Handmade Leather Goods With This Kansas City-Based Maker
What does it mean to be a frontier-style craftsman in the 21st century? For Dominic Scalise, owner, maker and sole proprietor of KC CO. in Kansas City (give or take a couple shop dogs), that’s barely a question: it’s a way of life. KC CO. has stood out from the larger maker marketplace with its line of impeccably made leather goods that are designed to last a lifetime, aging and becoming more complex every time they’re worn. Dominic and I discussed hanging up his shingle in a global marketplace, the importance of timeless design in a fashion-obsessed world and why having real style takes grit.
It seems like you’re interested in creating timeless pieces. What does that word mean to you, and how do you achieve it with your designs?
Timeless design is really all that interests me. Trendy things make me a bit unsettled. It’s important to push the envelope, but I think function is the constraint. Things that are designed with function in mind innately have timelessness. I think that’s why a tailored suit will always look great, and that pair of JNCO’s from way back when was destined to fall out of the spotlight. It must have something to do with proportions and utility. For my tastes, subtle and understated have always been the way. And then you shine with craftsmanship.
Tell me about your design process.
One thing I’ve done for several years now has been frequenting the Nelson-Atkins Museum, nearly bi-weekly. I bring my headphones and walk around for one album, typically Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” or Sigur Ros’ “Valtari.” Without fail, I always leave feeling refreshed. I still can’t believe we are lucky enough to have that in our city. What a gem.
Tell me about your making process. Feel free to geek out on the details.
Materials are of utmost importance. These items are basically made out of three things: leather, thread and hardware. Every one of them must be the best.
I’ve used a ton of tanneries since KC CO. started. The way a leather is tanned really affects what product should be made out of it. Some leathers are stiff, which have structure needed for briefcase, and some are so soft that they could really only be used for clothing. Some leather is treated in a way that makes it weather resistant, and others in a way that it’ll stain if a rain drop touches it. The list goes on, and really dictates what leather should be used for each project.
Thread is so important, not only for strength but the look of a finished product. You can stitch it perfectly, but if the thread isn’t wound evenly, it makes you look like a rookie. I use only two kinds: a French linen thread that is super evenly wound and comes in absolutely stunning colors, and a Danish braided polyester thread, which might be my favorite. Polyester is super strong, and the braid of this thread is gorgeous. It’s actually braided flat, which is different than most threads, so it lays beautifully on the finished product.
And typically, my hardware is either brass (with or without plating) or stainless steel. Finding great hardware is absolutely the hardest part of all of this.
Tell me about what it’s like to design for a masculine customer—I love your dopp kits, thick watchbands and simple, unadorned palette. Men aren’t often the target market for luxury accessories like yours.
Thanks for the kind words! I really appreciate that. To be honest, I never trusted guessing what people wanted, so I have always designed for myself and hoped people would dig it. The majority of my customers are men, but I don’t intentionally aim to make something masculine; the drive has always been for the love of design, period. I feel that elegance naturally leans more toward the feminine side. Some of my favorite influences, i.e. cars of the ’60s (The Jaguar E-Type, Ferrari 250, Porsche 911), Neapolitan suiting, mid-century seating (Eames LCW and Platner Lounge Chair), Jazz and R&B (Bill Evans and D’Angelo, of course) are neutral at best. There is something about them that flows effortlessly. I think appreciation for art comes from introspection. It’s about being open and being honest with yourself. It takes some grit to take on that examination, and that’s the kind of man I hope my products target.
Many of your pieces are designed to complement another piece; you sell camera straps without the cameras, watchbands without the watch face, things like that. It seems like you’re designing with a customer in mind who wants everything in their life to be absolutely perfect and unique, down to the last detail, rather than accepting the factory default. Does that sound accurate?
That was really scratching my own itch. A lot of products—cameras, watches, etc.—come with accessories that seem like an afterthought. I purchased a watch years ago, my first nice watch. It came on this really lovely leather strap, but within a year, the strap started to lose color. That shouldn’t happen. Quality-wise, it was clearly not up to par with the watch itself. So I made a watch strap as a replacement that was made out of the good stuff. I figured others might have had the same problem, so I started offering these items that paired with other products.
Are you a Midwesterner? How does being a maker in the Midwest influence your approach to making, or to business?
Born and raised! Ya know, I think it’s a big influence. I talk about it all the time, but I feel that people around here are just so happy to help. Midwesterners aren’t keen on the “Sorry, man, it’s just business,” way of thinking. If you aren’t a good person, you probably won’t make it very far. This is a very people-centric place.
Is it your goal to scale KC CO.? How do you plan to maintain your commitment to having human hands touch every piece as it grows, no matter how many miles of internet it travels across?
I had grand ideas to scale KC CO. at the beginning, but the more I did the work, the more I realized that’s not what I want out of this business. This business has really been an expression for me, both as an artist and businessman. I wanted to know firsthand how things work. If any mistakes were made, I knew that I made them, and I learned how to fix them. I think that’s been an incredible lesson. I think it’d be a mistake to not share the craft with others, but I have no dreams of growing this to a hundred employees. I think this business lives because of how the products are made.