At Saddleback Leather, ethical principles combine to make the highest-quality leather bags and to support communities from Mexico to Rwanda
When Dave Munson graduated from college in the US, he travelled to Mexico to teach English as a volunteer. A theology major and youth pastor, he realised he needed a sturdy bag to carry his schoolbooks. His quest to find the ideal bag took him to a local artisan, who made a bag inspired by Indiana Jones that Dave sketched for him. People kept complimenting Dave on the bag, so, over time, he had more made and sold them. Two decades later, he creates bags through his Texas-based company Saddleback Leather, turning US leather into bags at a factory and tanning facility in Mexico.
“We make the longest-lasting most durable leather bags in the world,” says Dave. The leather is the toughest he can find and lined with a tough skin – “something like goat or pig” – then finished with unbreakable hardware. “We don’t have zippers or buttons. I gave myself that design constraint when I started. I didn’t want to use zippers so I had to innovate, and that created a different look – more old-fashioned but classic. It’s a cleaner appearance and more reliable than using a zipper. We use as heavy and strong a thread as looks good, sew the joints, then rivet them using a saddle rivet. We make them so they don’t break.”
Saddleback Leather makes a range of bags, cases, trunks and briefcases, as well as smaller items such as wallets and belts, and is about to start manufacturing high-quality shoes and boots. Everything is produced using leather that is a meat-industry byproduct. “Last year, they threw five million hides straight into landfill because there was no use and that’s a lot of wastage,” says Dave. “We take a portion, preserve them and turn them into something with a 100-year warranty.”
As well as the focus on exceptional design and manufacture, Dave believes a company should also act with exceptional principles. For Saddleback Leather, that includes treating employees fairly at the factory in Mexico and providing education opportunities, including classes in parenting and finance. It also set up a school where workers and other local children can study for a US high-school diploma. Through its Love 41 initiative, the company provides programmes for the local community, including free daycare and after-school programmes for children, and skills training for adults. The initiative further sponsors children in Rwanda orphaned in the 1994 genocide and empowers Rwandan women with vocational training. Dave explains that his company has supported 20 children so far and that he is to attend the wedding of one who is now a young adult, at which two African kings will be present. “We and our employees visit often, and we encourage our customers, friends and family to help, too,” he says. This means that around 1,000 children have been helped in total. “It can be life changing.”
In 2003, Dave took his first bag back to Mexico and asked an expert father-and-son team to make an improved bag using that as a model. This beautifully made version remains a prototype for so many bags that have followed. “We have now celebrated 15 years as a factory and 20 selling bags,” says Dave. “I still have my original, but I have changed the design. Every few years I find something I can improve or add or change or move. I keep tweaking the design because design is very important. It’s something we really care about because high quality always starts in the design room.”