yes, you’re definitely successful, but has it been difficult to access the doors of opportunity that people of other races take for granted? If yes, how so? 

Laddie: I’m sure I have, but I don’t think about it. It’s a part of life. I’ll say both Black and white people buy my designs. I’m looking for people who are looking for what I have to offer. We connect…..The rest of them (racist people), God bless them. I’m not worried about them. I  think that where being African American differs, is building a business like this. At some point,  it’s not just about how good my designs are or how good I am at making these pieces, it comes down to business. Do I have enough cash flow to drive marketing to sustain me through a  longer period of time? Where can I continue to build my market share? How much money do you have to spend to build your market? No matter how good you are, if you don’t have the money to get out there constantly, you’re not going to sell. I think the lack of access to capital; 

especially after COVID and the 2008 market crash, is part of the challenge of being a small business. It’s harder to access that capital in a way that allows you to mount a serious marketing campaign that can take you to the next level. As an African American, it’s sometimes harder because we don’t have as many sources to get that capital, we may not have enough credit or enough sustained sales. I do think there are disadvantages to being African American in that regard.  

Janet: There are all these handbag designers out there: Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Gucci,  Kate Spade……the list goes on and on. What makes L. Howard Artistry in Leather stand out among the rest?  

Laddie: I seek to create heirloom pieces. My brand needs to be identified kind of like Ralph  Lauren’s Purple Label. I never want to be a mass producer. I want my pieces to be truly exclusive. What I try to do with L. Howard is create an heirloom classic piece that can be identified with the person. Every piece is going to be different because I design and handmake every piece. It’s about expressing the person and who they are.  

Janet: Where does your inspiration come from?  

Laddie: A lot of people inspire me. My first inspiration for just doing leather was my son, so my family obviously- the love and support of my sister, my father, and my grandparents. Every piece in my collection is named after a family member. My main weekender designs are named after my grandfathers. I also have a backpack named after my grandmother. There’s a significance to why each piece is named after someone. For example, my grandfathers’ names were Robert and Louie. The Louie is cut into sections. He had a lot more dimensions to him. He owned a  farm, which I spent my summers on, had seven kids, put all of his kids through college, was a  deacon in the church, and was a security guard at night. With The Robert, there are no sections. He was illiterate. He couldn’t read or write. He used to carve things for me, tell me hunting stories, and entertain me, but he was a basic, salt-of-the-earth type of guy. 

Janet: You know, you talk about your family with such love. It sounds like y’all are a very close-knit family. I love that.  

Laddie: Yeah, I think we are. When I was growing up, every Thanksgiving and Christmas at my grandparent’s house, we had to eat in shifts. LOL! It was nothing for us to have 25-40 people over during Thanksgiving and Christmas. We had one table at my grandparent’s house in  Bamberg, S.C. All the men would eat first, then they would get up and go watch football, then the kids. You’d have to eat and move on. LOL!  

Janet: That whole concept about naming your pieces after a family member is so special. My follow-up question is when someone purchases one of your pieces, do you include that as a  part of the purchase. Do you give the consumer the background story behind your pieces? 

Laddie: I don’t usually. One of the challenges of being a designer/maker is that I’m so busy in the studio, I just don’t have the time to do the marketing at that level right now. It will happen over time. In many ways, the brand is just getting started.  

Janet: If you were designing a leather duffel bag, typically how long does it take to make?  

Laddie: How long it takes to make is different than how long it takes to design. Making something that is already a design in my collection and provided I have all the components to do it, typically I can do it within a week. That’s if I’m not doing anything else. Now, the process of designing a bag that’s not in my collection- there’s no telling how long it’s going to take.  The creative process takes time and patience. A part of that process is, if I’m doing something original, sometimes I have to do it when I feel like doing it…..when I’m naturally driven to do it.  The piece comes out beautifully.  

Janet: Where do you see yourself in the next five years? Heck, things change so much, and then we have the pandemic, where do you see yourself this year?  

Laddie: I want to continue to build the brand nationally and internationally and make it a well-known luxury brand. In order to do that, I have to have a lot more capital. I’ll use my law degree to generate more revenue that I can drive into the marketing of L. Howard in Leather.  

Janet: Speaking of the pandemic, how did it impact you? 

Laddie: My sales have suffered as a result of COVID. People are spending less money. People are hurting financially.  

Janet: What is a fun fact that you can share with us?  

Laddie: I’m a wine drinker, I love cigars and music. I also love to write. I’m writing a book that  I’ll probably finish in about ten years from now. It’s about a young man going through the experiences of life-work, women, marriage, and coming of age. Someone told me that I have a distinctive writing style.  

Janet: How can people follow you on social media? How can we purchase these beautiful designs? Can we find any of your pieces in stores?  

Laddie: It’s L. Howard Artistry in Leather on Facebook and IG. My website is  lhowardleather.com. There are boutiques that carry my pieces, but I’m not in any major retail stores. That’s not something that I seek to do. That would create a significant production demand and I make every single piece. My pieces are more suited for exclusive boutiques than they are for large retail locations. 

 

Janet: Are these boutiques local? 

Laddie: My pieces are being sold in The Revolutionary War Visitor Center’s gift shop in  Camden, S.C. Because Leather crafting was so important during that period, they asked L. Howard to go into their gift shop. Other people are constantly approaching me to have my pieces sold in their establishments. I’m very leery of where I commit to selling my pieces. I need to sit down and profile the places. There has to be a stronger demographic, so I have to be careful where I  go. If you say yes to everyone, the opportunity to be in a high-end establishment may pass you by.  

Janet: I understand that you have to be selective as to where your brand goes. Your collection is exquisite. You can’t just sell it anywhere. I totally get it.  

Well, Laddie, thank you for chatting with me this evening. It’s been a pleasure! I wish you continued success! Y’all make sure to check out L. Howard Artistry in Leather and support this awesome Black business. 

–Janet Downs

Janet Downs is an instructor with over 20 years of experience, having worked with Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations. She volunteers and is a resource for the homeless community and is working towards starting her own non-profit. She’s passionate about mental health and seeks to bring more awareness to the black community. She is active in church ministry, a writer, and loves music, hiking, and travel.

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