The red leather jacket in the window of Champlain Leather is impossible to resist. Slipping into the store -- and the fine leather coat -- is an experience quite different from pulling on the variously spun garments you're likely to have sitting at home. This coat is heavier, for one thing. Tauter. Tighter. It fits like a second skin -- which, of course, it is. The leather at the elbows gives a soft, creaky sigh reminiscent of saddle leather, James Dean and sex. The material itself is redolent not only of the tannery, but also adventure and glamour.
Jeremy Bond, the master craftsman behind this and many other jackets, doesn't notice the aroma of the leather anymore, he says. The materials' possibilities are what keep him in business. "It has such an incredible variety of uses," says Bond. "It's been used for thousands of years. I like to joke that [leathersmithing] is the world's second-oldest profession."
Bond began pursuing the craft when he was 19. A roommate who was working at a leather shop would bring home what he'd made. "I decided to try doing that until I got sick of it," Bond says. "It hasn't happened yet."
In 1975, when he was 26, Bond and his wife Nancy Kirby opened Champlain Leather on Cherry Street in Burlington. Twenty-eight years later, Bond is 54 and divorced. The couple still works together, though -- she handles retail, he manufactures and repairs and does "everything else." The store has outlived other leather shops in town.
Bond had no formal apprenticeship or training as a leathersmith. For several years, he says, he got to know people "here and there" who worked with leather and he asked them a lot of questions. "My employees get more detailed tutelage," he comments. "I did things on my own, kind of hit or miss." Looking around the store, you can't help but conclude that Bond has turned out a definite "hit."
The store is small but capacious. A few leather-upholstered furnishings beacon from the corners, but the merchandise is overwhelmingly geared towards wearables. Racks of meticulously stitched leather garments, thick, heavy and sumptuous, line the walls. Walking around the store, it's hard to keep from petting the goods and marveling at their creamy, buttery textures.
"Leather is a very unique material," Bond notes. "It comes in so many shapes and sizes, you can have two skins from the same kind of animal, from the same tannery, and each will have unique characteristics." He finds manmade materials, with their uniform textures and patterns, a bit boring.
The atmosphere inside Champlain Leather sits comfortably somewhere between classy and casual. Bond himself wears fading jeans and sneakers, his Hawaiian shirt fluttering as he walks at a brisk clip among his creations. The store is more personalized than many retail spaces; conversation pieces abound, from the high-quality clothing itself to a collection of memorabilia. On one shelf, a photograph shows a fantastically Xenafied man sporting an award-winning costume that Bond co-created. Behind the counter is a snapshot taken beneath the awning of Champlain Leather of a group that includes Bond, Kirby, Colin Bennet -- former bell-bottom jeans designer -- and Lyle Lovett. A list of satisfied customers runs the gamut, from members of Phish to IBMers.
One headless dummy sports a chocolate-colored coat with a downy feel that fingers love. On the higher shelves are bags in dusky suede shades of silver-gray and light caramel. Soft leather caps mushroom among the luggage. Glass cabinets hold gloves whose dark fingers sit like thick beds of fronds. Stacks of wallets and hand-cobbled sandals occupy odd nooks. Rugged, brass-buckled belts pack a spinning rack. Two thick rows of coal-black biker jackets line one side of the store; they're unexpectedly plain, but in a sexy, black-leathery kind of way. Although a few accessories are made elsewhere, all the clothing in the store is crafted on site, and everything you see in the store -- or don't see -- can be custom-ordered.
One couple came in, having heard about the store from a biker who had a jacket custom-designed there. A jacket can be custom-made in two weeks, Bond told them, but the work can also be done more quickly; he once turned one out in 24 hours for Lyle Lovett's mother. The jackets start at $375 and cost the same whether they're bought off the rack or made to order.
"There are very few people who do what I do," Bond explains. Most leather stores are run by buy-and-sell retailers, who do little or no leatherwork themselves.
"A lot of our biker-jacket customers are thankful that our jackets don't have all the bells and whistles," Bond comments. "They like the simplicity." Most of the items in the shop are, in Bond's words, "not overly designed." The easy, classic spareness calls attention to the subtle textures and rich colors of the leather.
Leather is a deliciously dichotomous material, potentially tough -- as in a rough-edged belt -- or soft, as in feathered, melting suede -- lending itself equally well to the boardroom and the bedroom.
The texture and color of leather is determined by the tannery that supplies Bond's materials. "In garments, chrome-tanned leather is soft and flexible, as opposed to stuff like belts, which use vegetable-tanned leather." To demonstrate the varieties, Bond leads the way to his upstairs workshop, where a riot of leather seems to explode from row upon row of tightly packed shelves.
Thick rolls of leather scroll off the shelves, some embossed, some plain. Most of the hide comes from cows -- byproducts of the beef industry -- but here and there is a buttery length of deerskin, lamb, python, an orange alligator skin brittle with age, and a downy chamois. Fat, heavy rolls of Crayola-colored leather sit on the shelves like giant Fruit Roll-Ups. When Bond turns out the lights, a folded square of what looks like white leather gives off a phosphorescent green glow.
"On the universal scale, I only have a small percentage of the variety of leather," Bond says. But even so, "[These] racks and racks of leftovers and of various textures and thicknesses and colors are invaluable when I get these custom odds-and-ends projects -- it's rare that I don't find what I need in my workroom."
The versatility of his material ensures that Bond is rarely tired of his work. "It's impossible to get bored," he says. "A large part of what we do is a really wide variety of custom work." He's made butterfly chairs and backpacks for Dollywood, large leather signs for Utah skiing resorts and an array of custom clothing, from leather underwear to suede wedding dresses.
Working with and for fellow leather aficionados, he says, is part of what keeps the work fun. "A lot of [craftsmen] don't want to be bothered with the public, but I really enjoy meeting hundreds and hundreds of people a year," Bond insists. "It adds to the already interesting flavor that's born of doing the work.