The Interview: Steve Moss, founder, Barnes and Moore Leatherworks
Fledgling homegrown businesses are no doubt finding the forced lockdown – and subsequent hit to trade – hard to navigate, but British manufacturing and craftsmanship could well see a spike in interest and sales as customers look and shop closer to home, and increasingly focus on quality products which are made to last. One such young business is Barnes and Moore Leatherworks, fusing graft with craft to create workwear inspired jeans belts, wallets, watch straps and bags out of its small factory in Birmingham. Founder and maker of premium leather goods, Steve Moss, gives his take on how he’s aiming to survive and thrive.
How long has Barnes and Moore been established?
My wife, Stracy – who deals with the administration side – and I launched the business in 2015, but we’d researched the market for about three years before launch. It took that long to get the supply chain in place and that’s something that has evolved to where we are now. Leatherwork is quite niche and we manufacture everything in the UK, as well as source the majority of our materials in the UK as well, apart from one of our leathers which we buy from Italy.
What’s your background?
My background is actually in sales, but working with leather was a hobby. I wanted a change to pursue a more creative direction – focusing on something I had a real passion for. Initially we sold a few belts to friends and we had some good feedback. We subsequently had a few organic sales out of that, and then I thought I could make a business out of it. So, I took the plunge and started the business. The appeal was to create something tangible, working with something that you can see evolve – making a product that’s got longevity. We offer a lifetime guarantee on our belts. We predominantly work with vegetable tan leathers, and also some oak bark leathers from a small Devonshire tannery. Most of the leathers you see out there in the marketplace are chrome tanned, which is much cheaper and quicker to produce, but not an environmentally friendly process.
Where does the Barnes and Moore brand name come from?
It’s actually a homage to two old guys – with the surnames of Barnes and Moore - who taught me a lot when it comes to leatherwork. I used to go to Walsall on a regular basis and I got friendly with quite a few saddlers. Walsall is famous historically as being the centre for manufacturing saddles for the equestrian market. Those two in particular showed me their skills and knowledge. I picked up quite a lot from them, so I thought it would be a nice nod to two old craftsmen who had been working with leather most of their lives. Our factory is in Hopwood, south Birmingham, so Walsall isn’t very far. There’s only actually four of us making at the factory, but we are looking to train more people up with the skills to make the belts, wallets and bags. Production is currently quite limited, as we’re really only just finding our feet as a brand, but we’re looking to expand and invest in the business. It’s a real quality product that’s hitting the right notes with discerning people who appreciate things that are built to last, and get better with age.
Is it all direct to consumer from your website or do you wholesale as well?
Yes, we do now supply some independent retailers as well as selling direct to consumer, though direct sales are predominant. For the past couple of years, we’ve been supplying American Classics and Son of a Stag in London, Liquor Store in Birmingham, as well as Burg & Schild in Berlin and the Statement store in Munich, which specialises in premium denim. They all like the quality and have been very supportive. The plan is to grow both sides, direct to consumer and wholesale. We were actually due to exhibit at Welcome Edition in Paris this summer for the first time, but obviously that’s had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 situation. We are due to exhibit there next January though.
How would you best describe the Barnes and Moore offer and what are the price points?
Everything we make is workwear inspired. Good jeans belts are at the core of what we do. The belts retail between £89-£99, and wholesale prices are £36-£42. Our wallets and card holders are also very popular, as are our Nato leather watch straps, and now we’ve branched out in to making bags. It’s a small range, but we are slowly expanding it. The wallets retail at £89, going up to £385 for the premium shell cordovan leather – the finest leather in the world, which comes from the Horween Leather Company, a famous specialist tannery in Chicago, which we get from the UK agent. A lot of the people we work with are heritage companies. On the bags we work with British Millerain and leading waxed cotton innovators Halley Stevensons. The bags are waxed cotton with leather trims. The ‘Engineer’ tote bag sells at £199, the ‘Despatch’ messenger bag is £299, and the ‘Farrier’ holdall is £399.
How are you getting the word out about the brand?
Social media is obviously playing its part, Instagram in particular. We get a lot of repeat business and referrals from customers to other people as well. A lot of it is word of mouth, though that’s not the core of the business. Being in stores like the Liquor Store in Birmingham means we sit alongside brands such as Oliver Spencer, A.P.C. and Margaret Howell, which helps. We also sit next to the high-end denim brands sold in the likes of Son of a Stag in London and the Burg & Schild store in Berlin. It’s quite a niche market that resonates with the premium denim community. It’s not that easy to buy a good quality belt, there’s not that many out there like us, so I think we spotted a bit of a gap in the market really.
How are you different?
A lot of the old school English leather goods makers and brands don’t really target that kind of premium denim and workwear market, which is where we sit comfortably. They tend to be more traditional with fine leather goods more focused on intricate details, where as ours are more workwear inspired – of equal quality, but more rugged and functional. We also do biker-style wallets with chains or leather tethers and our belts come with sturdy brass or nickel buckles. We partner with an old foundry in Walsall which has been established since the 1800’s, and all of our brass buckles are handmade there.
How is coronavirus and the lockdown affecting your business?
I don’t think there’s anyone that it’s not really affecting, sadly. It’s affecting us because consumer confidence has waned as people have other issues to concern themselves with such as job security, and more importantly health. We’ve seen sales take a dip online, however, we can at least still trade online. The shops we supply in Germany have actually reopened now, but how business will be for them in the current climate is hard to gauge.
How do you see this year panning out?
I think it’s going to be a struggle. Initially it will be hard to get things back to any form of normality and, even when that point comes, consumer confidence – and spending confidence – will take a while to recover. That applies the world over. We also sell a lot of product to customers in Japan, the US and China, as there’s certainly a marketplace there for quality English leather goods, which are quite coveted in those countries, but demand certainly won’t be what it was for a while. It’s hard to predict what it’s going to be like, or what the future holds, all we can do for now is ride it out and keep doing what we’re doing and what we’re good at. Confidence will reinstate itself, but I think it’s going to be a long haul.
Do you think British manufacturing will become increasingly important to help to rebuild the economy here?
I really do. A lot of manufacturing has been outsourced overseas for years, and that’s had obvious connotations. The issues that people have had in sourcing from so far afield can be detrimental. You only have to look at us currently sourcing PPE from overseas. From a long-term perspective, it’s probably rang a few warning bells in so far as people will realise that maybe it’s time to start reanalysing UK manufacturing and perhaps put some investment back into it. I’d like to see that personally. We’re passionate about it and we try to support English manufacturing as much as we can. It’s close to our hearts. It would be nice to see the interest and investment brought back in to the country. I think it would do the country a great service from an economic point of view, but also from a moral boosting perspective. We continue to make in our factory where we can practise social distancing. We’re currently continuing to make the belts more than anything, as they can just be cut to size when the orders come in.