In today’s mechanized world, so many of the things we buy seem to have come from some giant photo copier. Walking the aisles of many stores today, do you think about the origin of the things we shop for? Do you ever wonder how many machines have touched the products you purchase?
Fontenelle Supply Co. is rapidly changing that question to “How many hands have touched this piece I’m about to buy?”
For the answer, we turn to Andrew Willoughby, one of Fontenelle Supply Co.’s four founders, and the owner of one pair of experienced, artistic hands. While Fontenelle Supply Co.’s product line includes a range of highly sought-after restored axes and tools, Willoughby’s hands work on the company’s expanding range of leather goods.
“We start with 100% American-made products.”
“I head up the leather design, so I do all of the wallets and belts and bags and anything involving leather,” says Willoughby, who began the company with three other men when they shared a building in Omaha four years ago. Today, Willoughby has returned to his home in Mississippi — in turn, returning to the heritage that he brings to life in his finely crafted work each day.
As Willoughby remembers it, Fontenelle Supply Co. sprung to life based on word of mouth. “The first conversations happened four years ago when we were restoring axes and heirlooms for individuals,” he remembers. “Over the four years, we’ve slowly gained steam and momentum, really out of necessity, because our customers have asked for other things. It sort of grew from there.” The growth hasn’t stopped.
“We’re constantly in development,” Willoughby smiles. “We have a solid foundational area of products, but we collaborate with those who support the American-made philosophy.”
One example is a hardy camp mug, fashioned from a mason jar and a leather strap that Fontenelle Supply Co. has partnered to make with a motorcycle shop in Barcelona, Spain. This rustic appeal begins with grassroots concept known as “communicating.”
“Basically we have as open communication with customers as possible. We strive and focus on maintaining customer contact,” Willoughby says. “For example, I was in town this last week and ran into guys who had bought our first line of wallets and got to see what they looked like after 8 months of use,” he recalls. “It’s really rewarding to stay in contact with people who pay for the things we make.”
DYNAMIC DESIGNS ON PAST PROCESSES.
“We start with 100% American-made products,” Willoughby points out.
“For our leather items that includes the cows that provide the leather, the brass hardware from a guy in New England. Even the thread we use to stitch the wallets is from Texas. We always make sure that we source from America whenever possible.” As we look at the other side of our business, the majority of our axes — about 90% — are from the U.S. and date from the pre-1970s era, with a lot of them from before the 1960s.”
One of the drivers of the Fontenelle Supply Co. approach is necessity.
“An early example was our first wallet. It was a slim wallet,” he says. “A guy said that he only used three or four cards and he would love to slim it down a bit. So we came up with a really clean and simple design and used as little moving parts or separate pieces as possible.”
“So first it’s necessity. Then it’s how can we design this with Fontenelle Supply Co.’s brand philosophy instilled into that product,” Willoughby explains.
That’s where the heritage part starts.
As Willoughby says, “I learned a lot of my leather stuff from local cobblers and saddle makers in the South. We use totally traditional methods… things like hand-waxing thread, stitching it up and making it clean… that traditional heritage we’re pulling from and then presenting it in a clean, modern way. So a lot of the seams are minimalized. And instead of having three layers, maybe we pair that down to one.”
At first, Fontenelle Supply Co. Supply Company produced one wallet at a time — from start to finish, a process that took a few hours. “And until about two months ago, that was working just fine,” Willoughby says. “The only problem is — and it’s a nice problem to have — we were getting orders for more than we could produce in a reasonable amount of time. Instead of saying you’ll have to wait 2 to 3 weeks for that, we’ve streamlined the process.”
As Willoughby says, “Today I’m cutting out a bunch of wallet pockets, then moving on to the outer shell. Then another day, I’ll just punch holes. We’re using the same techniques. We’re just batching things together and it’s allowing us to create 40 wallets a week.”
“I’VE ALWAYS LOVED WORKING WITH MY HANDS.”
And Willoughby recalls being exposed to the time-honored tradition of fine leather making from a young age.
“My grandfather is a longhorn rancher in Mississippi. So I grew up learning basic farm and ranch things from him. And one of my favorite memories was going into his saddle room. I remember walking in and seeing the saddles. They had them lined up for work each day. I remember that distinct smell, texture and feel of the leather. It’s something that’s just very hard to replicate,” he says.
For Willoughby, the favorite part of what he does is the final “assembly.”
“It’s that moment when we’re in the final stages. Everything is coming together with a stack of wallets that need to be hand sewn. It’s like a meditative exercise to be in the shop stitching up wallets that are already individually numbered for each customer.”
It’s a feeling Willoughby says is only surpassed by the feeling of seeing a wallet that someone has been carrying.
“I can remember the day when I made a particular wallet. And it’s amazing to think of all of the places that wallet has been, the guy who has it, or the girl who has carried it and lovingly used it.”
Willoughby, who describes himself as “relatively introverted,” says he has received “surprisingly good feedback” on Fontenelle Supply Co.’s work so far.
“I know it’s a weird thing to say, but it’s better than what I expected,” he says. “I’m a stickler for consistency and perfection. So it was nerve wracking putting the first few out there for the public. I’m my own worst critic. It’s a risky thing putting your name on a product and putting it out there.”
LOOK FOR MORE.
The Fontenelle Supply Co. success story is just beginning. And you can expect more opportunities to try it out yourself, including through a new website due to debut in coming weeks.
“Long term, we’d like to be completely anchored in Des Moines with our brand and company.”
“We’re working on a fall line of products, including new leather goods and new materials. We’re going to start carrying products with a variety of finishes and different leathers from different tanneries in the U.S. That’s very exciting for us.”
Willoughby says that axes are the company’s main focus right now.
“That was really what started the whole concept of Fontenelle Supply Co.… restoring axes and hand tools,” he recalls. “So over the last couple months, we’ve been building up our axe inventory. People have been anticipating the launch of our full selection of hand restored vintage axes online, and now they will be available to customers outside of Des Moines. We’re very passionate about it.”
And people are becoming very passionate about the products that Fontenelle Supply Co. is bringing to market. Because it’s not just the fact that these are wallets, belts, or axes. What this company is doing is more. It’s about providing a living connection to the heritage of American-made quality we yearn for — and can truly feel.
Credits // Author: Dave Danielson for American Link - Photos Provided By: Fontenelle Supply Co.