Tower Classic Tattoo, Union Barbershop And Knife + Flag Owner Sean Baltzell Interviews St. Louis Leather Maker Serge Patel
Friends and newly announced collaborators Sean Baltzell and Serge Patel really represent what it means to make it happen in St. Louis. While Baltzell is a seasoned business owner with a hand in a variety of concepts that represent the classic American aesthetic (Tower Classic Tattoo, Union Barbershop and Knife + Flag), Patel has taken a different route by immersing himself in the world of menswear—namely the leather and denim market. His experience as a retail manager and buyer led him to learn the skills of leather making organically, and his brand, Crimson Serpents, boasts a growing number of Instagram and word-of-mouth customers who desire the handmade touch.
On track with the launch of their new collaboration together, Baltzell sits down with Patel in his Arco Ave. studio space and chats about the art of leather, being self-taught, and what’s next in the world of the St. Louis-based maker.
Baltzell: What got you started on your journey to designing and crafting leather goods?
Patel: I’ve always been into great quality denim and boots—especially Red Wings. It was hard finding belts that matched my boots, so I started by making belts for myself.
You’ve been involved in the menswear scene in St. Louis for a while, I first met you about eight years ago and you had already had so much expertise. How did you first get involved?
I’m from Vancouver, BC, and I started my career there as a retail manager and buyer and really immersed myself in the world of men’s fashion. After moving to St. Louis, I did more of the same thing, buying for shops like Splash and Sole & Blues, which is where I still work.
What motivated you to turn your leather-working hobby into a business?
I was really passionate about creating something here that is locally made and also highlights the tanneries that are in the city. A lot of folks don’t know this but St. Louis is still producing some of the best leather in the world, thanks to places like Hermann Oak. Their vegetable tanned leather is what I use practically exclusively. It’s safe for animals too which is what inspired me to make pet accessories and collars.
I know you spent a year teaching yourself these skills in order to make more products, what was that like and why are the handmade details so important to you?
I was reading books by Al Stohlman, who is like a leather genius—really well known in his craft. Looking into the techniques that he used was really fascinating and those classic, by-hand skills really interested me the most. I learned dying, beveling—how to do everything by hand. Now, I have templates and patterns for the things that I have made the most to make the process a bit faster, but each stitch and detail is done without the help of a machine.
Who were the first people to start requesting belts by you?
Working at Sole & Blues, I see customers every day that wear raw, selvage denim and want belts that will match that quality: something that is made with care, handcrafted and will age with their denim. My customers know that quality is important and love how a product can change with age.
Speaking of denim, aren’t you planning doing your own line?
I am. The denim line will have the same concept as the leather goods—using materials from mills that are experts in their trade. I’m starting small with just three fits, but the materials and fabrics are going to be the best of the best. I’m looking to launch that in the next year or so.
We are really excited to be working with you on a line of leather goods exclusively for Knife & Flag, how did you decide what you would be making first?
I am excited about the trifecta of St. Louis-based companies coming together—Crimson Serpents, Knife & Flag and Hermann Oaks Leather. I think it gives each piece such a great story. For the launch we are focusing on the items I have been perfecting my skills on that would be used the most by the makers and fellow craftsmen and women that wear Knife & Flag aprons: belts, wallets, dog collars. We want the shop dogs to be as clean and stylish as their owners. The detailing is so important. We are using hand-forged iron buckles, hand-dyed leather…those things are standard.
All photos by Megan Cox.