What does the average American associate with Chicago? Michael Jordan, Mike Ditka, deep-dish pizza – and gangsters.
Chicago has earned a lasting reputation as the nation’s No. 1 mob city. Throughout Chicago’s history, colorful criminals like “Scarface” Al Capone, “Cockeyed Louie” Fratto and Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik have captured the public’s imagination.
So when Phil Kalas started a line of wallets and other goods made from premium leather, he didn’t run from the gangster reputation – he embraced it. His wallets are all named for fabled Chicago crooks: Fat Herbie, Johnny the Fox, Tony the Ant.
“They were bad guys, but they had really interesting stories,” said Kalas, founder of Ashland Leather. “And the gangster theme really fits with the manly vibe – the old tough-guy thing.”
“It will mold to your body. That wallet will become part of your butt cheek.”Phil Kalas
By day, Kalas is an executive with Horween Leather Co., one of the nation’s premier suppliers of top-grade sheet leather and one of the few survivors in a once-thriving tanning industry in Chicago.
But by night, he dons his figurative fedora to design and manufacture wallets and other leather goods that are both tough and beautiful.
“It’s a passion for the leather,” Kalas said. “I would see these sheets of leather all day long and never see it turn into anything. I loved making the leather so much that I wanted to do the wallets.”
The people who make Ashland Leather wallets also supply all the leather for NFL footballs.
Ashland Leather Co.
The Horween leathers used in Ashland products take anywhere from 60 days to nine months to prepare. Most of the leather used in lower-priced products is made quickly and cheaply in China, India and South America.
The payoff, Kalas said, comes in sensory pleasure and durability. It’s a philosophy of both aesthetics and use.
“To me, leather is all about your senses,” he said. “How does it feel, smell, look? I’ve had guys on Facebook send me pictures with their wallets wrapped around their noses – because they couldn’t stop smelling them.”
Ashland aims to make its wallets last forever. Every stress point is double-stitched, and no liners are used, because they always disintegrate eventually. And Kalas uses no computers or design software. All the wallets start as paper patterns; multiple prototypes are made from scrap leather, then torn up and modified until the design is just right.