If you walk into Hill’s Kitchen most any day, proprietor Leah Daniels will be wearing Jon Wye’s Homemaker belt. After weeks of admiring it, I asked Daniels to order one in my size. To call it a belt doesn’t do this accessory justice. Its more a work of storytelling art. I recently visited Wye’s workshop, tucked into a two-car garage, where he showed me the processes he uses for making his belts and dog collars (from the FREDFRED line, named after his dog) as well as designing t-shirts and other accessories. Its a curious space that seems more suitable for an engineer than a designer, but since Wye has had to develop or modify many of his own tools, perhaps a cross between the two is a fair description. I talked to Wye about how he got started and the inspirations behind his designs.
What was the genesis of your first belt buckle?
On one of my first dates with my girlfriend at the time we made belt buckles. Using wax blocks that for canning, we carved designs on them and then mixed up plaster from Frager’s that we then poured over the wax mold. When the plaster dried, we melted the wax and were left with a negative. After that, we melted pewter pellets that we poured into the negatives. The Original Junk buckle was created! When my girlfriend left for a previously planned move to Barcelona, I thought about what a cool thing she was doing and decided I wanted to do something new too, so I started this company with one belt buckle. Eventually I moved to five styles with different color options. From there I started making belts too. A year or so into it I had an idea about imbedding images on the belts. I got National Capital Bank to give me the line of credit that allowed me to develop the process for embedding images in leather, which took four years. I’m always perfecting it too. Now I’ve also finally worked out the formula for the protective coating on my leather. It’s a water based, environmentally friendly coating that is waterproof and extremely tough. I feel like I’ve finally arrived, in year five of perfecting the process.
How did you build your product line? How has the company grown?
I wanted to do something different — I felt a little bland and the buckles were something unique. I started at the top of the belt buckle trend that then began to fade. I naturally got out when I noticed customers were seeing the belt as the interesting thing and the buckle as something secondary. As I began to focus on belts, I simplified the buckle and finally decided to have [the current] custom buckle made. Once I added that buckle, I started to see growth. The buckle and the refinements all say “this is a funky belt but its really refined”. I can give my demographic crazy imagery, but I like to call it intellectual pop. Like the Homemaker [belt], she’s really the antithesis of the homemaker – there’s lots of thinking, lots of storyline. But the product is really well made. Everything about it says craftsmanship. I guess that’s how I get away with the designs.
Where can people buy your products?
Some of the more refined patterns can be bought at Denim Bar. They are a fantastic operation that took a chance on me starting out. I was cutting every strip of leather by hand with an aluminum guide from Frager’s, and doing all the stitching and grommets by hand. Other options in the area are Hill’s Kitchen and the website (www.jonwye.com). You can also find Jeff Ball, my apprentice for lack of a better term, at Eastern Market on the weekends. Jeff has brought a lot of cool, new ideas to the company. I also sell to 30 or 40 stores around the country – belts and dog collars combined.
Do you think of yourself as more of an artist or an inventor?
I would say artist only because it’s been a recent revelation that business and inventing are both an art form. For example, when developing the leather coating I had to do lots of research and fill in the blanks in technical formulas. There’s not a turnkey solution – it’s a two-part coating that requires three to four components in each part. I managed to get these large chemical companies to sell me five-gallon pails for this process, rather than the big drums they are used to dealing with. I knew I had a slim chance getting these companies to do this, but they were willing to work with me. I had to figure out what I needed and approach it in a very unique way.
Your profession is literally thousands of years old. Are you ever conscious of that connection?
I think if I were working as an apprentice with a leather master I would be the kid that was frustrated because the new stuff would be right around the corner. I am always looking to do more. I guess in that context, I never thought of the traditional aspect of the work. I focus more on learning how to refine the process, make it better.
You have a very unique aesthetic. What was its evolution?
Visually, I grew up with comic books and lots of cartoons and science fiction. I think of the belts as murals, which comes from an intense desire to do something different. It’s so fascinating to tell a story, yet every point of it is aesthetically interesting. The storytelling aspect probably comes from being an English major in college, when I aspired to be a creative writer. I had a mentor, David Grier at George Washington University, who helped me develop a writing style. I started to get some notice from magazines but I found that when you fall asleep at your computer doing what you are supposed love, then maybe this isn’t really it.
Where do you get the inspiration for the stories you tell on your belts, like the Zombie, Colonize, and my personal favorite, the Homemaker?
Some pop into my head, like during a conversation with someone and my mind will be in three other places at the same time – not that my focus is separate, but things pop into my head. The act of talking and conversing connects bridges in my mind. Other times, like new designs for the holidays, I’ll focus more on the creative process. I think it stems from a childhood of wacky stuff popping into my head – watching Star Trek, cartoons, etc. A lot of it is letting your mind be open to weird connections. I have a couple of new designs I’m working on for the holidays that I really love.
You’re very particular about the philosophy of the companies where you source your material. How does that play into your brand?
I try my best – I don’t think I’ll pigeonhole myself, but I try really hard to use local producers. I use American Apparel and Alternative Apparel, both of which have a fair labor policy. The leather is from an Ohio company; its called Veg Tan and comes from an environmentally friendly tanning process. I use Waterbad coating and dyes for imagery which, when bonded with leather, becomes waterproof. Our new thing this Christmas is that we are now growing enough to have our own shopping bags. We are buying bio bags, which, after Christmas when we have a little more time, will include our logo. I’ve also been talking with one of my t-shirt companies about switching to bio bags. They send their shirts to me in polybags. I don’t want each t-shirt to come in a polybag that I then also put in a bag, so I’m getting them to connect with biobag too.
What do you think about DC as a city for fashion?
For a city that is thought of as being without a lot of fashion, I think DC is actually more open than its given credit for. And I think my style of intellectual pop can appeal to all of DC – democrats and republicans alike.
Swimming or fetch?
National Gallery East Building or West Building?
Making shirts or modeling them?